Tag Archives: Christopher Robert

MERL Tech and the World of ICT Social Entrepreneurs (WISE)

by Dale Hill, an economist/evaluator with over 35 years experience in development and humanitarian work. Dale led the session on “The growing world of ICT Social Entrepreneurs (WISE): Is social Impact significant?” at MERL Tech DC 2018.

Roger Nathanial Ashby of OpenWise and Christopher Robert of Dobility share experiences at MERL Tech.
Roger Nathanial Ashby of OpenWise and Christopher Robert of Dobility share experiences at MERL Tech.

What happens when evaluators trying to build bridges with new private sector actors meet real social entrepreneurs? A new appreciation for the dynamic “World of ICT Social Entrepreneurs (WISE)” and the challenges they face in marketing, pricing, and financing (not to mention measurement of social impact.)

During this MERL Tech session on WISE, Dale Hill, evaluation consultant, presented grant funded research on measurement of social impact of social entrepreneurship ventures (SEVs) from three perspectives. She then invited five ICT company CEOs to comment.

The three perspectives are:

  • the public: How to hold companies accountable, particularly if they have chosen to be legal or certified “benefit corporations”?
  • the social entrepreneurs, who are plenty occupied trying to reach financial sustainability or profit goals, while also serving the public good; and
  • evaluators, who see the important influence of these new actors, but know their professional tools need adaptation to capture their impact.

Dale’s introduction covered overlapping definitions of various categories of SEVs, including legally defined “benefit corporations”, and “B Corps”, which are intertwined with the options of certification available to social entrepreneurs. The “new middle” of SEVs are on a spectrum between for-profit companies on one end and not-for profit organizations on the other. Various types of funders, including social impact investors, new certification agencies, and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) professionals, are now interested in measuring the growing social impact of these enterprises. A show of hands revealed that representatives of most of these types of actors were present at the session.

The five social entrepreneur panelists all had ICT businesses with global reach, but they varied in legal and certification status and the number of years operating (1 to 11). All aimed to deploy new technologies to non-profit organizations or social sector agencies on high value, low price terms. Some had worked in non-profits in the past and hoped that venture capital rather than grant funding would prove easier to obtain. Others had worked for Government and observed the need for customized solutions, which required market incentives to fully develop.

The evaluator and CEO panelists’ identification of challenges converged in some cases:

  • maintaining affordability and quality when using market pricing
  • obtaining venture capital or other financing
  • worry over “mission drift” – if financial sustainability imperatives or shareholder profit maximization preferences prevail over founders’ social impact goals; and
  • the still present digital divide, when serving global customers (insufficient bandwidth, affordability issues, limited small business capital in some client countries.

New issues raised by the CEOs (and some social entrepreneurs in the audience) included:

  • the need to provide incentives to customers to use quality assurance or security features of software, to avoid falling short of achieving the SEV’s “public good” goals;
  • the possibility of hostile takeover, given high value of technological innovations;
  • the fact that mention of a “social impact goal” was a red flag to some funders who then went elsewhere to seek profit maximization.

There was also a rich discussion on the benefits and costs of obtaining certification: it was a useful “branding and market signal” to some consumers, but a negative one to some funders; also, it posed an added burden on managers to document and report social impact, sometimes according to guidelines not in line with their preferences.

Surprises?

a) Despite the “hype”, social impact investment funding proved elusive to the panelists. Options for them included: sliding scale pricing; establishment of a complementary for-profit arm; or debt financing;

b) Many firms were not yet implementing planned monitoring and evaluation (M&E) programs, despite M&E being one of their service offerings; and

c) The legislation on reporting social impact of benefit corporations among the 31 states varies considerably, and the degree of enforcement is not clear.

A conclusion for evaluators: Social entrepreneurs’ use of market solutions indeed provides an evolving, dynamic environment which poses more complex challenges for measuring social impact, and requires new criteria and tools, ideally timed with an understanding of market ups and downs, and developed with full participation of the business managers.

Mobile Case Management for Multi-Dimensional Accountability

This is a cross-post from Christopher Robert of Dobility. It was originally published September 13 on the SurveyCTO blog.

