Paring the Edges of Information and Communication Technologies

June 28, 2013 | Madeeha Ansari

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Data can be intimidating. In today’s world, information and communication technologies (ICTs) represent the tools to amass information in multiple forms – from numerical, to narrative, to visual.

In development-speak, ICT has particularly exciting implications for increasing transparency, empowering individuals and “closing the feedback loop“. The increasing penetration of technology in the developing world means that information can now be gathered or shared faster than ever before, on an unprecedented scale. It also means that there is risk of a glut of information, which is difficult to process and present in meaningful ways.

Recently, the Listening Program has been conducting research on the effectiveness of “Beneficiary Feedback Mechanisms”, with special attention to ICT-based initiatives. Rather than focusing on aspirational literature, we’re looking to find real lessons regarding what works, what doesn’t, and what can be done better.

One of the main takeaways from this is that clarity of objectives is of the essence, at each stage of collecting and processing information. From the very onset, at the design stage, it helps to be considering the kind of information that would be useful for ongoing monitoring, evaluations and to informing the decision-making process—as well as who has access to the information and what they do with it.  Information is power, and as we work to change the aid paradigm, ensuring that local people have access to and can use information is critical to ensuring they can play an active role in the decisions affecting their lives.

Managing Change at Shiree

The “Change Management System” being developed by Shiree Bangladesh represents an interesting approach towards collecting and handling data. In particular, the “Monthly Snapshots” component of the CMS aims to give a bird’s eye view of trends across the organization itself, as well as for each project partner.

The process places mobile phone technology in the hands of staff members, to conduct household-level surveys every month. In a conversation with Vishal Gadhavi, Associate Programme Manager, he shared how the surveys were piloted and modified over time, to make them short and simple enough to evoke intuitive answers. Technology has enabled a voice recording option, to preserve qualitative responses to longer questions. If, for instance, there has been a “good event” in a person’s life over the course of a month, Shiree can then verify how far the positive change can be attributed to project activities.

Shiree Visualization Dashboard

The collated information is processed to provide different kinds of “snapshots”, through a recently launched visualization dashboard.

This illustrates trends across specific indicators for change – like income – as well as across different categories of households. By identifying outliers as well as trends for specific localities, program design can be tweaked to improve outcomes.

It’s heartening to see how many development organizations are making use of a range of ICT tools to gather and amplify the voices of those at the receiving end of aid. However, one thing that was reinforced during the course of our research was that these tools must be wielded differently in unique contexts.

The real impact of employing exciting, cutting edge technology still depends on the responsiveness of organizational staff and systems, and on the human connection they maintain with people. As for data, its utility really depends on how it is processed and presented, and ultimately on how it feeds into processes beyond the virtual world.

About the author(s)

Madeeha Ansari is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, working with the Listening Program over the summer. Prior to this, she has worked on capacity building and community-based education initiatives in Pakistan.


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