Tag Archives: data science

New Research! The State of the Field of MERL Tech, 2014-2019

The year 2020 is a compelling time to look back and pull together lessons from five years of convening hundreds of monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning and technology practitioners who have joined us as part of the MERL Tech community. The world is in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and there is an urgent need to know what is happening, where, and to what extent. Data is a critical piece of the COVID-19 response — it can mean the difference between life and death. And technology use is growing due to stay-at-home orders and a push for “remote monitoring” and data collection from a distance.

At the same time, we’re witnessing (and I hope, also joining in with) a global call for justice — perhaps a tipping point — in the wake of decades of racist and colonialist systems that operate at the level of nations, institutions, organizations, the global aid and development systems, and the tech sector. There is no denying that these power dynamics and systems have shaped the MERL space as a whole, and the MERL Tech space as well.

Moments of crisis tend to test a field, and we live in extreme times. The coming decade will demand a nimble, adaptive, fair, and just use of data for managing complexity and for gaining longer-term understanding of change and impact. Perhaps most importantly, in 2020 and beyond, we need meaningful involvement of stakeholders at every level and openness to a re-shaping of our sector and its relationships and power dynamics.

It is in this time of upheaval and change that we are releasing a set of four papers that aim to take stock of the field from 2014-2019 as launchpad for shaping the future of MERL Tech. In September 2018, the papers’ authors began reviewing the past five years of MERL Tech events to identify lessons, trends, and issues in this rapidly changing field. They also reviewed the literature base in an effort to determine what we know, what we yet need to understand about technology in MERL, and what are the gaps in the formal literature. No longer is this a nascent field, yet it is one that is hard to keep up with, given that it is fast paced and constantly shifting with the advent of new technologies. We have learned many lessons over the past five years, but complex political, technical, and ethical questions remain.

The State of the Field series includes four papers:

MERL Tech State of the Field: The Evolution of MERL Tech: Linda Raftree, independent consultant and MERL Tech Conference organizer.


What We Know About Traditional MERL Tech: Insights from a Scoping Review: Zach Tilton, Michael Harnar, and Michele Behr, University of Western Michigan; Soham Banerji and Manon McGuigan, independent consultants; and Paul Perrin, Gretchen Bruening, John Gordley and Hannah Foster, University of Notre Dame; Linda Raftree, independent consultant and MERL Tech Conference organizer.

Big Data to Data Science: Moving from “What” to “How” in the MERL Tech SpaceKecia Bertermann, Luminate; Alexandra Robinson, Threshold.World; Michael Bamberger, independent consultant; Grace Lyn Higdon, Institute of Development Studies; Linda Raftree, independent consultant and MERL Tech Conference organizer.

Emerging Technologies and Approaches in Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning for International Development Programs: Kerry Bruce and Joris Vandelanotte, Clear Outcomes; and Valentine Gandhi, The Development CAFE and Social Impact.

Through these papers, we aim to describe the State of the Field up to 2019 and to offer a baseline point in time from which the wider MERL Tech community can take action to make the next phase of MERL Tech development effective, responsible, ethical, just, and equitable. We share these papers as conversation pieces and hope they will generate more discussion in the MERL Tech space about where to go from here.

We’d like to start or collaborate on a second round of research to delve into areas that were under-researched or less developed. Your thoughts are most welcome on topics that need more research, and if you are conducting research about MERL Tech, please get in touch and we’re happy to share here on MERL Tech News or to chat about how we could work together!

Big Data to Data Science: Moving from ‘What’ to ‘How’ in MERL

Guest post by Grace Higdon

Big data is a big topic in other sectors but its application within monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is limited, with most reports focusing more on its potential rather than actual use. Our paper,  “Big Data to Data Science: Moving from ‘What’ to ‘How’ in the MERL Tech Space”  probes trends in the use of big data between 2014 and 2019 by a community of early adopters working in monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning (MERL) in the development and humanitarian sectors. We focus on how MERL practitioners actually use big data and what encourages or deters adoption.

First, we collated administrative and publicly available MERL Tech conference data from the 281 sessions accepted for presentation between 2015 and 2019. Of these, we identified 54 sessions that mentioned big data and compared trends between sessions that did and did not mention this topic. In any given year from 2015 to 2019, 16 percent to 26 percent of sessions at MERL Tech conferences were related to the topic of big data. (Conferences were held in Washington DC, London, and Johannesburg).

Our quantitative analysis was complemented by 11 qualitative key informant interviews. We selected interviewees representing diverse viewpoints (implementers, donors, MERL specialists) and a range of subject matter expertise and backgrounds. During interviews, we explored why an interviewee chose to use big data, the benefits and challenges of using big data, reflections on the use of big data in the wider MERL tech community, and opportunities for the future.


