Tag Archives: behavior change

MERL for Blockchain Interventions: Integrating MERL into Token Design

Guest post by Michael Cooper, Mike is a Senior Social Scientist at Emergence who advises foreign assistance funders, service providers and evaluators on blockchain applications. He can be reached at emergence.cooper@gmail.com 

Tokens Could be Our Focus

There is no real evidence base about what does and does not work for applying blockchain technology to interventions seeking social impacts.  Most current blockchain interventions are driven by developers (programmers) and visionary entrepreneurs. There is little thinking in current blockchain interventions around designing for “social” impact (there is an over abundant trust in technology to achieve the outcomes and little focus on the humans interacting with the technology) and integrating relevant evidence from behavioral economics, behavior change design, human centered design, etc.

To build the needed evidence base, Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning (MERL) practitioners will have to not only get to know the broad strokes of blockchain technology but the specifics of token design and tokenomics (the political economics of tokenized ecosystems).  Token design could become the focal point for MERL on blockchain interventions since:

  • If not all, the vast majority of blockchain interventions will involve some type of desired behavior change
  • The token provides the link between the ledger (which is the blockchain) and the social ecosystem created by the token in which the behavior change is meant to happen
  • Hence the token is the “nudge” meant to leverage behavior change in the social ecosystem while governing the transactions on the blockchain ledger. 

(While this blog will focus on these points, it will not go into a full discussion of what tokens are and how they create ecosystems. But there are some very good resources out there that do this which you can review at your leisure and to the degree that works for you.  The Complexity Institute has published a book exploring the various attributes of complexity and main themes involved with tokenomics while Outlier Ventures has published, what I consider, to be the best guidance on token design.  The Outlier Ventures guidance contains many of the tools MERL practitioners will be familiar with (problem analysis, stakeholder mapping, etc.) and should be consulted.) 

Hence it could be that by understanding token design and its requirements and mapping it against our current MERL thinking, tools and practices, we can develop new thinking and tools that could be the beginning point in building our much-needed evidence base. 

What is a “blockchain intervention”? 

As MERL practitioners we roughly define an “intervention” as a group of inputs and activities meant to leverage outcomes within a given eco-system.  “Interventions” are what we are usually mandated to asses, evaluate and help improve.

When thinking about MERL and blockchain, it is useful to think of two categories of “blockchain interventions”. 

1) Integrating the blockchain into MERL data collection, entry, management, analysis or dissemination practices and

2) MERL strategies for interventions using the blockchain in some way shape or form. 

Here we will focus on the #2 and in so doing demonstrate that while the blockchain is an innovative, potentially disruptive technology, evaluating its applications on social outcomes is still an issue of assessing behavior change against dimensions of intervention design. 

Designing for Behavior Change

We generally design interventions (programs, projects, activities) to “nudge” a certain type of behavior (stated as outcomes in a theory of change) amongst a certain population (beneficiaries, stakeholders, etc.).  We often attempt to integrate mechanisms of change into our intervention design, but often do not for a variety of reasons (lack of understanding, lack of resources, lack of political will, etc.).  This lack of due diligence in design is partly responsible for the lack of evidence around what works and what does not work in our current universe of interventions. 

Enter blockchain technology, which as MERL practitioners, we will be responsible for assessing in the foreseeable future.  Hence, we will need to determine how interventions using the blockchain attempt to nudge behavior, what behaviors they seek to nudge, amongst whom, when and how well the design of the intervention accomplishes these functions.  In order to do that we will need to better understand how blockchains use tokens to nudge behavior. 

The Centrality of the Token

We have all used tokens before.  Stores issue coupons that can only be used at those stores, we get receipts for groceries as soon as we pay, arcades make you buy tokens instead of just using quarters.  The coupons and arcade tokens can be considered utility tokens, meaning that they can only be used in a specific “ecosystem” which in this case is a store and arcade respectively.  The grocery store receipt is a token because it demonstrates ownership, if you are stopped on the way out the store and you show your receipt you are demonstrating that you now have rights to ownership over the foodstuffs in your bag. 

