10 Tips on Using New ICTs for Qualitative Monitoring and Evaluation

Published on: Oct 22 2012 by Linda Raftree

At the October Technology Salon NYC, we focused on ways that ICTs can be used for qualitative monitoring and evaluation (M&E) efforts that aim to listen better to those who are participating in development programs. Our lead discussants were: John Hecklinger, Global Giving; Ian Thorpe, UNDOC and Beyond 2015 Campaign; and Emily Jacobi, Digital Democracy. This salon was the final in a series of three on using new technologies in M&E work (see below for previous two).

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Global Giving shared experiences from their story-telling project which has collected tens of thousands of short narratives from community members about when an individual or organization tried to change something in their community. The collected stories are analyzed using Sensemaker to find patterns in the data with the aim of improving NGO work. (For more on Global Giving’s process see this document.)

The United Nations’ Beyond 2015 Campaign aims to spur a global conversation on the post-MDG development agenda. The campaign is conducting outreach to people and organizations to encourage them to participate in the discussion; offering a web platform (www.worldwewant2015.org) where the global conversation is taking place; and working to get offline voices into the conversation. A challenge will be synthesizing and making sense of all of the information coming in via all sorts of media channels and being accountable now and in future to those who participate in the process.

Digital Democracy works on digital literacy and human rights, and makes an effort to integrate qualitative monitoring and evaluation into their program work stream. They use photography, film and other media that transcend the language and literacy barriers. Using these kinds of media helps participants express opinions on issues that need addressing and builds trust. Photos have helped in program development as well as in defining quantitative and qualitative indicators.

A rich conversation took place around the following aspects:

1) Perception may trump hard data

One discussant raised the question “Do opinions matter more than hard data on services?” noting that perceptions about aid and development may be more important than numbers of items delivered, money spent, and timelines met. Even if an organization is meeting all of its targets, what may matter more is what people think about the organization and its work. Does the assistance they get respond to their needs? Rather than asking “Is the school open?” or “Did you get health care?” it may be more important to ask “How do you feel about health?” Agencies may be delivering projects that are not what people want or that do not respond to their needs, cultures, and so on. It is important to encourage people to talk amongst themselves about their priorities, what they think, encourage viewpoints from people of different backgrounds and see how to pull out information to help inform programs and approaches.

2) It is a complex process

Salon participants noted that people are clearly willing to share stories and unstructured feedback. However, the process of collecting and sorting through stories is unwieldy and far from perfect. More work needs to be done to simplify story-collection processes and make them more tech-enabled. In addition, more needs to be done to determine exactly how to feed the information gleaned back in a structured and organized way that helps with decision-making. One idea was the creation of a “Yelp” for NGOs. Tagging and/or asking program participants to tag photos and stories can help make sense of the data. If videos are subtitled, this can also be of great use to begin making sense of the type of information held in videos. Dotsub, for example, is a video subtitling platform that uses a Wikipedia style subtitling model, enabling crowd sourced video translations into any language.

3) Stories and tags are not enough

We know that collecting and tagging stories to pull out qualitative feedback is possible. But so what? The important next step is looking at the effective use of these stories and data. Some ideas on how to better use the data include adding SMS feedback, deep dives with NGOs, and face-to-face meetings. It’s important to move from collecting the stories to thinking about what questions should be asked, how the information can help NGOs improve their performance, how this qualitative data translates into change or different practice at the local and global levels, how the information could be used by local organizers for community mobilization or action, and how all this is informing program design, frameworks and indicators.

4) Outreach is important

Building an online platform does not guarantee that anyone will visit it or participate. Local partners are an important element to reach out and collect data about what people think and feel. Outreach needs to be done with many partners from all parts of a community or society in order to source different viewpoints. In addition, it is important to ask the right questions and establish trust or people will not want to share their views. Any quality participation process, whether online or offline, needs good facilitation and encouragement; it needs to be a two-way process, a conversation.

5) Be aware of bias

Understanding where the process may be biased is important. Everything from asking leading questions, defining the meta data in a certain way, creating processes that only include certain parts of the community or population, selecting certain partners, or asking questions that lead to learning what an organization thinks it needs to know can all create biased answers. Language is important here for several reasons: it will affect who is included or excluded and who is talking with whom. Using development jargon will not resonate with people, and the way development agencies frame questions may lead people to particular answers.

