by Linda Raftree, Independent Consultant and MERL Tech organizer
Back in 2014, the humanitarian and development sectors were in the heyday of excitement over innovation and Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D). The role of ICTs specifically for monitoring, evaluation, research and learning (aka “MERL Tech“) had not been systematized (as far as I know), and it was unclear whether there actually was “a field.” I had the privilege of writing a discussion paper with Michael Bamberger to explore how and why new technologies were being tested and used in the different steps of a traditional planning, monitoring and evaluation cycle. (See graphic 1 below, from our paper).
The approaches highlighted in 2014 focused on mobile phones, for example: text messages (SMS), mobile data gathering, use of mobiles for photos and recording, mapping with specific handheld global positioning systems (GPS) devices or GPS installed in mobile phones. Promising technologies included tablets, which were only beginning to be used for M&E; “the cloud,” which enabled easier updating of software and applications; remote sensing and satellite imagery, dashboards, and online software that helped evaluators do their work more easily. Social media was also really taking off in 2014. It was seen as a potential way to monitor discussions among program participants, gather feedback from program participants, and considered an underutilized tool for greater dissemination of evaluation results and learning. Real-time data and big data and feedback loops were emerging as ways that program monitoring could be improved, and quicker adaptation could happen.
In our paper, we outlined five main challenges for the use of ICTs for M&E: selectivity bias; technology- or tool-driven M&E processes; over-reliance on digital data and remotely collected data; low institutional capacity and resistance to change; and privacy and protection. We also suggested key areas to consider when integrating ICTs into M&E: quality M&E planning, design validity; value-add (or not) of ICTs; using the right combination of tools; adapting and testing new processes before role-out; technology access and inclusion; motivation to use ICTs, privacy and protection; unintended consequences; local capacity; measuring what matters (not just what the tech allows you to measure); and effectively using and sharing M&E information and learning.
We concluded that:
- The field of ICTs in M&E is emerging and activity is happening at multiple levels and with a wide range of tools and approaches and actors.
- The field needs more documentation on the utility and impact of ICTs for M&E.
- Pressure to show impact may open up space for testing new M&E approaches.
- A number of pitfalls need to be avoided when designing an evaluation plan that involves ICTs.
- Investment in the development, application and evaluation of new M&E methods could help evaluators and organizations adapt their approaches throughout the entire program cycle, making them more flexible and adjusted to the complex environments in which development initiatives and M&E take place.
Where are we now: MERL Tech in 2019
Much has happened globally over the past five years in the wider field of technology, communications, infrastructure, and society, and these changes have influenced the MERL Tech space. Our 2014 focus on basic mobile phones, SMS, mobile surveys, mapping, and crowdsourcing might now appear quaint, considering that worldwide access to smartphones and the Internet has expanded beyond the expectations of many. We know that access is not evenly distributed, but the fact that more and more people are getting online cannot be disputed. Some MERL practitioners are using advanced artificial intelligence, machine learning, biometrics, and sentiment analysis in their work. And as smartphone and Internet use continue to grow, more data will be produced by people around the world. The way that MERL practitioners access and use data will likely continue to shift, and the composition of MERL teams and their required skillsets will also change.
The excitement over innovation and new technologies seen in 2014 could also be seen as naive, however, considering some of the negative consequences that have emerged, for example social media inspired violence (such as that in Myanmar), election and political interference through the Internet, misinformation and disinformation, and the race to the bottom through the online “gig economy.”
In this changing context, a team of MERL Tech practitioners (both enthusiasts and skeptics) embarked on a second round of research in order to try to provide an updated “State of the Field” for MERL Tech that looks at changes in the space between 2014 and 2019.
Based on MERL Tech conferences and wider conversations in the MERL Tech space, we identified three general waves of technology emergence in MERL:
- First wave: Tech for Traditional MERL: Use of technology (including mobile phones, satellites, and increasingly sophisticated data bases) to do ‘what we’ve always done,’ with a focus on digital data collection and management. For these uses of “MERL Tech” there is a growing evidence base.
- Second wave: Big Data. Exploration of big data and data science for MERL purposes. While plenty has been written about big data for other sectors, the literature on the use of big data and data science for MERL is somewhat limited, and it is more focused on potential than actual use.
- Third wave: Emerging approaches. Technologies and approaches that generate new sources and forms of data; offer different modalities of data collection; provide ways to store and organize data, and provide new techniques for data processing and analysis. The potential of these has been explored, but there seems to be little evidence base to be found on their actual use for MERL.
We’ll be doing a few sessions at the American Evaluation Association conference this week to share what we’ve been finding in our research. Please join us if you’ll be attending the conference!
Thursday, Nov 14, 2.45-3.30pm: Room CC101D
- Big Data and Evaluation: The Current State and a Vision for the Future, with Michael Bamberger, Kecia Bertermann, Alexandra Robinson and Linda Raftree;
Friday, Nov 15, 3.30-4.15pm: Room CC101D
- The Evolving Future of Integrating Technology into Evaluation, with Nathan Balasubramanian, Zach Tilton, Matilde Figuracion, and Paul Lorton Jr
Saturday, Nov 16, 10.15-11am. Room CC200DE
- Presidential Strand: What’s happening with Tech in Evaluation? A state-of-the-field baseline to launch discussions about the future of evaluation, with Linda Raftree, Michael Harnar, Zach Tilton, Michael Bamberger, Kerry Bruce, and other authors of our State of the Field papers.