Whether you realize it or not at the time, these tokens are trying to nudge your behavior.  The store gives you the coupon because the more time you spend in their store trying to redeem coupons, the greatly likelihood you will spend additional money there.  The grocery store wants you to pay for all your groceries while the arcade wants you to buy more tokens than you end up using. 

If needed, we could design MERL strategies to assess how well these different tokens nudged the desired behaviors. We would do this, in part, by thinking about how each token is designed relative to the behavior it wants (i.e. the value, frequency and duration of coupons, etc.).

Thinking about these ecosystems and their respective tokens will help us understand the interdependence between 1) the blockchain as a ledger that records transactions, 2) the token that captures the governance structures for how transactions are stored on the blockchain ledger as well as the incentive models for 3) the mechanisms of change in the social eco-system created by the token. 

Figure #1:  The inter-relationship between the blockchain (ledger), token and social eco-system

Token Design as Intervention Design  

Just as we assess theories of change and their mechanisms against intervention design, we will assess blockchain based interventions against their token design in much the same way.  This is because blockchain tokens capture all the design dimensions of an intervention; namely the problem to be solved, stakeholders and how they influence the problem (and thus the solution), stakeholder attributes (as mapped out in something like a stakeholder analysis), the beneficiary population, assumptions/risks, etc. 

Outlier Ventures has adapted what they call a Token Utility Canvas as a milestone in their token design process.  The canvas can be correlated to the various dimensions of an evaluability assessment tool (I am using the evaluability assessment tool as a demonstration of the necessary dimensions of an interventions design, meaning that the evaluability assessment tool assesses the health of all the components of an intervention design).  The Token Utility Canvas is a useful milestone in the token design process that captures many of the problem diagnostic, stakeholder assessment and other due diligence tools that are familiar to MERL practitioners who have seen them used in intervention design.  Hence token design could be largely thought of as intervention design and evaluated as such.

Table#1: Comparing Token Design with Dimensions of Program Design (as represented in an Evaluability Assessment)

This table is not meant to be exhaustive and not all of the fields will be explained here but in general, it could be a useful starting point in developing our own thinking and tools for this emerging space. 

The Token as a Tool for Behavior Change

Coming up with a taxonomy of blockchain interventions and relevant tokens is a necessary task, but all blockchains that need to nudge behavior will have to have a token.

Consider supply chain management.  Blockchains are increasingly being used as the ledger system for supply chain management.  Supply chains are typically comprised of numerous actors packaging, shipping, receiving, applying quality control protocols to various goods, all with their own ledgers of the relevant goods as they snake their way through the supply chain.  This leads to ample opportunities for fraud, theft and high costs associated with reconciling the different ledgers of the different actors at different points in the supply chain.  Using the blockchain as the common ledger system, many of these costs are diminished as a single ledger is used with trusted data, hence transactions (shipping, receiving, repackaging, etc.) can happen more seamlessly and reconciliation costs drop.

However even in “simple” applications such as this there are behavior change implications. We still want the supply chain actors to perform their functions in a manner that adds value to the supply chain ecosystem as a whole, rewarding them for good behavior within the ecosystem and punishing for bad.

What if those shippers trying to pass on a faulty product had already deposited a certain value of currency in an escrow account (housed in a smart contract on the blockchain)? Meaning that if they are found to be attempting a prohibited behavior (passing on faulty products) they surrender a certain amount automatically from the escrow account in the blockchain smart contract.  How much should be deposited in the escrow account?  What is the ratio between the degree of punishment and undesired action?  These are behavior questions around a mechanism of change that are dimensions of current intervention designs and will be increasingly relevant in token design.

The point of this is to demonstrate that even “benign” applications of the blockchain, like supply chain management, have behavior change implications and thus require good due diligence in token design.

There is a lot that could be said about the validation function of this process, who validates that the bad behavior has taken place and should be punished or that good behavior should be rewarded?  There are lessons to be learned from results based contracting and the role of the validator in such a contracting vehicle.  This “validating” function will need to be thought out in terms of what can be automated and what needs a “human touch” (and who is responsible, what methods they should use, etc.).   