At MERL Tech DC 2017, Oxfam’s Emily Tomkys Valteri and I teamed up to lead a session on Mobile case management for multi-dimensional accountability. This blog post shares some highlights from that session. [Note: session slides are available here]

Background

In their Your Word Counts project, Oxfam is collaborating with local and global partners to capture, analyze, and respond to community feedback data using a mobile case management tool. The goal is to inform Oxfam’s Middle East humanitarian response and give those affected by crisis a voice for improved support and services. This project is a scale-up of an earlier pilot project, and both the pilot and the scale-up have been supported by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund.

Oxfam’s use of SurveyCTO’s case-management features has been innovative, and they have been helping to support improvements in the core technology. In this session, we discussed both the core technology and the broader organizational and logistical challenges that Oxfam has encountered in the field.

Mobile case management: an introduction 

In standard applications of mobile data collection, enumerators, inspectors, program officers, or others use a mobile phone or tablet to collect data. Whether they quietly observe things, interview people, or inspect facilities, they ultimately enter some kind of data into a mobile device. In systems like SurveyCTO, data-collection officially begins when they click a Fill Blank Formbutton and choose a digital form to fill out.

Mobile data collection

Mobile case management is much the same, but the process begins with cases and then proceeds to forms. As far as the core technology is concerned, a case might be a clinic, a school, a water point, a household – pretty much any unit that’s meaningful in the given context. Instead of choosing Fill Blank Form and choosing a form, users in the field choose Manage Cases and then choose a particular case from a list that’s filtered specifically for that user (e.g., to include only schools in their area); once they select a case, they then select one of the forms that is outstanding for that case.

Mobile case management

Behind the scenes, the case list is really just a spreadsheet. It includes columns for the unique case ID, the label that should be used to identify the case to users, the list of forms that should be filled for the case, and the users and/or user roles that should see the case listed in their case list. Importantly, the case list is not static: any form can update or add a case, and thus as users fill forms the case list can be dynamically revised and extended. (In SurveyCTO, the case list is simply a server dataset: it can be manually uploaded as a .csv, attached to forms, and updated just like any other dataset.)

Mobile case management: case list

Oxfam’s innovative use case: Your Word Counts 

Oxfam accountability feedback loop

Oxfam accountability feedback loop. Diagram credit: Oxfam GB.

In Oxfam’s Your Word Counts project, cases represent any kind of feedback from the community. Volunteers and program staff carry mobile phones and log feedback as new cases whenever they interact with community members; technical teams then work to resolve feedback within a week, filling out new forms to update cases as their status changes; and program staff then close the loop with the original community members when possible, before closing the case. Because the data is all available in a single electronic system, in-country, regional, and even global teams can then report on and analyze both the community feedback and the responses over time.

There have been some definite successes in piloting and early scale-up:

  • By listening to community members, recording their feedback, and following up, the community feedback system has helped to build trust.
  • The digital process of recording referrals, updates, and eventually responses has been rapid, speeding responsiveness to feedback overall.
  • Since all digital forms can be updated easily, the system is dynamic and flexible enough to adapt as programs or needs change.
  • The solution appears to be low-cost, scalable, and sustainable.

There have been both organizational and logistical challenges, however. For example:

  • For a system like this to truly be effective, fundamental responsibility for accountability must be shared organization-wide. While MEAL officers (monitoring, evaluation, accountability, and learning officers) can help to set up and manage accountability systems, technical teams, program teams, and senior leadership ultimately have to share ownership and responsibility in order for the system to function and sustain.
  • Globally-predefined feedback categories turned out not to fit well with early deployment contexts, and so the program team needed to re-think how to most effectively categorize feedback. (See Oxfam’s blog post on the subject.)
  • In dynamic in-country settings, staff turnover can be high, posing major logistical and sustainability challenges for systems of all kinds.
  • While community members can add and update cases offline, ultimately an Internet connection is required to synchronize case lists with a central server. In some settings, access to office Internet has been a challenge.
  • Ideally, cases would be easily referred across agencies working in a particular setting, but some agencies have been reluctant to buy into shared digital systems.

Oxfam’s MEAL team is exploring ways to facilitate a broader accountability culture throughout the organization. In country programs, for example, MEAL coordinators are looking to use office whiteboards to track key indicators of feedback performance and engage staff in discussions of what those indicators mean for them. More broadly, Oxfam is looking to highlight best practices in responding and acting on feedback and seeking other ways to incentivize teams in this area.

Oxfam’s work is ongoing, and you can follow their progress on their project blog.

