Let me start with a fundamental disclaimer: I am not a techy. I am a communications specialist with a print journalism background and a commitment to the humanitarian sector. Of course I love my 'smart' phone, I download apps, I regularly tweet, I use Facebook to stay connected to friends, I stream music with Pandora, and I even backup my data on ’cloud.’ But yes, that is pretty much it. To put it mildly, I barely made it into the 21st century.
So when I decided to attend the M&E Tech Conference sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and hosted by FHI360 in Washington DC on 25 and 26 September, I was more than slightly apprehensive. Here I was, consciously putting myself in the midst of a crowd that is as comfortable with Excel spreadsheets and log frames as I am with newspapers (the printed ones) and Scrabble.
Not to mention the rest of the participants, those whom I feared most, the digitally savvy, tech smart, cutting edge innovators whose vocabulary sounds more like a series of algorithms than an actual language to me. Terms like Big Data, Open Source, GIS mapping, Crowdsourcing and Dashboards were - – until my two-day boot camp – plainly abstract, fancy, and somewhat pretentious.
But, contrary to my own expectations, I found the event to be dynamic and stimulating. And, to my great relief, I was not entirely ’lost in translation’. The blend of people with a quantitative and science background mixed with social scientists, project managers and designers, resulted in a series of rich discussion on a range of creative approaches to monitoring progress, assessing programme impact and engaging local populations.
Although most participants agreed that, ’throwing data at a problem does not actually help’, everyone recognized the value of leveraging technology to improve data collection, establish feedback mechanisms, and increase the level of participation of people targeted by development and relief programmes. It is only by combining ICT with more traditional forms of information gathering tools (face-to-face surveys, focus groups, in-depth interviews etc.), participants said, that decision makers can make informed assessments about a programme.
’Nowadays we can collect more data than ever before. It also cheaper and faster to do so,’ said Maliha Khan, M&E expert with Oxfam America, during the conference opening session. ‘We can reach people that we could not get to before, ask their opinions and gage their perceptions about an issue. But we must remember that tools are just tools. They do not solve everything. How you analyse vast amounts of data and what you do with it is where the future lies.’
Kenneth Chomitz, of the World Bank, compared the advent of ICT in the M&E field to the introduction of steam engines in factories during the industrial revolution. It is beyond revolutionary, he said, but one of the challenges he foresees is organisational resistance to change. To that point, said Kerry Bruce of Pact, ’no one gets fired for doing old fashioned M&E but if you try something new you might quickly be shown the door.’
One of the most interesting breakaway sessions focused on design thinking in creating and adapting the evaluation processes. Robert Fabricant, a ‘product designer’ turned development consultant by profession and now working for the firm Dalberg, spoke alongside Vanessa Corlazzoli, Head of M&E with Search for Common Ground, a peacebuilding organisation operational in conflict and fragile countries. The odd pair turned out to be a hit. What peacebuilding and design thinking have in common, they said, is a systemic approach to problems and a focus on end-users. In both disciplines, the creative process is critical for opening up spaces for dialogue. And technology, if human-centred, can facilitate information flows and engage users as well as donors in deeper conversations.
During the M&E tech conference, a brand new discussion paper entitled Emerging New Opportunities: Monitoring and Evaluation in a Tech-Enabled World was launched. The paper addresses many of the core issues that were debated among participants. One of the paper’s authors, Michael Bamberger, is the co-author of the book Real World Evaluation, a must have resource that provides a reality check for all M&E practitioners. And yes, even he recognises the potential role of technology in fostering development.
But development is doomed to fail without political and economic stability. The PeaceTech Summit: Engineering Durable Peace was another all-day event held on Friday September 19 and hosted by the US Institute for Peace (USIP), which focused on the role of technology to promote peace and mitigate conflict.
Kara Andrade, a member of the Humanitarian Communication and Media Roster managed by Internews on behalf of the CDAC Network, as well as Anahi Ayala Iannacucci, Senior Innovation Advisor for Internews, both presented projects where technology has been critical for increasing communication and the engagement of local populations whether in the midst of conflict or in societies emerging from it.
In a rapid-fire presentation sequence, Andrade spoke about Habla Centro, a citizen journalism portal that she co-founded several years ago to increase debate among ordinary Latin American citizens on topics related to human rights, governance, and social justice. Iannacucci’s presentation on White Spaces, Third Places and the Neutrality of Technology focused on the Humanitarian Information Service recently launched by Internews in West Bank Gaza, and on the process of establishing two-way communication systems between humanitarian responders and affected populations.
In both of these presentations – as well as in Peace Tech Syria, the Social Impact Lab, SMEX Internet Governance and Sisi ni Amani (SMS Messaging for Peace) to name a few others that presented their work that same day– mobile technology and the creative use of the Internet are combined with other tools to establish early warning systems, promote open dialogue, transform conflict, foster a culture of peace, and explain how perpetrators are brought to justice. Using technology to circumvent government crackdown on access to information was another popular topic.
There is no doubt that ICT has a role to play in peacebuilding, development and relief work. How best to harness it without compromising the privacy of the most vulnerable users or over relying on data to interpret the world are among the challenges that lie ahead of us.
A full immersion in this up-and-coming space was truly inspirational because the sky is the limit. However it is also imperative to remain grounded. Otherwise, the tech revolution will just remain a ’tech hype‘ that creates further distance from local communities.