by Mike Cooper and Shailee Adinofi
This is the second in a series of blogs aimed at discussing and soliciting feedback on how the blockchain can benefit MEL practitioners in their work. The series includes: What does Blockchain Offer to MERL, this post (Blockchain as an M&E Tool), and future posts on the use of MEL to inform Blockchain maturation, evaluating for trust in Blockchain applications, and integrating blockchain into MEL Practices. The series leads into a MERL Tech Pre-Workshop on September 5th, 2018 in Washington D.C. that will go into depth on possibilities and examples of MEL blockchain applications. Register here!
Introducing the Blockchain as an M&E Tool
Blockchain is a technology that could transform many of the functions we now take for granted in our daily lives. It could change everything from supply chain management to trade to the Internet of Things (IOT), and possibly even serve as the backbone for the next evolution of the internet itself. Within international development there have already been blockchain pilots for refugee assistance and financial inclusion (amongst others) with more varied pilots and scaled applications soon to come.
Technological solutions, however, need uptake in order for their effects to be truly known. This is no different for the blockchain. Technology solutions are not self-implementing — their uptake is dependent on social structures and human decision making. Hence, while on paper the blockchain offers many benefits, the realization of these benefits in the monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) space requires close working with MEL practitioners to hear their concerns, excitement, and feedback on how the blockchain can best produce these benefits.
Blockchain removes intermediaries, thus increasing integrity
The blockchain is a data management tool for achieving data integrity, transparency, and addressing privacy concerns. It is a distributed software network of peer-to-peer transactions (data), which are validated through consensus, using pre-established rules. This can remove the need for a middleman or “intermediaries”, meaning that it can “disintermediate” the holders of a traditional MEL database, where data is stored and owned by a set of actors.
Hence the blockchain solves two primary problems:
- It reduces the need for “middlemen” (intermediaries) because it is peer-to-peer in nature. For MEL, the blockchain may thus reduce the need for people to be involved in data management protocols, from data collection to dissemination, resulting in cost and time efficiencies.
- The blockchain maintains data integrity (meaning that the data is immutable and is only shared in the intended manner) in a distributed peer-to-peer network where the reliability and trustworthiness of the network is inherent to the rules established in the consensus algorithms of the blockchain.
So, what does this mean? Simply put, a blockchain is a type of distributed immutable ledger or decentralized database that keeps continuously updated digital records of data ownership. Rather than having a central administrator manage a single database, a distributed ledger has a network of replicated databases, synchronized via the internet, and visible to anyone within the network (more on control of the network and who has access permissions below).
Advantages over Current Use of Centralized Data Management
Distributed ledgers are much less vulnerable to loss of control over data integrity than current centralized data management systems. Loss of data integrity can happen in numerous ways, whether by hacking, manipulation or some other nefarious or accidental use. Consider the multiple cases of political manipulation of census data as recorded in Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It because census instruments are designed and census data analyzed/managed in a centralized fashion with little to no transparency.
Likewise, within the field of evaluation there has been increasing attention on p-hacking, where initial statistical results are manipulated on the back side to produce results more favorable to the original hypothesis. Imagine if cleaned and anonymized data sets were put onto the blockchain where transparency, without sacrificing PII, makes p-hacking much more difficult (perhaps resulting in increased trust in data sets and their overall utility/uptake).
Centralized systems can have lost and/or compromised data (or loss of access) due to computer malfunctions or what we call “process malfunctions” where the bureaucratic control over the data builds artificially high barriers to access and subsequent use of the data by anyone outside the central sphere of control. This level of centralized control (as in the examples above regarding manipulation of census design/data and p-hacking) introduces the ability for data manipulation.
Computer malfunctions are mitigated by the blockchain because the data does not live in a central network hub but instead “lives’ in copies of the ledger that are distributed across every computer in the network. This lack of central control increases transparency. “Hashing” (a form of version control) ensures that any data manipulations in the blockchain are not included in the blockchain, meaning only a person with the necessary permissions can change the data on the chain. With the blockchain, access to information is as open, or closed, as is desired.
How can we use this technology in MEL?
All MEL data must eventually find its way to a digital version of itself, whether it is entered from paper surveys or it goes through analytical software or straight into an Excel cell, with varying forms/rigor of quality control. A benefit of blockchain is its compatibility with all digital data. It can include data files from all forms of data collection and analytical methods or software. Practitioners are free to collect data in whatever manner best suits their mandates with the blockchain becoming the data management tool at any point after collection, as the data can be uploaded to the blockchain at any point. Meaning data can be loaded directly by enumerators in the field or after additional cleaning/analysis.
MEL has specific data management challenges that the blockchain seems uniquely suited to overcome including 1. protection of Personally Identifiable Information (PII)/data integrity, 2. mitigating data management resource requirements, and 3. lowering barriers to end use through timely dissemination and increased access to reliable data.
Let’s explore each of these below:
1. Increasing Protection and Integrity of Data: There might be a knee jerk reaction against increasing transparency in evaluation data management, given the prevalence of personally identifiable information (PII) and other sensitive data. Meeting internal quality control procedures for developing and sharing draft results is usually a long arduous process — even more so if delivering cleaned data sets. Hence there might be hesitation in introducing new data management techniques given the priority given to the protection of PII balanced against the pressure to deliver data sets in a timely fashion.
However, we should learn a lesson from our counterparts in healthcare records management, one of the more PII and sensitive data laden data management fields in the world. The blockchain has seen piloting in healthcare records management precisely because it is able to secure the integrity of sensitive data in such an efficient manner.