Implications for MERL

If tokens are fundamental to MERL strategies for blockchain interventions, there are several critical implications:

  • MERL practitioners will need to be heavily integrated into the due diligence processes and tools for token design
  • MERL strategies will need to be highly formative, if not developmental, in facilitating the timeliness and overall effectiveness of the feedback loops informing token design
  • New thinking and tools will need to be developed to assess the relationships between blockchain governance, token design and mechanisms of change in the resulting social ecosystem. 

The opportunity cost for impact and “learning” could go up the less MERL practitioners are integrated into the due diligence of token design.  This is because the costs to adapt token design are relatively low compared to current social interventions, partly due to the ability to integrate automated feedback. 

Blockchain based interventions present us with significant learning opportunities due to our ability to use the technology itself as a data collection/management tool in learning about what does and does not work.  Feedback from an appropriate MERL strategy could inform decision making around token design that could be coded into the token on an iterative basis.  For example as incentives of stakeholder’s shift (i.e. supply chain shippers incur new costs and their value proposition changes) token adaptation can respond in a timely fashion so long as the MERL feedback that informs the token design is accurate.

There is need to determine what components of these feedback loops can be completed by automated functions and what requires a “human touch”.  For example, what dimensions of token design can be informed by smart infrastructure (i.e. temp gauges on shipping containers in the supply chain) versus household surveys completed by enumerators?  This will be a task to complete and iteratively improve starting with initial token design and lasting through the lifecycle of the intervention.  Token design dimensions, outlined in the Token Utility Canvas, and decision-making will need to result in MERL questions that are correlated to the best strategy to answer them, automated or human, much the same as we do now in current interventions. 

While many of our current due diligence tools used in both intervention and evaluation design (things like stakeholder mapping, problem analysis, cost benefit analysis, value propositions, etc.), will need to be adapted to the type of relationships that are within a tokenized eco-systems.  These include the relationships of influence between the social eco-system as well as the blockchain ledger itself (or more specifically the governance of that ledger) as demonstrated in figure #1.  

This could be our, as MERL practitioners, biggest priority.  While blockchain interventions could create incredible opportunities for social experimentation, the need for human centered due diligence (incentivizing humans for positive behavior change) in token design is critical.  Over reliance on the technology to drive social outcomes is already a well evidenced opportunity cost that could be avoided with blockchain-based solutions if the gap between technologists, social scientists and practitioners can be bridged.    

Can digital tools be used to help young mothers in Kenya form new habits?

Guest post from Haanim Galvaan, Content Designer at Every1Mobile

A phone is no longer just a phone. It’s your connection to the rest of the world, it’s your personal assistant, and now, it’s your best friend who gives you encouragement and reinforcement for your good habits.

At least that’s what mobile phones have become for those who make use of habit-boosting apps.

If you’re trying to quit smoking and want to build a streak of puff-free days, the HabitBull app can help you do that. Want to establish a habit in your team that makes use of social accountability? Try Habitica. Do you want positive reinforcement for your activities in a motivational, rewarding voice? Productive is the app for that.

But what if you’re a young mum, living in the urban slums of Nairobi and you want to improve the health and wellbeing of your children? Try U Afya’s 10-Day Challenge.

U Afya is an online community for young mothers and mothers-to-be to learn about topics related to health, hygiene and family life. The site takes a holistic approach to giving young mothers the knowledge and confidence they need to enact certain healthy behaviours. It’s a place to discuss, give and receive advice, take free online courses, and now, to establish good habits with a custom-built habit tracking tool.

The 10-Day Handwashing Challenge was launched using new habit-tracking functionality. Users were encouraged to perform an activity related to handwashing each day, e.g. wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds. The challenges were formulated around the Lifebuoy “5 Key Moments” model. Participants were required to log their activity on the site by completing a survey.

Each day the site fed users a different hygiene-related tip, as well as links to additional content. At the end of the challenge, users were pushed to take a pledge and make a commitment to handwashing.

U Afya’s Habit Tracker is different from other habit boosting apps in that it is not an app! It has been built onto a low-data usage site that has been optimised for the data-sensitive target audience in the Nairobi slums. The tracker provides a rich, visual experience, which makes use of simple functionality compatible on both feature phone and smartphone.

