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.