6) Be aware of exclusion

Related to bias is the issue of exclusion. In large-scale consultations or online situations, it’s difficult to know who is talking and participating. Yet the more log-in information solicited, the less likely people are to participate in discussions. However by not asking, it’s hard to know who is responding, especially when anonymity is allowed. In addition, results also depend on who is willing and wants to participate. Participants agreed that there is no silver bullet to finding folks to participate and ensuring they represent diversity of opinion. One suggestion was that libraries and telecenters could play a role in engaging more remote or isolated communities in these kinds of dialogues.

7) Raising expectations

Asking people for feedback raises expectations that their input will be heard and that they will see some type of concrete result. In these feedback processes, what happens if the decisions made by NGOs or heads of state don’t reflect what people said or contributed? How can we ensure that we are actually listening to what people tell us? Often times we ask for people’s perceptions and then tell them why they are wrong. Follow up is also critical. A campaign from several years ago was mentioned where 93,000 people signed onto a pledge, and once that was achieved, the campaign ended and there was no further engagement with the 93,000 people. Soliciting input and feedback needs to be an ongoing relationship with continual dialogue and response. The process itself needs to be transparent and accountable to those who participate in it.

8 ) Don’t forget safety and protection

The issue of safety and protection for those who offer their opinions and feedback or raise issues and complaints was brought up. Participants noted that safety is very context specific and participatory risk assessments together with community members and partners can help mitigate and ensure that people are informed about potential risk. Avoiding a paternalistic stance is recommended, as sometimes human rights advocates know very well what their risk is and are willing to take it. NGOs should, however, be sure that those with whom they are working fully understand the risks and implications, especially when new media tools are involved that they may not have used before. Digital literacy is key.

9) Weave qualitative M&E into the whole process

Weaving consistent spaces for input and feedback into programs is important. As one discussant noted, “the very media tools we are training partners on are part of our monitoring and evaluation process.” The initial consultation process itself can form part of the baseline. In addition to M&E, creating trust and a safe space to openly and honestly discuss failure and what did not go so well can help programs improve. Qualitative information can also help provide a better understanding of the real and hard dynamics of the local context, for example the challenges faced during a complex emergency or protracted conflict. Qualitative monitoring can help people who are not on the ground have a greater appreciation for the circumstances, political framework, and the socio-economic dynamics.

10) Cheaper tool are needed

Some felt that the tools being shared (Sensemaker in particular) were too expensive and sophisticated for their needs, and too costly for smaller NGOs. Simpler tools would be useful in order to more easily digest the information and create visuals and other analyses that can be fed back to those who need to use the information to make changes. Other tools exist that might be helpful, such as Trimble’s Municipal Reporter, Open Data Kit, Kobe, iForm Builder, Episurveyor/Magpi and PoiMapper. One idea is to look at some of the tools being developed and used in the crisis mapping and response space to see if cost is dropping and capacity increasing as the field advances. (Note: several tools for parsing Twitter and other social media platforms were presented at the 2012 International Conference on Crisis Mapping, some of which could be examined and learned from.)

What next?

A final question at the Salon was around how the broader evaluation community can connect with the tools and people who are testing and experimenting with these new ways of conducting monitoring and evaluation. How can we create better momentum in the community to embrace these practices and help build this field?

Although this was the final Salon of our series on monitoring and evaluation, we’ll continue to work on what was learned and ways to take these ideas forward and keep the community talking and growing.

A huge thank you to our lead discussants and participants in this series of Salons, especially to the Community Systems Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation’s monitoring and evaluation team for joining in the coordination with us. A special thanks to Rockefeller for all of the thoughtful discussion throughout the process and for hosting the Salons.

The next Technology Salon NYC will be November 14, 2012, hosted by the Women’s Refugee Commission and the International Rescue Committee. We’ll be shifting gears a little, and our topic will be around ways that new technologies can support children and youth who migrate, are forcibly displaced or are trafficked.

If you’d like to receive notifications about future salons, sign up to get invited!

Previous Salons in the ICTs and M&E Series:

  1. 12 lessons learned with ICTs for monitoring and accountability
  2. 11 points on strengthening local capacity to use new ICTs for monitoring and evaluation


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I’ve worked at the intersection of community development, participatory media, rights-based approaches and new information and communication technologies (ICTs) for 20 years. I blog at Wait... What?
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