Imagine an evaluator completes a round of household surveys, the data is entered, cleaned and anonymized and the data files are ready to be sent to whomever the receiver is (funder, public data catalog, etc.) The funder requires that the data uploaded to the blockchain is done using a Smart Contract. Essentially a Smart Contract is a set of “if……then” protocols on the Ethereum network (a specific type of blockchain) which can say “if all data has been cleaned of PII and is appropriately formatted….etc….etc…, it can be accepted onto the blockchain.” If the requirements written into the Smart Contract are not met, the data is rejected and not uploaded to the blockchain (see point 2 below). So, in the case where proper procedures or best or preferred practices are not met, the data is not shared and remains safe within the confines of a (hopefully) secure and reliable centralized database.
This example demonstrates one of the unsung values of the blockchain. When correctly done (meaning the Smart Contract is properly developed) it can ensure that only the data that is appropriate is shared and is in fact shared only with those meant to have it in a manner where the data cannot be manipulated. This is an advantage over current practice where human error can result in PII being released or unuseable or incompatible data files being shared.
The blockchain also has inherent quality control protocols around version control that mitigate against manipulation of the data for whatever reason. Hashing is partly a summary labelling of different encrypted data sets on the blockchain where any modification to the data set results in a different hash for that data set. Hence version control is automatic and easily tracked through the different hashes which are one way only (meaning that once the data is hashed it cannot be reverse engineered to change the original data). Thus, all data on the blockchain is immutable.
2. Decreasing Data Management Resources: Current data management practice is very resource intensive for MEL practitioners. Data entry, creation of data files, etc. requires ample amounts of time, mostly spent guarding against error, which introduces timeliness issues where processes take so long the data uses its utility by the time it is “ready” for decision makers. A future post in this series will cover how the blockchain can introduce efficiencies at various points in the data management process (from collection to dissemination). There are many unknowns in this space that require further thinking about the ability to embed automated cleaning and/or analytical functions into the blockchain or compatibility issues around data files and software applications (like STATA or NIVIVO). This series of posts will highlight broad areas where the blockchain can introduce the benefits of an innovation as well as finer points that still need to be “unpacked” for the benefits to materialize.
3. Distributed ledger enables timely dissemination in a flexible manner: With the increased focus on the use of evaluation data, there has been a correlated increase in discussion in how evaluation data is shared.
Current data dissemination practices include:
- depositing them with a data center, data archive, or data bank
- submitting them to a journal to support a publication
- depositing them in an institutional repository
- making them available online via a project or institutional website
- making them available informally between researchers on a peer-to-peer basis
All these avenues of dissemination are very resource intensive. Each avenue has its own procedures, protocols, and other characteristics that may not be conducive to timely learning. Timelines for publishing in journals is long with incentives towards only publishing positive results, contributing to a dismal utilization rates of results. Likewise, many institutional evaluation catalogs are difficult to navigate, often incomplete, and generally not user friendly. (We will look at query capabilities on the blockchain later in the blog series).
Using the blockchain to manage and disseminate data could result in more timely and transparent sharing. Practitioners could upload data to the chain at any point after collection, and with the use of Smart Contracts, data can be widely distributed in a controlled manner. Data sets can be easily searchable and available in much timelier and user-friendly fashion to a much larger population. This creates the ability to share specific data with specific partners (funders, stakeholders, the general public) in a more automated fashion and on a timelier basis. Different Smart Contracts can be developed so that funders can see all data as soon as it is collected in the field, while a different Smart Contract with local officials allows them to see data relevant to their locality only after it is entered, cleaned, etc.).
With the help of read/write protocols, anyone can control the extent to which data is shared. Use of the data is immutable, meaning it cannot be changed (in contrast to current practice where we hope the PDF is “good enough” to guard against modification but most times data are pushed out in excel sheets, or something similar, with no way to determine what the “real” data when different versions appear).
Where are we?
We are in the early stages of understanding, developing and exploring the blockchain in general and with MEL in particular. On September 5th, we’ll be leading a day-long Pre-Conference Workshop on What Blockchain Can Do For MERL. The Pre-Conference Workshop and additions to this blog series will focus on how:
- The blockchain can introduce efficiencies in MEL data management
- The blockchain can facilitate “end use” whether it is accountability, developmental, formative, etc.
- To work with MEL practitioners and other stakeholders to improve the uptake of the blockchain as an innovation by overcoming regulatory, organizational and cultural barriers.
This process is meant to be collaborative so we invite others to help inform us on what issues they think warrant further exploration. We look forward to collaborating with others to unpack these issues to help develop thinking that leads to appropriate uptake of blockchain solutions to MEL problems.
Where are we going?
As it becomes increasingly possible that blockchain will be a disruptive technology, it is critical that we think about how it will affect the work of MEL practitioners. To this end, stay tuned for a few more posts, including:
- How can MEL inform Blockchain maturation?
- Evaluating for Trust in Blockchain applications
- How can we integrate blockchain into MEL Practices?
We would greatly benefit from feedback on this series to help craft topics that the series can cover. Please comment below or contact the authors with any feedback, which would be greatly appreciated.
Michael Cooper is a former Associate Director at Millennium Challenge Corporation and the U.S. State Dept in Policy and Evaluation. He now heads Emergence, a firm that specializes in MEL and Blockchain services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Emergence website.
Shailee Adinolfi is an international development professional with over 15 years of experience working at the intersection of financial services, technology, and global development. Recently, she performed business development, marketing, account management, and solution design as Vice President at BanQu, a Blockchain-based identity platform. She held a variety of leadership roles on projects related to mobile banking, financial inclusion, and the development of emerging markets. More about Shailee