MERL Tech DC 2019 Feedback Report

The MERL Tech Conference explores the intersection of Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning (MERL) and technology. The main goals of the conference and related community are to:

  • Improve development, tech, data & MERL literacy
  • Help people find and use evidence & good practices
  • Promote ethical and appropriate use of technology
  • Build and strengthen a “MERL Tech community”
  • Spot trends and future-scope for the sector
  • Transform and modernize MERL in an intentionally responsible and inclusive way

Our sixth MERL Tech DC conference took place on September 5-6, 2019, and we held four pre-workshops on September 4. Some 350 people from 194 organizations joined us for the 2-days, and another 100 people attended the pre-workshops. About 56% of participants attended for the first time, whereas 44% were returnees.

Who attended?

Attendees came from a wide range of organization types and professions.

Conference Themes

The theme for this year’s conference was “Taking Stock” and we had 4 sub-themes:

  1. Tech and Traditional MERL
  2. Data, Data, Data
  3. Emerging Approaches to MERL
  4. The Future of MERL

State of the Field Research

A small team shared their research on “The MERL Tech State of the Field” organized into the above 4 themes. The research will be completed and shared on the MERL Tech site before the end of 2019. (We’ll be presenting it at the South African Evaluation Association Conference in October and at the American Evaluation Association conference in November)

As always, MERL Tech conference sessions were related to: technology for MERL, MERL on ICT4D and Digital Development programs, MERL of MERL Tech, data for decision-making, ethical and responsible data approaches and cross-disciplinary community building. (See the full agenda here):

We checked in with participants on the last day to see how the field had shifted since 2015, when our keynote speaker (Ben Ramalingam) gave some suggestions on how tech could improve MERL.

Ben’s future vision
Where MERL Tech 2019 sessions fell on the expired-tired-wired schematic.
What participants would add to the schematic to update it for 2019 and beyond.

Diversity and Inclusion

We have been making an effort to improve diversity and inclusion at the conference and in the MERL Tech space. An unofficial estimate on speaker racial and gender diversity is below. As compared to 2018 when we first began tracking, the number of women of color speakers increased by 5% and women of color by 2%. The number of white female speakers decreased by 6% and the number of white male speakers went down by 1%. Our gender balance remained fairly consistent.

Where we are failing on diversity and inclusion is at having speakers and participants from outside of North America and Europe – that likely has to do with cost and visas which affect who can attend. It also has to do with who organizations select to represent them at MERL Tech. We’re continuing to try to find ways to collaborate with groups working on MERL Tech in different regions. We believe that new and/or historically marginalized voices should be more involved in shaping the future of the sector and the future of MERL Tech. (If you would like to support us on this or get involved, please contact Linda!)

Post Conference Feedback

Some 25% of participants filled in the post-conference survey and 85% rated their experience “good” or “awesome” (up from 70% in 2018). Answers did not significantly differ based on whether a participant had attended previously or not. Another 8.5% rated sessions via the “Sched” conference agenda app, with an average session satisfaction rating of 9.1 out of 10.

The top rated session was on “Decolonizing Data and Technology in MERL.” As one participant said, “It shook me out of my complacency. It is very easy to think of the tech side of the work we do as ‘value free’, but this is not the case. Being a development practitioner it is important for me to think about inequality in tech and data further than just through the implementation of the projects we run.” Another noted that “As a white, gay male who has a background in international and intercultural education, it was great to see other fields bringing to light the decolonizing mindset in an interactive way. The session was enlightening and brought up conversation that is typically talked about in small groups, but now it was highlighted in front of the entire audience.”

Sign up for MERL Tech News if you’d like to read more about this and other sessions. We’re posting a series of posts and session summaries.

Key suggestions for improving next time were similar to those we hear every year: less showcasing and pitching, ensure that titles match what is actually delivered at the session, ensuring that presenters are well-prepared, and making sessions relevant, practical and applicable.

Additionally, several people commented that the venue had some issues with noise from conversations in the common area spilling into breakout rooms and making it hard to focus. Participants also complained that there was a large amount of trash and waste produced, and suggested more eco-friendly catering for next time.

Access the full feedback report here.

Where/when should the conference happen?

As noted, we are interested in finding a model for MERL Tech that allows for more diversity of voices and experiences, so we asked participants how often and where they thought we should do MERL Tech in the future. The majority (44.3%) felt we should run MERL Tech in DC every 2 years and somewhere else in the year in between. Some 23% said to keep it in DC every year, and around 15% suggested multiple MERL Tech conferences each year in DC and elsewhere. (We were pleased that no one selected the option of “stop doing MERL Tech altogether, it’s unnecessary.”)

Given this response, we will continue exploring options for partners who would like to support financially and logistically to enable MERL Tech to happen outside of DC. Please contact Linda if you’d like to be involved or have ideas on how to make this happen.

New ways to get involved!

Last year, the idea of having a GitHub repository was raised, and this year we were excited to have GitHub join us. They had come up with the idea of creating a MERL Tech Center on GitHub as well, so it was a perfect match! More info here.

We also had a request to create a MERL Tech Slack channel (which we have done). Please get in touch with Linda by email or via Slack if you’d like to join us there for ongoing conversations on data collection, open source, technology (or other channels you request!)

As always you can also follow us on Twitter and MERL Tech News.

About Linda Raftree

Linda Raftree supports strategy, program design, research, and technology in international development initiatives. She co-founded MERLTech in 2014 and Kurante in 2013. Linda advises Girl Effect on digital safety, security and privacy and supports the organization with research and strategy. She is involved in developing responsible data policies for both Catholic Relief Services and USAID. Since 2011, she has been advising The Rockefeller Foundation’s Evaluation Office on the use of ICTs in monitoring and evaluation. Prior to becoming an independent consultant, Linda worked for 16 years with Plan International. Linda runs Technology Salons in New York City and advocates for ethical approaches for using ICTs and digital data in the humanitarian and development space. She is the co-author of several publications on technology and development, including Emerging Opportunities: Monitoring and Evaluation in a Tech-Enabled World with Michael Bamberger. Linda blogs at Wait… What? and tweets as @meowtree. See Linda’s full bio on LInkedIn.

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