Our findings indicate that MERL practitioners are in a fragmented, experimental phase, with use and application of big data varying widely, accompanied by shifting terminologies. One interviewee noted that “big data is sort of an outmoded buzzword” with practitioners now using terms such as ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘machine learning.’ Our analysis attempted to expand the umbrella of terminologies under which big data and related technologies might fall. Key informant interviews and conference session analysis identified four main types of technologies used to collect big data: satellites, remote sensors, mobile technology, and M&E platforms, as well as a number of other tools and methods. Additionally, our analysis surfaced six main types of tools used to analyze big data: artificial intelligence and machine learning, geospatial analysis, data mining, data visualization, data analysis software packages, and social network analysis.

Barriers to adoption

We also took an in-depth look at barriers to and enablers of use of big data within MERL, as well as benefits and drawbacks. Our analysis found that perceived benefits of big data included enhanced analytical possibilities, increased efficiency, scale, data quality, accuracy, and cost-effectiveness. Big data is contributing to improved targeting and better value for money. It is also enabling remote monitoring in areas that are difficult to access for reasons such as distance, poor infrastructure, or conflict.

Concerns about bias, privacy, and the potential for big data to magnify existing inequalities arose frequently. MERL practitioners cited a number of drawbacks and limitations that make them cautious about using big data. These include lack of trust in the data (including mistrust from members of local communities); misalignment of objectives, capacity, and resources when partnering with big data firms and the corporate sector; and ethical concerns related to privacy, bias, and magnification of inequalities. Barriers to adoption include insufficient resources, absence of relevant use cases, lack of skills for big data, difficulty in determining return on investment, and challenges in pinpointing the tangible value of using big data in MERL.

Our paper includes a series of short case studies of big data applications in MERL. Our research surfaced a need for more systematic and broader sharing of big data use cases and case studies in the development sector.

The field of Big Data is rapidly evolving, thus we expect that shifts have happened already in the field since the beginning of our research in 2018. We recommend several steps for advancing with Big Data / Data Science in the MERL Space, including:

  1. Consider. MERL Tech practitioners should examine relevant learning questions before deciding whether big data is the best tool for the MERL job at hand or whether another source or method could answer them just as well.
  2. Pilot testing of various big data approaches is needed in order to assess their utility and the value they add. Pilot testing should be collaborative; for example, an organization with strong roots at the field level might work with an agency that has technical expertise in relevant areas.
  3. Documenting. The current body of documentation is insufficient to highlight relevant use cases and identify frameworks for determining return on investment in big data for MERL work. The community should do more to document efforts, experiences, successes, and failures in academic and gray literature.
  4. Sharing. There is a hum of activity around big data in the vibrant MERL Tech community. We encourage the MERL Tech community to engage in fora such as communities of practice, salons, events, and other convenings, and to seek less typical avenues for sharing information and learning and to avoid knowledge silos.
  5. Learning. The MERL Tech space is not static; indeed, the terminology and applications of big data have shifted rapidly in the past 5 years and will continue to change over time. The MERL Tech community should participate in new training related to big data, continuing to apply critical thinking to new applications.
  6. Guiding. Big data practitioners are crossing exciting frontiers as they apply new methods to research and learning questions. These new opportunities bring significant responsibility. MERL Tech programs serve people who are often vulnerable — but whose rights and dignity deserve respect. As we move forward with using big data, we must carefully consider, implement, and share guidance for responsible use of these new applications, always honoring the people at the heart of our interventions.

Download the full paper here.

Read the other papers in the State of the Field of MERL Tech series.

Integrating Big Data into Evaluation: a conversation with Michael Bamberger and Rick Davies

At MERL Tech London, 2018, we invited Michael Bamberger and Rick Davies to debate the question of whether the enthusiasm for Big Data in Evaluation is warranted. At their session, through a formal debate (skillfully managed by Shawna Hoffman from The Rockefeller Foundation) they discussed whether Big Data and Evaluation would eventually converge, whether one would dominate the other, how can and should they relate to each other, and what risks and opportunities there are in this relationship.

Following the debate, Michael and Risk wanted to continue the discussion — this time exploring the issues in a more conversational mode on the MERL Tech Blog, because in practice both of them see more than one side to the issue.

So, what do Rick and Michael think — will big data integrate with evaluation — or is it all just hype?

Rick: In the MERL Tech debate I put a lot of emphasis on the possibility that evaluation, as a field, would be overwhelmed by big data / data science rhetoric. But since then I have been thinking about a countervailing development, which is that evaluative thinking is pushing back against unthinking enthusiasm for the use of data science algorithms. I emphasise “evaluative thinking” rather than “evaluators” as a category of people, because a lot of this pushback is coming from people who would not identify themselves as evaluators. There are different strands to this evaluative response.

