There is no longer any doubt that the explosion of available data and the speed with which it can be provisioned will revolutionize the way global challenges are solved. This trend has generated questions and speculation about how technology can support the generation of timely, high-quality data and evidence of social impact and how this, in turn, might give voice to poor and marginalized groups. While there is ample excitement and energy around these developments, challenges remain. In this spotlight on tech-enabled M&E, we explore how much progress has actually been made and where work remains.
Taking stock of tech-enabled M&E
Several recent publications (Evaluation, Innovations for Poverty Action, Institute of Development Studies) from highly credible institutions, including a report by United Nations Global Pulse have explored the advances that have been made in the world of tech-enabled monitoring and evaluation (M&E). Today, it is possible to monitor migration resulting from conflict, drought, or poverty in real-time through the analysis of social media postings and phone records. It is also possible to strengthen the quality of survey research through, for example, built-in consistency checks and controls on question sequencing, or the use of GPS to ensure the right household is visited. New tech-enabled M&E tools also make it easier to economically increase sample size, thereby improving the statistical power of a ‘test.’
Tech-enabled M&E holds great promise, but important concerns and challenges remain.
Despite the great potential and increase in the availability of technology, barriers remain that have slowed or constrained the widespread application of tech solutions for M&E. For example, many underestimate the amount of time, money, expertise, and political will required for successfully rolling-out tech-solutions. And, among development organizations that are exploring new technologies for data collection and analysis, this exploration often takes place outside of M&E departments – usually in organizations’ research, planning, and operational functions. The implication of this is that organizations may be missing a crucial opportunity to strengthen how they track and measure their performance and impact.
A second critical consideration relates to technology’s ability to empower low income and vulnerable communities.
The ways in which technology can empower vulnerable groups is explored in a recent journal article. The article posits that technology can give people greater control over the creation and use of the data that affects their lives, and new channels to make their views heard by decision-makers. For example, UNICEF’s “U-Report” is a messaging tool that allows people to confidentially respond to polls or report sensitive issues from anywhere in the world.
But deploying technology to collect data from and about communities is not without risks and challenges. Socially-conscious practitioners looking to deploy technology to support their M&E efforts should be mindful about asymmetrical power relations and resources between individuals whose data is being collected, and those collecting the data. This dynamic can cause – even inadvertently – data collection exercises to be extractive rather than empowering.
For those using technology to give voice to people and communities, it’s critical to remember that reaching the most marginalized through technology can sometimes be impossible. Though technology can significantly improve the sample size of a study, the evidence currently shows that younger, male, better-off, urban populations tend to have greater access to technology, and so are likely to be over-represented in tech-enabled data collection. The implication of this is that vulnerable groups such as women, elderly people, and those from rural communities or living in poverty are less, not more, likely to have their voices and lived experiences captured through tech-enabled data collection exercises.
Embracing tech-enabled M&E as a new norm
Technology has and will continue to revolutionize the way that data and information are collected, analyzed, and shared. There are promising signs that international development organizations are beginning to adapt to an increasingly tech-enabled world – but advancements are still far from mainstream, particularly when it comes to M&E. Organizations committed to social change should explore how to meaningfully integrate technology to support their M&E practice. This, however, must be approached in a way that is responsible, taking into account both the opportunities and challenges raised above. Done well, tech-enabled M&E can increase the rigor, timeliness, and utility of data and evidence on projects and programs and, support sound, evidence-based decision-making, and ultimately, contribute to improving the impact of interventions on people’s lives.