On September 6, we wrapped up three days of learning, reflecting, debating and sharing at MERL Tech DC. The conference kicked off with four pre-workshops on September 4: Big Data and Evaluation; Text Analytics; Spatial Statistics and Responsible Data. Then, on September 5-6, we had our regular two-day conference, including opening talks from Tariq Khokhar, The Rockefeller Foundation; and Yvonne MacPherson, BBC Media Action; one-hour sessions, two-hour sessions, lightning talks, a dashboard contest, a plenary session and two happy hour events.
This year’s theme was “The State of the Field” of MERL Tech and we aimed to explore what we as a field know about our work and what gaps remain in the evidence base. Conference strands included: Tech and Traditional MERL; Data, Data, Data; Emerging Approaches; and The Future of MERL.
In addition to learning and sharing, one of our main goals at MERL Tech is to create community. “I didn’t know there were other people working on the same thing as I am!” and “This MERL Tech conference is like therapy!” were some of the things we heard on Friday night as we closed down.
Stay tuned for blog posts about sessions and overall impressions, as well as our conference report once feedback surveys are in!
By Ambika Samarthya-Howard, Head of Communications at Praekelt.org. This post also appears on the Praekelt.org blog.
Attending conferences often reminds me of dating: you put your best foot forward and do yourself up, and hide the rest for a later time. I always found it refreshing when people openly put their cards on the table.
I think that’s why I especially respected and enjoyed my experience at MERL Tech in DC last week. One of the first sessions I went to was a World Cafe style break out exploring how to be inclusive in M&E tech in the field. The organisations, like Global Giving and Keystone, posed hard questions about community involvement in data collection at scale, and how to get people less familiar or with less access to technology involved in the process. They didn’t have any of the answers. They wanted to learn from us.
This was followed by lightning talks after lunch where organisations gave short talks. One organisation spoke very openly about how much money and time they were wasting on their data collection technologies. Another organisation confessed their lack of structure and organisation, and talked about collaborating with organisations like DataKind to make sense of their data. Anahi Ayala Iacucci from Internews did a presentation on the pitfalls and realities of M&E: “we all skew the results in order to get the next round of funding.” She fondly asked us to work together so we could “stop farting in the wind”. D-Tree International spoke about a trial around transport vouchers for pregnant women in Zanzibar, and how the control group that did not receive any funding actually did better. They had to stop funding the vouchers.
The second day I attended an entire session where we looked at existing M&E reports available online to critique their deficiencies and identify where the field was lacking in knowledge dissemination. As a Communications person, looking at the write-ups of the data ironically gave me instant insight into ways forward and where gaps could be filled — which I believe is exactly what the speakers of the session intended. When you can so clearly see why and how things aren’t working, it actually inspires a different approach and way of working.
I was thoroughly impressed with the way people shared at MERL Tech. When you see an organisation able to talk so boldly about its learning curves or gaps, you respect their work, growth, and learnings. And that is essentially the entire purpose of a conference.
Back to dating… and partnerships. Sooner or later, if the relationship works out, your partner is going to see you in the a.m. for who you really are. Why not cut to the chase, and go in with your natural look? Then you can take the time to really do any of the hard work together, on the same footing.
How can we assess progress on a second-generation way of working in the transparency, accountability and participation (TAP) field? Monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning (MERL) maturity models can provide some inspiration. The 2017 MERL Tech conference in Washington, DC was a two-day bonanza of lightening talks, plenary sessions, and hands-on workshops among participants who use technology for MERL.
Here are key conference takeaways from two MEL practitioners in the TAP field.
1. Making open data useful
Several MERL Tech sessions resonated deeply with the TAP field’s efforts to transition from fighting for transparent and open data towards linking open data to accountability and governance outcomes. Development Gateway and InterAction drew on findings from “Avoiding Data Graveyards” as we explored progress and challenges for International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) data use cases. While transparency is an important value, what is gained (or lost) in data use for collaboration when there are many different potential data consumers?
And finally, as TAP practitioners are keenly aware, power and politics can overshadow evidence in decision making. Another Development Gateway presentation reminded us that it is important to work with data producers and users to identify decisions that are (or can be) data-driven, and to recognize when other factors are driving decisions. (The incentives to supply open data is whole other can of worms!)
Drawing on our second-generation TAP approach, more work is needed for the TAP and MERL fields to move from “open data everywhere, all of the time” to planning for, and encouraging more effective data use.
2. Tech for MERL for improved policy, practice, and outcomes
Among our favorite moments at MERL Tech was when Dobility Founder and CEO Christopher Robert remarked that “the most interesting innovations at MERL Tech aren’t the new, cutting-edge technology developments, but generic technology applied in innovative ways.” Unsurprising for a tech company focused on using affordable technology to enable quality data collection for social impact, but a refreshing reminder amidst the talk of ‘AI’, ‘chatbots’, and ‘blockchains’ for development coursing through the conference.
We are undoubtedly on the precipice of revolutionary technological advancements that can be readily (and maybe even affordably) deployed to solve complex global challenges, but they will still be tools and not solutions.
