On March 19 and 20 ICCO participated in the MERL Tech 2018 in London. The conference explores the possibilities of technology in monitoring, evaluation, learning and research in development. About 200 like-minded participants from various countries participated. Key issues on the agenda were data privacy, data literacy within and beyond your organization, human-centred monitoring design and user-driven technologies. Interesting practices where shared, amongst others in using blockchain technologies and machine learning. Here are our most important takeaways:
1) In many NGOs data gathering still takes place in silo’s
Oxfam UK shared some knowledgeable insights and practical tips in putting in place an infrastructure that combines data: start small and test, e.g. by building up a strong country use case; discuss with and learn from others; ensure privacy by design and make sure senior leadership is involved. ICCO Cooperation currently faces a similar challenge, in particular in combining our household data with our global result indicators.
2) Machine learning has potential for NGOs
While ICCO recently started to test machine learning in the food security field (see this blog) other organisations showcased interesting examples: the Wellcome Trust shared a case where they tried to answer the following question: Is the organization informing and influencing policy and if so, how? Wellcome teamed up their data lab and insight & analysis team and started to use open APIs to pull data in combination with natural language processing to identify relevant cases of research supported by the organization. With their 8.000 publications a year this would be a daunting task for a human team. First, publications linked to Wellcome funding were extracted from a European database (EPMC) in combination with end of grant reports. Then WHO’s reference section was scraped to see if and to what extent WHO’s policy was influenced and to identify potential interesting cases for Wellcome’s policy team.
3) Use a standardized framework for digital development
See digitalpinciples.org. It gives – amongst others – practical guidelines on how to use open standards and open data, how data can be reused, how privacy and security can be addressed, how users can and should be involved in using technologies in development projects. It is a useful framework for evaluating your design.
4) Many INGOs get nervous these days about blockchain technology
What is it, a new hype or a real game changer? For many it is just untested technology with high risks and little upside for the developing world. But, for example INGOs working in agriculture value chains or in humanitarian relief operations, its potential is definitely consequential enough to merit a closer look. It starts with the underlying principle, that users of a so-called blockchain can transfer value, or assets, between each other without the need for a trusted intermediary. The running history of the transactions is called the blockchain, and each transaction is called a block. All transactions are recorded in a ledger that is shared by all users of a blockchain.
The upside of blockchain applications is the considerable time and money saving aspect of it. Users rely on this shared ledger to provide a transparent view into the details of the assets or values, including who owns them, as well as descriptive information such as quality or location. Smallholder farmers could benefit (e.g. real-time payment on delivery, access to credit), so can international sourcing companies (e.g. traceability of produce without certification), banks (e.g. cost-reductions, risk-reduction), as much as refugees and landless (e.g. registration, identification). Although we haven’t yet seen large-scale adoption of blockchain technology in the development sector, investors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and various venture capitalists are paying attention to this space.
But one of the main downsides or challenges for blockchain, like with agricultural technology at large, is connecting the technology to viable business models and compelling use cases. With or without tested technology, this is hard enough as it is and requires innovation, perseverance and focus on real value for the end-user; ICCO’s G4AW projects gain experience with blockchain.
5) Start thinking about data-use incentives
Over the years, ICCO has made significant investments in monitoring & evaluation and data skills training. Yet limited measurable results of increased data use can be seen, like in many other organizations. US-based development consultant Cooper&Smith shared revealing insights into data usage incentives. It tested three INGOs working across five regions globally. The hypothesis was, that better alignment of data-use training incentives leads to increased data use later on. They looked at both financial and non-financial rewards that motivate individuals to behave in a particular way. Incentives included different training formats (e.g. individual, blended), different hardware (e.g. desktop, laptop, mobile phone), recognition (e.g. certificate, presentation at a conference), forms of feedback & support (e.g. one-on-one, peer group) and leisure time during the training (e.g. 2 hours/week, 12 hours/week). Data use was referred to as the practice of collecting, managing, analyzing and interpreting data for making program policy and management decisions.
They found considerable differences in appreciation of the attributes. For instance, respondents overwhelmingly prefer a certificate in data management, but instead they currently receive primarily no recognition or only recognition from their supervisor. Or one region prefers a certificate while the other prefers attending an international conference as reward. Or that they prefer one-on-one feedback but instead they receive only peer-2-peer support. The lesson here is, that while most organizations apply a ‘one-size fits all’-reward system (or have no reward system at all), this study points at the need to develop a culturally sensitive and geographically smart reward system to see real increase in data usage.
For many NGOs the data revolution has just begun, but we are underway!