We have a data problem

by Emily Tomkys, ICT in Programmes at Oxfam GB

Following my presentation at MERL Tech, I have realised that it’s not only Oxfam who have a data problem; many of us have a data problem. In the humanitarian and development space, we collect a lot of data – whether via mobile phone or a paper process, the amount of data each project generates is staggering. Some of this data goes into our MIS (Management Information Systems), but all too often data remains in Excel spreadsheets on computer hard drives, unconnected cloud storage systems or Access and bespoke databases.

(Watch Emily’s MERL Tech London Lightning Talk!)

This is an issue because the majority of our programme data is analysed in silos on a survey-to-survey basis and at best on a project-to-project basis. What about when we want to analyse data between projects, between countries, or even globally? It would currently take a lot of time and resources to bring data together in usable formats. Furthermore, issues of data security, limited support for country teams, data standards and the cost of systems or support mean there is a sustainability problem that is in many people’s interests to solve.

The demand from Oxfam’s country teams is high – one of the most common requests the ICT in Programme Team receive centres around databases and data analytics. Teams want to be able to store and analyse their data easily and safely; and there is growing demand for cross border analytics. Our humanitarian managers want to see statistics on the type of feedback we receive globally. Our livelihoods team wants to be able to monitor prices at markets on a national and regional scale. So this motivated us to look for a data solution but it’s something we know we can’t take on alone.

That’s why MERL Tech represented a great opportunity to check in with other peers about potential solutions and areas for collaboration. For now, our proposal is to design a data hub where no matter what the type of data (unstructured, semi-structured or structured) and no matter how we collect the data (mobile data collection tools or on paper), our data can integrate into a database. This isn’t about creating new tools – rather it’s about focusing on the interoperability and smooth transition between tools and storage options.  We plan to set this up so data can be pulled through into a reporting layer which may have a mixture of options for quantitative analysis, qualitative analysis and GIS mapping. We also know we need to give our micro-programme data a home and put everything in one place regardless of its source or format and make it easy to pull it through for analysis.

In this way we can explore data holistically, spot trends on a wider scale and really know more about our programmes and act accordingly. Not only should this reduce our cost of analysis, we will be able to analyse our data more efficiently and effectively. Moreover, taking a holistic view of the data life cycle will enable us to do data protection by design and it will be easier to support because the process and the tools being used will be streamlined. We know that one tool does not and cannot do everything we require when we work in such vast contexts, so a challenge will be how to streamline at the same time as factoring in contextual nuances.

Sounds easy, right? We will be starting to explore our options and working on the datahub in the coming months. MERL Tech was a great start to make connections, but we are keen to hear from others about how you are approaching “the data problem” and eager to set something up which can also be used by other actors. So please add your thoughts in the comments or get in touch if you have ideas!

About Linda Raftree

Linda Raftree supports strategy, program design, research, and technology in international development initiatives. She co-founded MERLTech in 2014 and Kurante in 2013. Linda advises Girl Effect on digital safety, security and privacy and supports the organization with research and strategy. She is involved in developing responsible data policies for both Catholic Relief Services and USAID. Since 2011, she has been advising The Rockefeller Foundation’s Evaluation Office on the use of ICTs in monitoring and evaluation. Prior to becoming an independent consultant, Linda worked for 16 years with Plan International. Linda runs Technology Salons in New York City and advocates for ethical approaches for using ICTs and digital data in the humanitarian and development space. She is the co-author of several publications on technology and development, including Emerging Opportunities: Monitoring and Evaluation in a Tech-Enabled World with Michael Bamberger. Linda blogs at Wait… What? and tweets as @meowtree. See Linda’s full bio on LInkedIn.