3. Balancing inclusion and participation with efficiency and accuracy
We explored a constant conundrum for MERL: how to balance inclusion and participation with efficiency and accuracy. Girl Effect and Praekelt Foundation took “mixed methods” research to another level, combining online and offline efforts to understand user needs of adolescent girls and to support user-developed digital media content. Their iterative process showcased an effective way to integrate tech into the balancing act of inclusive – and holistic – design, paired with real-time data use.
This session on technology in citizen generated data brought to light two case studies of how tech can both help and hinder this balancing act. The World Café discussions underscored the importance of planning for – and recognizing the constraints on – feedback loops. And provided us a helpful reminder that MERL and tech professionals are often considering different “end users” in their design work!
So, which is it – balancing act or zero-sum game between inclusion and efficiency? The MERL community has long applied participatory methods. And tech solutions abound that can help with efficiency, accuracy, and inclusion. Indeed, the second-generation TAP focus on learning and collaboration is grounded in effective data use – but there are many potential “end users” to consider. These principles and practices can force uncomfortable compromises – particularly in the face of finite resources and limited data availability – but they are not at odds with each other. Perhaps the MERL and TAP communities can draw lessons from each other in striking the right balance.
4. Tech sees no development sector silos
One of the things that makes MERL Tech such an exciting conference, is the deliberate mixing of tech nerds with MERL nerds. It’s pretty unique in its dual targeting of both types of professionals who share a common purpose of social impact (where as conferences like ICT4D cast a wider net looking at application of technology to broader development issues). And, though we MERL professionals like to think of design and iteration as squarely within our wheelhouse, being in a room full of tech experts can quickly remind you that our adaptation game has a lot of room to grow. We talk about user-centered design in TAP, but when the tech crowd was asked in plenary “would you even think of designing software or an app without knowing who was going to use it?” they responded with a loud and exuberant laugh.
Tech has long employed systematic approaches to user-centered design, prototyping, iteration, and adaptation, all of which can offer compelling lessons to guide MERL practices and methods. Though we know Context is King, it is exhilarating to know that the tech specialists assembled at the conference work across traditional silos of development work (from health to corruption, and everything in between). End users are, of course, crucial to the final product but the life cycle process and steps follow a regular pattern, regardless of the topic area or users.
The second-generation wave in TAP similarly moved away from project-specific, fragmented, or siloed planning and learning towards a focus on collective approaches and long-term, more organic engagement.
American Evaluation Association President, Kathy Newcomer, quipped that maybe an ‘Academy Awards for Adaptation’ could inspire better informed and more adept evolutions to strategy as circumstances and context shift around us. Adding to this, and borrowing from the tech community, we wonder where we can build more room to beta test, follow real demand, and fail fast. Are we looking towards other sectors and industries enough or continuing to reinvent the wheel?
Alison left thinking:
Concepts and practices are colliding across the overlapping MERL, tech, and TAP worlds! In leading the Transparency and Accountability Initiative’s learning strategy, and supporting our work on data use for accountability, I often find myself toggling between different meanings of ‘data’, ‘data users’, and tech applications that can enable both of these themes in our strategy. These worlds don’t have to be compatible all the time, and concepts don’t have to compute immediately (I am personally still working out hypothetical blockchain applications for my MERL work!). But this collision of worlds is a helpful reminder that there are many perspectives to draw from in tackling accountable governance outcomes.
Maturity models come in all shapes and sizes, as we saw in the creative depictions created at MERL Tech that included, steps, arrows, paths, circles, cycles, and carrots! And the transparency and accountability field is collectively pursuing a next generation of more effective practice that will take unique turns for different accountability actors and outcomes. Regardless of what our organizational or programmatic models look like, MERL Tech reminded me that champions of continuous improvement are needed at all stages of the model – in MERL, in tech for development, and in the TAP field.
Megan left thinking:
That I am beginning to feel like I’m a Dr. Seuss book. We talked ‘big data’, ‘small data’, ‘lean data’, and ‘thick data’. Such jargon-filled conversations can be useful for communicating complex concepts simply with others. Ah, but this is also the problem. This shorthand glosses over the nuances that explain what we actually mean. Jargon is also exclusive—it clearly defines the limits of your community and makes it difficult for newcomers. In TAP, I can’t help but see missed opportunities for connecting our work to other development sectors. How can health outcomes improve without holding governments and service providers accountable for delivering quality healthcare? How can smallholder farmers expect better prices without governments budgeting for and building better roads? Jargon is helpful until it divides us up. We have collective, global problems and we need to figure out how to talk to each other if we’re going to solve them.
In general, I’m observing a trend towards organic, participatory, and inclusive processes—in MERL, in TAP, and across the board in development and governance work. This is, almost universally speaking, a good thing. In MERL, a lot of this movement is a backlash to randomistas and imposing The RCT Gold Standard to social impact work. And, while I confess to being overjoyed that the “RCT-or-bust” mindset is fading out, I can’t help but think we’re on a slippery slope. We need scientific rigor, validation, and objective evidence. There has to be a line between ‘asking some good questions’ and ‘conducting an evaluation’. Collectively, we are working to eradicate unjust systems and eliminate poverty, and these issues require not just our best efforts and intentions, but workable solutions. Listen to Freakonomic’s recent podcast When Helping Hurts and commit with me to find ways to keep participatory and inclusive evaluation techniques rigorous and scientific, too.