While organisations have gradually introduced technology to the way they perform monitoring and evaluation, there has been a rapid spike in uptake in the past couple of months, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. New technology adoption spans the entire data value chain, from collection and collation to storage and analysis. There is also increased demand for tracking and real-time reporting tools such as Google Apps, Salesforce and Mobenzi.

More organisations are now using a range of dashboards, from rudimentary to more advanced ones. The use of geolocation and social media insights for decision-making has also increased. At every point, there has been a new technology introduced. This speaks to the relevance of data science and the evolution of the field.

In a discussion held as part of the Trialogue Business in Society Virtual Conference 2020, moderated by Trialogue’s Zulaikha Brey, an expert panel explored the ways in which technology can enhance Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning (MERL) in the development sector.

Trends in MERL Tech

MERL Tech is an organisation that facilitates learning and the sharing of experiences and challenges with the use of MERL technologies in the social impact, humanitarian, and international development fields. MERL Tech recently published a report on the use of technology in the field of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) between 2014 and 2019, shedding light on current trends and showing there are a number of pockets of change. The report shares a perspective on what these pockets of change are, referring to them as the three waves of innovation in the MERL Tech space. The first wave, traditional MERL tech, is characterised by the use of mobile applications for data collection and gathering. The second and third wave feature the utilisation of big data and emerging approaches such as predictive analysis for machine learning.

Jerusha Govender, a data creative and M&E expert, argued that South Africa is still in the first wave of trying to figure out how to scale and mainstream traditional M&E. “In some contexts, we are not even fully into the first wave,” she said. This creates huge opportunities for organisations to begin thinking about how to adopt tech, and eventually move into the second and third waves of MERL tech.

An example of an organisation that has moved beyond the first wave of MERL tech is the New Leaders Foundation. The non-profit focuses on strengthening the capacity and efficiency of the education system to manage data to improve interventions in schools. Its flagship programme, the Data Driven Districts (DDD) programme, assists the Department of Basic Education to collect data at source (that is, schools), store data in one place, and then visualise it in such a way that it can be aggregated and shared across multiple stakeholders at school, circuit, district and provincial level.

The past seven years of implementing the DDD programme show how tech can improve data collection. “We’ve seen that our biggest success has been getting all the schools we work with in the eight provinces we operate in to get their learner data (marks, learner attendance, teacher attendance and so on) in one place that is stored and hosted in the cloud, visualised on a dashboard, and can then be interacted with,” said Giles Gillett, managing director of New Leaders Foundation. This speaks to efficiency, speed and time. It is going to become easier for organisations to access such efficiencies.

Monitoring and evaluation through mobile technology
Over the past decade, Kenya has emerged as a hotbed of innovation in mobile technology. This has triggered a technological revolution, changed the socio-economic landscape, and accelerated the use of digital solutions. Mobile technology provides a world of opportunity by improving access to last-mile consumers and beneficiaries. Mobile technology also facilitates the collection of reliable and accurate data.

60 Decibels is an end-to-end survey and insights company focused on low-income consumers. The company believes form follows function. Tech solutions do not need to be complicated or expensive to be effective. They should instead be geared towards the needs and objectives of the organisation. “Often in MERL, organisations tend to go for big expensive solutions first, at the expense of organic approaches where you solve smaller problems first and grow into the bigger ones with time,” said Harleen Thati, a manager in the Nairobi office of 60 Decibels.

SMS surveys are an example of an effective solution. A survey can be as simple as three or four questions sent directly to end users. This approach delivers a number of advantages, including cutting the cost of travel and ensuring speed and accuracy. Language barriers can also be addressed through existing software such as Engage Spark, which has the capability to translate SMS text into various languages.

The more complex end of the spectrum is trying to understand and draw meaning out of qualitative data. Organisations can use mobile tech to conduct short surveys, but how do they then draw insights out of large amounts of qualitative data?

60 Decibels has developed a solution to this challenge. Through its proprietary Lean Data methodology, the company turns customer voices into high-value insights for the organisations it works with. This helps organisations improve their products (and supports funders in direct funding to highest impact investees) as well as create social impact benchmarks at sectoral and societal level. The Lean Data methodology also provides insights on how organisations are performing relative to their peers.

How do we prepare more organisations to move into the second and third waves of MERL tech?

While necessity has forced organisations to incorporate technology and change the way they do things, a number of constraints still exist, including access to funding and capacity constraints. In addition, contextual realities such as the digital divide, which affects access to technology and data, as well as the capacity to actually use digital solutions, continues to create barriers. Cross-sectoral collaboration will be important in addressing these challenges.

Technology is moving faster and platforms are becoming more efficient as Google and Microsoft lead the way in developing new products and services. There is however a challenge around change management. Once again, this requires one-on-one engagement with both government and the development sector. It is therefore important for organisations to articulate the value they derive from their M&E practice and embed sound change management practices into their operations.

“Most NGOs tend to be compliant and have a strong M&E culture. Where there is strong culture, it is easier to move into the tech side of things and manage the change management process,” said Govender.

A final point was made on how the uptake of data can be supported by having the right tools in place for communication. This means thinking about the ways in which data can be packaged for dissemination using tools such as dashboards and infographics. This will enable organisations to meet customers, beneficiaries or end users where they are, in a way that is least intrusive and most effective.

Written by Connie Huma