We created a sense of urgency.

Users were required to log their activity for 10 days within a 30-day period. Attaching a “deadline” added a measure of urgency to the activity. There is no space for procrastination. The message is: establish your habit now or you never will!

It is based on behaviour change levers.

The 10-Day Handwashing Challenge and its accompanying content around the site were all based on the behaviour change approach employed by Lifebuoy in Way of Life, namely Awareness, Commitment, Reinforcement and Reward.

The approach was executed in the following ways:

Awareness: Introducing the handwashing theme with engaging, educational content that linked to and from the 10-Day Handwashing Challenge:

  • Diseases caused by lack of handwashing (article)
  • 5 Tips for washing your hands correctly (article)
  • Global Handwashing Day! – The 5 Key times to wash our hands (article)
  • How much do you know about handwashing? (quiz)

Commitment: Encouraging users to take the Handwashing Pledge

Reinforcement: Habit tracker, come back to self-report your daily activity

Reward: Participants stood the chance to win a hygiene gift bag

Contents of the hygiene gift bag given to 5 winners.

The results

86 users started the challenge and 26 users completed it within the 30-day challenge period. That makes a completion rate of 30% overall. Considering that users had to return to the challenge 10 times, the response rate is quite high.

The biggest drop-off happened between Day 1 and Day 2, with 28 users falling away and drop-off rates decreased gradually throughout the 10 days. The graph below shows that most users who made it to day 5 ended up completing the challenge. Only 11 users dropped off between Day 5 and Day 10.

26 out of 86 users created a habit.

In addition to participatory data, additional feedback was gathered by interspersing survey questions into the challenge. This additional questioning determined that 91% of challenge-takers feel they can afford to buy soap for their families.

Feedback:

Users had overwhelmingly positive feedback about the challenge.

“It was so educating and hygienically I have improved. It’s now a routine to me, washing hands in any case”

Learnings:

Keep it simple

It’s not always necessary to create a fancy app to push a new activity. The U Afya 10-Day Challenge was built on a platform that users are already familiar with. By building it into their current environment, it offered them something new and exciting on their visit.

Users were required to do one thing each day and report it with one action i.e. taking a single-question survey. Requiring minimal effort from your users can maximise uptake.

Overall the approach was simplicity. Simplicity in the design of the functionality, simplicity in the daily action and simplicity in creating a habit.

With this approach the U Afya 10-Day Handwashing Challenge helped 26 young mothers to create a new habit of washing their hands every day at key moments.

Conclusion:

This first iteration of U Afya’s 10-Day Handwashing Challenge was a pilot, but the results suggest that it is possible to use low-cost, low-tech means to encourage habit formation. It is also possible for sophisticated behaviour change theory and practice to reach some of the most vulnerable groups, using the very phones they have in their hands.

It is also a useful tool to help us to understand the impact of our behaviour change campaigns in the real world.

Next steps

All the user feedback and learnings mentioned above will be analysed to understand how the approach can be strengthened to reach even more people, increase compliance and and encourage positive habit creation.

Early Concepts for Designing and Evaluating Blockchain Interventions for Behavior Change

Guest post by Michael Cooper, a former DoS, MCC Associate Director for Policy and Evaluation who now runs Emergence.  Mike advises numerous donors, private clients and foundations on program design, MEL, adaptive management and other analytical functions.

International development projects using the blockchain in some way are increasing at a rapid rate and our window for developing evidence around what does and does not work (and more importantly why) is narrow before we run into un-intended consequences.  Given that blockchain is a highly disruptive technology, these un-intended consequences could be significant, creating a higher urgency to generate the evidence to guide how we design and evaluate blockchain applications. 

Our window for developing evidence around what does and does not work (and more importantly why) is narrow before we run into un-intended consequences.

To inform this discussion, Emergence has put out a working paper that outlines 1.) what the blockchain is, 2.) how it can be used to leverage behavior change outcomes in international development projects and 3.) the implications for how we could design and evaluate blockchain based interventions.  The paper utilizes systems and behaviorism principles in comparing how we currently design behavior change interventions to how we could design/evaluate the same interventions using the blockchain.  This article summarizes the main points of the paper and its conclusions to generate discussion around how to best produce the evidence we need to fully realize the potential of blockchain interventions for social impact.

