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Posts Tagged ‘MERL’

(I’ve been blogging a little bit over at MERLTech.org. Here’s a repost.)

It can be overwhelming to get your head around all the different kinds of data and the various approaches to collecting or finding data for development and humanitarian monitoring, evaluation, research and learning (MERL).

Though there are many ways of categorizing data, lately I find myself conceptually organizing data streams into four general buckets when thinking about MERL in the aid and development space:

  1. ‘Traditional’ data. How we’ve been doing things for(pretty much)ever. Researchers, evaluators and/or enumerators are in relative control of the process. They design a specific questionnaire or a data gathering process and go out and collect qualitative or quantitative data; they send out a survey and request feedback; they do focus group discussions or interviews; or they collect data on paper and eventually digitize the data for analysis and decision-making. Increasingly, we’re using digital tools for all of these processes, but they are still quite traditional approaches (and there is nothing wrong with traditional!).
  2. ‘Found’ data.  The Internet, digital data and open data have made it lots easier to find, share, and re-use datasets collected by others, whether this is internally in our own organizations, with partners or just in general. These tend to be datasets collected in traditional ways, such as government or agency data sets. In cases where the datasets are digitized and have proper descriptions, clear provenance, consent has been obtained for use/re-use, and care has been taken to de-identify them, they can eliminate the need to collect the same data over again. Data hubs are springing up that aim to collect and organize these data sets to make them easier to find and use.
  3. ‘Seamless’ data. Development and humanitarian agencies are increasingly using digital applications and platforms in their work — whether bespoke or commercially available ones. Data generated by users of these platforms can provide insights that help answer specific questions about their behaviors, and the data is not limited to quantitative data. This data is normally used to improve applications and platform experiences, interfaces, content, etc. but it can also provide clues into a host of other online and offline behaviors, including knowledge, attitudes, and practices. One cautionary note is that because this data is collected seamlessly, users of these tools and platforms may not realize that they are generating data or understand the degree to which their behaviors are being tracked and used for MERL purposes (even if they’ve checked “I agree” to the terms and conditions). This has big implications for privacy that organizations should think about, especially as new regulations are being developed such a the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). The commercial sector is great at this type of data analysis, but the development set are only just starting to get more sophisticated at it.
  4. ‘Big’ data. In addition to data generated ‘seamlessly’ by platforms and applications, there are also ‘big data’ and data that exists on the Internet that can be ‘harvested’ if one only knows how. The term ‘Big data’ describes the application of analytical techniques to search, aggregate, and cross-reference large data sets in order to develop intelligence and insights. (See this post for a good overview of big data and some of the associated challenges and concerns). Data harvesting is a term used for the process of finding and turning ‘unstructured’ content (message boards, a webpage, a PDF file, Tweets, videos, comments), into ‘semi-structured’ data so that it can then be analyzed. (Estimates are that 90 percent of the data on the Internet exists as unstructured content). Currently, big data seems to be more apt for predictive modeling than for looking backward at how well a program performed or what impact it had. Development and humanitarian organizations (self included) are only just starting to better understand concepts around big data how it might be used for MERL. (This is a useful primer).

Thinking about these four buckets of data can help MERL practitioners to identify data sources and how they might complement one another in a MERL plan. Categorizing them as such can also help to map out how the different kinds of data will be responsibly collected/found/harvested, stored, shared, used, and maintained/ retained/ destroyed. Each type of data also has certain implications in terms of privacy, consent and use/re-use and how it is stored and protected. Planning for the use of different data sources and types can also help organizations choose the data management systems needed and identify the resources, capacities and skill sets required (or needing to be acquired) for modern MERL.

Organizations and evaluators are increasingly comfortable using mobile and/or tablets to do traditional data gathering, but they often are not using ‘found’ datasets. This may be because these datasets are not very ‘find-able,’ because organizations are not creating them, re-using data is not a common practice for them, the data are of questionable quality/integrity, there are no descriptors, or a variety of other reasons.

The use of ‘seamless’ data is something that development and humanitarian agencies might want to get better at. Even though large swaths of the populations that we work with are not yet online, this is changing. And if we are using digital tools and applications in our work, we shouldn’t let that data go to waste if it can help us improve our services or better understand the impact and value of the programs we are implementing. (At the very least, we had better understand what seamless data the tools, applications and platforms we’re using are collecting so that we can manage data privacy and security of our users and ensure they are not being violated by third parties!)

Big data is also new to the development sector, and there may be good reason it is not yet widely used. Many of the populations we are working with are not producing much data — though this is also changing as digital financial services and mobile phone use has become almost universal and the use of smart phones is on the rise. Normally organizations require new knowledge, skills, partnerships and tools to access and use existing big data sets or to do any data harvesting. Some say that big data along with ‘seamless’ data will one day replace our current form of MERL. As artificial intelligence and machine learning advance, who knows… (and it’s not only MERL practitioners who will be out of a job –but that’s a conversation for another time!)

Not every organization needs to be using all four of these kinds of data, but we should at least be aware that they are out there and consider whether they are of use to our MERL efforts, depending on what our programs look like, who we are working with, and what kind of MERL we are tasked with.

I’m curious how other people conceptualize their buckets of data, and where I’ve missed something or defined these buckets erroneously…. Thoughts?

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Our latest Technology Salon, at the African Evaluation Association (AfrEA) Conference in Uganda on March 29th, focused on how mobile and social media platforms are being used in monitoring and evaluation processes. Our lead discussants were Jamie Arkin from Human Network International (soon to be merging with VotoMobile) who spoke about interactive voice response (IVR); John Njovu, an independent consultant working with the Ministry of National Development Planning of the Zambian government, who shared experiences with technology tools for citizen feedback to monitor budgets and support transparency and accountability; and Noel Verrinder from Genesis who talked about using WhatsApp in a youth financial education program.

