You can’t have Aid…without AI: How artificial intelligence may reshape M&E

by Jacob Korenblum, CEO of Souktel Digital Solutions

Photo: wikipedia.org/

Potential—And Risk

The rapid growth of Artificial Intelligence—computers behaving like humans, and performing tasks which people usually carry out—promises to transform everything from car travel to personal finance. But how will it affect the equally vital field of M&E? As evaluators, most of us hate paper-based data collection—and we know that automation can help us process data more efficiently. At the same time, we’re afraid to remove the human element from monitoring and evaluation: What if the machines screw up?

Over the past year, Souktel has worked on three areas of AI-related M&E, to determine where new technology can best support project appraisals. Here are our key takeaways on what works, what doesn’t, and what might be possible down the road.

Natural Language Processing

For anyone who’s sifted through thousands of Excel entries, natural language processing sounds like a silver bullet: This application of AI interprets text responses rapidly, often matching them against existing data sets to find trends. No need for humans to review each entry by hand! But currently, it has two main limitations: First, natural language processing works best for sentences with simple syntax. Throw in more complex phrases, or longer text strings, and the power of AI to grasp open-ended responses goes downhill. Second, natural language processing only works for a limited number of (mostly European) languages—at least for now. English and Spanish AI applications? Yes. Chichewa or Pashto M&E bots? Not yet. Given these constraints, we’ve found that AI apps are strongest at interpreting basic misspelled answer text during mobile data collection campaigns (in languages like English or French). They’re less good at categorizing open-ended responses by qualitative category (positive, negative, neutral). Yet despite these limitations, AI can still help evaluators save time.

Object Differentiation

AI does a decent job of telling objects apart; we’ve leveraged this to build mobile applications which track supply delivery more quickly & cheaply. If a field staff member submits a photo of syringes and a photo of bandages from their mobile, we don’t need a human to check “syringes” and “bandages” off a list of delivered items. The AI-based app will do that automatically—saving huge amounts of time and expense, especially during crisis events. Still, there are limitations here too: While AI apps can distinguish between a needle and a BandAid, they can’t yet tell us whether the needle is broken, or whether the BandAid is the exact same one we shipped. These constraints need to be considered carefully when using AI for inventory monitoring.

Comparative Facial Recognition

This may be the most exciting—and controversial—application of AI. The potential is huge: “Qualitative evaluation” takes on a whole new meaning when facial expressions can be captured by cameras on mobile devices. On a more basic level, we’ve been focusing on solutions for better attendance tracking: AI is fairly good at determining whether the people in a photo at Time A are the same people in a photo at Time B. Snap a group pic at the end of each community meeting or training, and you can track longitudinal participation automatically. Take a photo of a larger crowd, and you can rapidly estimate the number of attendees at an event.

However, AI applications in this field have been notoriously bad at recognizing diversity—possibly because they draw on databases of existing images, and most of those images contain…white men. New MIT research has suggested that “since a majority of the photos used to train [AI applications] contain few minorities, [they] often have trouble picking out those minority faces”. For the communities where many of us work (and come from), that’s a major problem.

Do’s and Don’ts

So, how should M&E experts navigate this imperfect world? Our work has yielded a few “quick wins”—areas where Artificial Intelligence can definitely make our lives easier: Tagging and sorting quantitative data (or basic open-ended text), simple differentiation between images and objects, and broad-based identification of people and groups. These applications, by themselves, can be game-changers for our work as evaluators—despite their drawbacks. And as AI keeps evolving, its relevance to M&E will likely grow as well. We may never reach the era of robot focus group facilitators—but if robo-assistants help us process our focus group data more quickly, we won’t be complaining.

3 thoughts on “You can’t have Aid…without AI: How artificial intelligence may reshape M&E

  1. Regarding facial recognition, it would not be surprising to find more states following Illinois’ example of a Biometric Information Privacy Act. This will make it even more incumbent on us to secure data and offer clear and understandable disclosure of how we intend to use it.

    1. Totally agree – the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) considers biometrics in the category of “special” meaning it requires greater security and privacy and consent. I think the aid/development/M&E sectors need to really get up to speed on this!

  2. Plugging AI applications into the right data streams can help mitigate risks. However, relative to Humanitarian AI and M&E, before discussing risks it would be constructive to focus on the work at hand needed first to plug artificial intelligent applications into high quality data streams like IATI to see what they can do and where caution is needed.

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