One is a social justice perspective, reflected in recent books such as “Weapons of Math Destruction”, “Automated Inequality”, and “Algorithms of Oppression” which emphasise the human cost of poorly designed and or poorly supervised use of algorithms using large amounts of data to improve welfare and justice administration. Another strand is more like a form of exploratory philosophy, and has focused on how it might be possible to define “fairness” when designing and evaluating algorithms that have consequences for human welfare[ See 1, 2, 3, 4]. Another strand is perhaps more technical in focus, but still has a value concern. This is the literature on algorithmic transparency. Without transparency it is difficult to assess fairness [See 5, 6, ] Neural networks are often seen as a particular challenge. Associated with this are discussions about “the right to explanation” and what this means in practice[1,]

In parallel there is also some infiltration of data science thinking into mainstream evaluation practice. DFID is funding the World Bank’s Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund (SIEF) latest call for “nimble evaluations” [7]. These are described as rapid and low cost and likely to take the form of an RCT but ones which are focused on improving implementation rather than assessing overall impact [8]. This type of RCT is directly equivalent to A/B testing used by the internet giants to improve the way their platforms engage with their users. Hopefully these nimble approaches may bring a more immediate benefit to the people’s lives than RCTs which have tried to assess the impact of a whole project and then inform the design of subsequent projects.

Another recent development is the World Bank’s Data Science competition [9], where participants are being challenged to develop predictive models of household poverty status, based on World Bank Household Survey data.  The intention is that they should provide a cheaper means of identifying poor households than simply relying on what can be very expensive and time consuming nationwide household surveys. At present the focus on the supporting website is very technical. As far as I can see there is no discussion of how the winning prediction model will be used and an how any risks of adverse effects might be monitored and managed.  Yet as I suggested at MERLTech London, most algorithms used for prediction modelling will have errors. The propensity to generate False Positives and False Negatives is machine learning’s equivalent of original sin. It is to be expected, so it should be planned for. Plans should include systematic monitoring of errors and a public policy for correction, redress and compensation.

Michael:  These are both important points, and it is interesting to think what conclusions we can draw for the question before us.  Concerning the important issue of algorithmic transparency (AT), Rick points out that a number of widely discussed books and articles have pointed out the risk that the lack of AT poses for democracy and particularly for poor and vulnerable groups. Virginia Eubanks, one of the authors cited by Rick, talks about the “digital poorhouse” and how unregulated algorithms can help perpetuate an underclass.  However, I think we should examine more carefully how evaluators are contributing to this discussion. My impression, based on very limited evidence is that evaluators are not at the center — or even perhaps the periphery — of this discussion. Much of the concern about these issues is being generated by journalists, public administration specialists or legal specialists.  I argued in an earlier MERL Tech post that many evaluators are not very familiar with big data and data analytics and are often not very involved in these debates.  This is a hypothesis that we hope readers can help us to test.

Rick’s second point, about the infiltration of data science into evaluation is obviously very central to our discussion.  I would agree that the World Bank is one of the leaders in the promotion of data science, and the example of “nimble evaluation” may be a good example of convergence between data science and evaluation.  However, there are other examples where the Bank is on the cutting edge of promoting new information technology, but where potential opportunities to integrate technology and evaluation do not seem to have been taken up.  An example would be the Bank’s very interesting Big Data Innovation Challenge, which produced many exciting new applications of big data to development (e.g. climate smart agriculture, promoting financial inclusion, securing property rights through geospatial data, and mapping poverty through satellites). The use of data science to strengthen evaluation of the effectiveness of these interventions, however, was not mentioned as one of the objectives or outputs of this very exciting program.  

It would also be interesting to explore to what extent the World Bank Data Science competition that Rick mentions resulted in the convergence of data science and evaluation, or whether it was simply testing new applications of data science.

Finally, I would like to mention two interesting chapters in Cybersociety, Big Data and Evaluation edited by Petersson and Breul (2017, Transaction Publications).  One chapter (by Hojlund et al) reports on a survey which found that only 50% of professional evaluators claimed to be familiar with the basic concepts of big data, and only about 10% reported having used big data in an evaluation.  In another chapter, Forss and Noren reviewed a sample of Terms of Reference (TOR) for evaluations conducted by different development agencies, where they found that none of the 25 TOR specifically required the evaluators to incorporate big data into their evaluation design.

It is difficult to find hard evidence on the extent to which evaluators are familiar with, sympathetic to, or using big data into their evaluations, but the examples mentioned above show that there are important questions about the progress made towards the convergence of evaluation and big data.  

We invite readers to share their experiences both on how the two professions are starting to converge, or on the challenges that slow down, or even constrain the process of convergence.

Take our survey on Big Data and Evaluation!

Or sign up for Michael’s full-day workshop on Big Data and Evaluation in Washington, DC, on September 5th, 2018!