Using IVR for surveys

Jamie shared how HNI deploys IVR surveys to obtain information about different initiatives or interventions from a wide public or to understand the public’s beliefs about a particular topic. These surveys come in three formats: random dialing of telephone numbers until someone picks up; asking people to call in, for example, on a radio show; or using an existing list of phone numbers. “If there is an 80% phone penetration or higher, it is equal to a normal household level survey,” she said. The organization has list of thousands of phone numbers and can segment these to create a sample. “IVR really amplifies people’s voices. We record in local language. We can ask whether the respondent is a man or a woman. People use their keypads to reply or we can record their voices providing an open response to the question.” The voice responses are later digitized into text for analysis. In order to avoid too many free voice responses, the HNI system can cut the recording off after 30 seconds or limit voice responses to the first 100 calls. Often keypad responses are most effective as people are not used to leaving voice mails.

IVR is useful in areas where there is low literacy. “In Rwanda, 80% of women cannot read a full sentence, so SMS is not a silver bullet,” Jamie noted. “Smartphones are coming, and people want them, but 95% of people in Uganda have a simple feature phone, so we cannot reach them by Facebook or WhatsApp. If you are going with those tools, you will only reach the wealthiest 5% of the population.”

In order to reduce response bias, the survey question order can be randomized. Response rates tend to be ten times higher on IVR than on SMS surveys, Jamie said, in part, because IVR is cheaper for respondents. The HNI system can provide auto-analysis for certain categories such as most popular response. CSV files can also be exported for further analysis. Additionally, the system tracks length of session, language, time of day and other meta data about the survey exercise.

Regulatory and privacy implications in most countries are unclear about IVR, and currently there are few legal restrictions against calling people for surveys. “There are opt-outs for SMS but not for IVRs, if you don’t want to participate you just hang up.” In some case, however, like Rwanda, there are certain numbers that are on “do not disturb” lists and these need to be avoided, she said.

Citizen-led budget monitoring through Facebook

John shared results of a program where citizens were encouraged to visit government infrastructure projects to track whether budget allocations had been properly done. Citizens would visit a health center or a school to inquire about these projects and then fill out a form on Facebook to share their findings. A first issue with the project was that voters were interested in availability and quality of service delivery, not in budget spending. “”I might ask what money you got, did you buy what you said, was it delivered and is it here. Yes. Fine. But the bigger question is: Are you using it? The clinic is supposed to have 1 doctor, 3 nurses and 3 lab technicians. Are they all there? Yes. But are they doing their jobs? How are they treating patients?”

Quantity and budget spend were being captured but quality of service was not addressed, which was problematic. Another challenge with the program was that people did not have a good sense of what the dollar can buy, thus it was difficult for them to assess whether budget had been spent. Additionally, in Zambia, it is not customary for citizens to question elected officials. The idea that the government owes the people something, or that citizens can walk into a government office to ask questions about budget is not a traditional one. “So people were not confident in asking question or pushing government for a response.”

The addition of technology to the program did not resolve any of these underlying issues, and on top of this, there was an apparent mismatch with the idea of using mobile phones to conduct feedback. “In Zambia it was said that everyone has a phone, so that’s why we thought we’d put in mobiles. But the thing is that the number of SIMs doesn’t equal the number of phone owners. The modern woman may have a good phone or two, but as you go down to people in the compound they don’t have even basic types of phones. In rural areas it’s even worse,” said John, “so this assumption was incorrect.” When the program began running in Zambia, there was surprise that no one was reporting. It was then realized that the actual mobile ownership statistics were not so clear.

Additionally, in Zambia only 11% of women can read a full sentence, and so there are massive literacy issues. And language is also an issue. In this case, it was assumed that Zambians all speak English, but often English is quite limited among rural populations. “You have accountability language that is related to budget tracking and people don’t understand it. Unless you are really out there working directly with people you will miss all of this.”

As a result of the evaluation of the program, the Government of Zambia is rethinking ways to assess the quality of services rather than the quantity of items delivered according to budget.

Gathering qualitative input through WhatsApp 

Genesis’ approach to incorporating WhatsApp into their monitoring and evaluation was more emergent. “We didn’t plan for it, it just happened,” said Noel Verrinder. Genesis was running a program to support technical and vocational training colleges in peri-urban and rural areas in the Northwest part of South Africa. The young people in the program are “impoverished in our context, but they have smartphones, WhatsApp and Facebook.”

Genesis had set up a WhatsApp account to communicate about program logistics, but it morphed into a space for the trainers to provide other kinds of information and respond to questions. “We started to see patterns and we could track how engaged the different youth were based on how often they engaged on WhatsApp.” In addition to the content, it was possible to gain insights into which of the participants were more engage based on their time and responses on WhatsApp.

Genesis had asked the youth to create diaries about their experiences, and eventually asked them to photograph their diaries and submit them by WhatsApp, given that it made for much easier logistics as compared to driving around to various neighborhoods to track down the diaries. “We could just ask them to provide us with all of their feedback by WhatsApp, actually, and dispense with the diaries at some point,” noted Noel.

In future, Genesis plans to incorporate WhatsApp into its monitoring efforts in a more formal way and to consider some of the privacy and consent aspects of using the application for M&E. One challenge with using WhatsApp is that the type of language used in texting is short and less expressive, so the organization will have to figure out how to understand emoticons. Additionally, it will need to ask for consent from program participants so that WhatsApp engagement can be ethically used for M&E purposes.

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