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MERL Tech Jozi: Highlights, Takeaways and To Dos

Last week 100 people gathered at Jozihub for MERL Tech Jozi — two days of sharing, learning and exploring what’s happening at the intersection of Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning (MERL) and Tech.

This was our first MERL Tech event outside of Washington DC, New York or London, and it was really exciting to learn about the work that is happening in South Africa and nearby countries. The conference vibe was energetic, buzzy and friendly, with lots of opportunities to meet people and discuss this area of work.

Participants spanned backgrounds and types of institutions – one of the things that makes MERL Tech unique! Much of what we aim to do is to bridge gaps and encourage people from different approaches to talk to each other and learn from each other, and MERL Tech Jozi provided plenty of opportunity for that.

Sessions covered a range of topics, from practical, hands-on workshops on Excel, responsible data, and data visualization, to experience sharing on data quality, offline data capture, video measurement, and social network analysis, to big picture discussions on the ICT ecosystem, the future of evaluation, the fourth industrial revolution, and the need to enhance evaluator competencies when it comes to digital tools and new approaches.

Demo tables gave participants a chance to see what tools are out there and to chat with developers about their specific needs. Lightning Talks offered a glimpse into new approaches and reflections on the importance of designing with users and understanding context in which these new approaches are utilized. And at the evening “Fail Fest” we heard about evaluation failures, challenges using mobile technology for evaluation, and sustainable tool selection.

Access the MERL Tech Jozi agenda with presentations here or all the presentations here.

3 Takeaways

One key take-away for me was that there’s a gap between the ‘new school’ of younger, more tech savvy MERL Practitioners and the more established, older evaluation community. Some familiar tensions were present between those with years of experience in MERL and less expertise in tech and those who are newer to the MERL side yet highly proficient in tech-enabled approaches. The number of people who identify as having skills that span both areas is growing and will continue to do so.

It’s going to be important to continue to learn from one another and work together to bring our MERL work to the next level, both in terms of how we form MERL teams with the necessary expertise internally and how we engage with each other and interact as a whole sector. As one participant put it, we are not going find all these magical skills in one person — the “MERL Tech Unicorn” so we need to be cognizant of how we form teams that have the right variety of skills and experiences, including data management and data science where necessary.

It is critical that we all have a better understanding of the wider impacts of technologies, beyond our projects, programs, platforms and evaluations. If we don’t have a strong grip on how technology is affecting wider society, how will we understand how social change happens in increasingly digital contexts? How will we negotiate data privacy? How will we wrestle with corporate data use and the potential for government surveillance? If evaluator understanding of technology and the information society is low, how will evaluators offer relevant and meaningful insights? How do diversity, inclusion and bias manifest themselves in a tech-enabled world and in tech-enabled MERL and what do evaluators need to know about that in order to ensure representation? How do we understand data in its newer forms and manifestations? How do we ensure ethical and sound approaches? We need all the various sectors who form part of the MERL Tech community work together to come to a better understanding of both the tangible and intangible impacts of technology in development work, evaluation, and wider society.

A second key takeaway is that we need to do a better job of documenting and evaluating the use of technology in development and in MERL (e.g., the MERL of ICT4D and MERL of tech-enabled MERL). I learned so much from the practical presentations and experience sharing during MERL Tech Jozi. In many cases, the challenges and learning were very similar across projects and efforts.  We need to find better ways of ensuring that this kind of learning is found, accessed, and that it is put into practice when creating new initiatives. We need to also understand more about the power dynamics, negative incentives and other barriers that prevent us from using what we know.

As “MERL Tech”, we are planning to pull some resources and learning together over the next year or two, to trace the shifts in the space over the past 5 years, and to highlight some of the trends we are seeing for the future. (Please get in touch with me if you’d like to participate in this “MERL of MERL Tech” research with a case study, an academic paper, other related research, or as a key informant!)

A third takeaway, as highlighted by Victor Naidu from the South African Monitoring and Evaluation Association (SAMEA), is that we need to focus on developing the competencies that evaluators require for the near future. And we need to think about how the tech sector can better serve the MERL community. SAMEA has created a set of draft competencies for evaluators, but these are missing digital competencies. SAMEA would love your comments and thoughts on what digital competencies evaluators require. They would also like to see you as part of their community and at their next event! (More info on joining SAMEA).

What digital competencies should be added to this list of evaluator competencies? Please add your suggestions and comments here on the google doc.

MERL Tech will be collaborating more closely with SAMEA to include a “MERL Tech Track” at SAMEA’s 2019 conference, and we hope to be back at JoziHub again in 2020 with MERL Tech Jozi as its own separate event.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter or sign up (in the side bar) to receive MERL Tech news if you’d like to stay in the loop! And thanks to all our sponsors – Genesis Analytics, Praekelt, The Digital Impact Alliance  (DIAL) and JoziHub!

MERL Tech DC is coming up on September 6-7, with pre-workshops on September 5 on Big Data and Evaluation and Blockchain and MERL! Register here.