Given the scope of possibilities surrounding the blockchain, both in how it could be used and in the impact it could leverage, the implications for how MEL is conducted are significant.  The time is long gone where value adding MEL practitioners are not involved in intervention design.  Blockchain based interventions will require additional integration of MEL skill sets in the early design phases since so much will need to be “tested” to determine what is and is not working.  While rigid statistical evaluations will needed for some of these blockchain based interventions, the level of complexity involved and the lack of an evidence base indicate that more flexible, adaptive and more formative MEL approaches will be needed.  The more these approaches are proactive and involved in intervention design, the more frequent and informative the feedback loops will be into our evidence base. 

The Blockchain as a Decentralizing Technology

At its core, the blockchain is just a ledger but the importance of ledgers in how society functions cannot be understated.  Ledgers, and the control of them, are crucial in how supply chains are managed, financial transactions are conducted, how data is shared, etc.  Control of ledgers is a primary factor in limiting access to life changing goods and services, especially for the worlds’ poor. In part, the discussion over decentralization is essentially a discussion over who owns and how ledgers are managed. 

Decentralization has been a prominent theme in international development and there is strong evidence of its positive impact across various sectors, especially regarding local service delivery.  One of the primary value adds of decentralization is empowering those further from traditional concentrations of power to have more authority over the problems that impact them.  As a decentralizing technology, the blockchain holds a lot of potential in reaching these same impacts from decentralization (empowerment, etc.) in a more efficient and effective manner partly due to its ability to better align interests around common problems.  With better aligned interests, less resources (inputs) are needed to try and facilitate a desired behavior change. 

Up until now, efforts of international development actors have focused on “nudging” behavior change amongst stakeholders and in very rare cases, such as in results based financing, give loosely defined parameters to implementers with less emphasis on the manner in which outcomes are achieved.  Both of these approaches are relevant in the design and testing of blockchain based interventions but they will be integrated in unique new ways that will require new thinking and skills sets amongst practitioners. 

Current Designing and Evaluating for Behavior Change

MEL usually starts with the relevant theory of change, namely what mechanisms bring about targeted behavior change and how.  Recent years have seen a focus on how behavior change is achieved through an understanding of mindsets and how they can be nudged to achieve a social outcome.  However the international development space has recognized the limitations of designing interventions that attempt to nudge behavior change.  These limitations center around the level of complexity involved, the inability to recognize and manage this complexity and lack of awareness about the root causes of problems.  Hence the rise in things like results based financing where the type of prescribed top-down causal pathway (usually laid out in a theory of change) is not as heavily emphasized as in more traditional interventions.  Donors using this approach can still mandate certain principles of implementation (such as the inclusion of vulnerable populations, environmental safeguards, timelines, etc.) but there is much more flexibility to create a causal pathway to achieve the outcome. 

Or, for example, take the popular PDIA approach where the focus is on iteratively identifying and solving problems encountered on the pathway to reform.  These efforts do not start with a mandated theory of change, but instead start with generally described targeted outcomes and then the pathway to those outcomes is iteratively created, similar to what Lant Pritchett has called “crawling the design space”.  Such an approach has large overlaps with adaptive management practices and other more integrative MEL frameworks and could lend themselves to how blockchain based interventions are designed, implemented and evaluated. 

How the Blockchain Could Achieve Outcomes and Implications for MEL

Because of its decentralizing effects, any theory of change for a blockchain based intervention could include some possible common attributes that influence how outcomes are achieved:

  • Empowerment of those closest to problems to inform the relevant solutions
  • Alignment of interests around these solutions
  • Alleviation of traditional intermediary services and relevant third party actors

Assessing these three attributes, and how they influence outcomes, could be the foundation of any appropriate MEL strategy for a blockchain-based intervention.  This is because these attributes are the “value add” of a blockchain-based intervention.  For example, traditional financial inclusion interventions may seek to extend financial services of a bank to rural areas through digital money, extension agents, etc.  A blockchain-based solution, however, may cut out the bank entirely and empower local communities to receive financial services from completely new providers from anywhere in the world on much more affordable terms in and in a much more convenient manner.  Such a solution could see an alignment of interests amongst producers and consumers of these services since the new relationships are mutually serving.  Because of this alignment there is a less of a need, or even less of a benefit, of having donors script out the causal pathway for the outcomes to be achieved.  Because of this alignment of interests, those closest to the problem(s) and solutions can work it out because it is in their interest to do so. 