Mobile case management: Where it’s going 

While Oxfam works to build and support both systems and culture for accountability in their humanitarian response programs, we at Dobility are working to improve the core technology. With Oxfam’s feedback and support, we are currently working to improve the user interface used to filter and browse case lists, both on devices (in the field) and on the web (in the office). We are also working to improve the user interface for those setting up and managing these kinds of case-management system. If you have specific ideas, please share them by commenting below!

Thoughts from MERL Tech UK

merltech_uk-2016Post by Christopher Robert, Dobility (Survey CTO)

MERL Tech UK was held in London this week. It was a small, intimate gathering by conference standards (just under 100 attendees), but jam-packed full of passion, accumulated wisdom, and practical knowledge. It’s clear that technology is playing an increasingly useful role in helping us with monitoring, evaluation, accountability, research, and learning – but it’s also clear that there’s plenty of room for improvement. As a technology provider, I walked away with both more inspiration and more clarity for the road ahead.

Some highlights:

  • I’ve often felt that conferences in the ICT4D space have been overly-focused on what’s sexy, shiny, and new over what’s more boring, practical, and able to both scale and sustain. This conference was markedly different: it exceeded even the tradition of prior MERL Tech conferences in shifting from the pathology of “pilotitus” to a more hard-nosed focus on what really works.
  • There was more talk of data responsibility, which I took as another welcome sign of maturation in the space. This idea encompasses much beyond data security and the honoring of confidentiality assurances that we at Dobility/SurveyCTO have long championed, and it amounted to a rare delight: rather than us trying to push greater ethical consideration on others, for once we felt that our peers were pushing us to raise the bar even further. My own ideas in terms of data responsibility were challenged, and I came to realize that data security is just one piece of a larger ethical puzzle.
  • There are far fewer programs and projects re-inventing the wheel in terms of technology, which is yet another welcome sign of maturation. This is helping more resources to flow into the improvement and professionalization of a small but diverse set of technology platforms. Too much donor money still seems to be spent on technologies that have effective, well-established, and sustainable options available, but it’s getting better.
  • However, it’s clear that there are still plenty of ways to re-invent the wheel, and plenty of opportunities for greater collaboration and learning in the space. Most organizations are having to go it alone in terms of procuring and managing devices, training and supporting field teams, designing and monitoring data-collection activities, organizing and managing collected data, and more. Some larger international organizations who adopted digital technologies early have built up some impressive institutional capacity – but every organization still has its gaps and challenges, later adopters don’t have that historical capacity from which to draw, and smaller organizations don’t have the same kind of centralized institutional capacity.
  • Fortunately, MERL Tech organizers and participants like Oxfam GB and World Bank DIME have not only built tremendous internal capacity, but also been extremely generous in thinking through how to share that capacity with others. They share via their blogs and participation in conferences like this, and they are always thinking about new and more effective ways to share. That’s both heartening and inspiring.

I loved the smaller, more intimate nature of MERL Tech UK, but I have quickly come to somewhat regret that it wasn’t substantially larger. My first London day post-MERL-Tech was spent visiting with some other SurveyCTO users, including a wonderfully-well-attended talk on data quality at the Zoological Society of London, a meeting with some members of Imperial College London’s Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, and a discussion about some new University of Cambridge efforts to improve data and research on rare diseases in the UK. Later today, I’ll meet with some members of the TUMIKIA project team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and in retrospect I now wish that all of these others had been at MERL Tech. I’m trying to share lessons as best I can, but it’s obvious that so many other organizations could both contribute to and profit from the kinds of conversations and sharing that were happening at MERL Tech.

Personally, I’ve always been distrustful of product user conferences as narrow, ego-driven, sales-and-marketing kinds of affairs, but I’m suddenly seeing how a SurveyCTO user conference could make real (social) sense. Our users are doing such incredible things, learning so much in the process, building up so much capacity – and so many of them are also willing to share generously with others. The key is providing mechanisms for that sharing to happen. At Dobility, we’ve just kept our heads down and stayed focused on providing and supporting affordable, accessible technology, but now I’m seeing that we could play a greater role in facilitating greater progress in the space. With thousands of SurveyCTO projects now in over 130 countries, the amount of learning – and the potential social benefits to sharing more – is enormous. We’ll have to think about how we can get better and better about helping. And please comment here if you have ideas for us!

Thanks again to Oxfam GB, Comic Relief, and everybody else who made MERL Tech UK possible. It was a wonderful event.