Hence while a MEL framework for such a project could still use more standardized measures around outcomes like increased access to financial services and could even use statistical methods to evaluate questions around attributable changes in poverty status; there will need to be adaptive and formative MEL that assess the dynamics of these attributes given their criticality to whether and how outcomes could be achieved.  The dynamics between these attributes and the surrounding social eco-system have the potential to be very fluid (going back to the disruptive nature of blockchain technology), hence flexible MEL will be required to respond to new trends as they emerge. 

Table: Blockchain Intervention Attributes and the Skill Sets to Assess Them

Blockchain Attributes Possible MEL Approaches
Empowerment of those closest to problems to inform the relevant solutions   Problem driven design and MEL approach, stakeholder mapping (to identify relevant actors) Decentralization focused MEL (MEL that focuses on outcomes associated with decentralization)
Alignment of interests Political economy analysis to identify incentives and interests Adaptive MEL to assess shifting alignment of interest between various actors
Alleviation of traditional intermediary services Political economy analysis to inform risk mitigation strategy for potential spoilers and relevant MEL

While there will need to be standard accountability and other uses, feedback from an appropriate MEL strategy could have two primary end uses in a blockchain based intervention: governance and trust.

The Role of Governance and Trust

Blockchain governance sets outs the rules for how consensus (ie. agreement) is achieved for deciding what transactions are valid on a blockchain.  While this may sound mundane it is critical for achieving outcomes since how the blockchain is governed decides how well those closest to the problems are empowered to identify and achieve solutions and aligned interests. Hence the governance framework for the blockchain will need to be informed by an appropriate MEL strategy.  A giant learning gap we currently have is how to iteratively adapt blockchain governance structures, using MEL feedback, into increasingly more efficient versions.  Closing this gap will be critical to assessing the cost effectiveness of blockchain based solutions over other solutions (ie. alternatives/cost benefit analysis tools) as well as maximizing impact. 

A giant learning gap we currently have is how to iteratively adapt blockchain governance structures, using MEL feedback, into increasingly more efficient versions. 

Another focus of an appropriate MEL strategy would be to facilitate trust in the blockchain-based solution amongst users much the same as other technology-led solutions like mobile money or pay as you go metering for service delivery.  This includes not only the digital interface between the user and the technology (a phone app, SMS or other interface) but other dimensions of “trust” that would facilitate uptake of the technology.  These dimensions of trust would be informed by an analysis of the barriers to uptake of the technology amongst intended users, given it could be an entirely new service for beneficiaries or an old service delivered in a new fashion.  There is already a good evidence base around what works in this area (ie. marketing and communication tools for digital financial services, assistance in completing registration paperwork for pay as you go metering, etc.). 

The Road Ahead

There is A LOT we need to learn and a short time to do it in before we feel the negative effects from a lack of preparedness.  This risk is heightened when you consider that the international development industry has a poor track record of designing and evaluating technology-led solutions (primarily due to the fact that these projects usually neglect uptake of the technology and operate on the assumption that the technology will drive outcomes instead of users using the technology as a tool to drive the outcomes). 

The lessons from MEL in results based financing could be especially informative to the future of evaluating blockchain-based solutions given their similarities in letting solutions work themselves out and the role of the “validator” in ensuring outcomes are achieved.  In fact the blockchain has already been used in this role in some simple output based programming. 

As alluded to, pre-existing MEL skill sets can add a lot of value to building an evidence base but MEL practitioners will need to develop a greater understanding of the attributes of blockchain technology, otherwise our MEL strategies will not be suited to blockchain based programming.