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6 Technologies for Monitoring and Evaluating Programs in Insecure Environments

By Wayan Vota on September 26, 2018

Monitoring and Evaluating Programs in Insecure Environments

In some of the most insecure humanitarian contexts, monitoring aid programmes is particularly important to humanitarian organisations.

  • Did assistance get to the right people?
  • Have aid trucks safely reached their intended location?
  • How do affected populations assess the services provided?

Amidst access constraints, attacks and the risk of aid diversion, those questions remain difficult to answer. Monitoring and evaluation practitioners are therefore optimistic about the use of technology tools like mobile phones or GPS trackers when working in insecure environments.

While many pilot projects use technology for M&E in insecure environments, humanitarians consulted for the SAVE research programme noted a lack of clearly documented and user-friendly guidance on the different options. Early research in close collaboration with aid agencies in Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria showed that organisations are interested in exploring technologies for monitoring, but are unsure about advantages and downsides of existing tools.

To help address these concerns, the Technologies for Monitoring in Insecure Environments Toolkit focuses on six technologies that practitioners deemed useful in insecure environments because they can function without constant electricity supply, across large distances and without advanced computing skills.

1. Mobile Phones

The rising usage of basic mobile phones and smartphones in volatile environments can make communicating with communities easier. Many organisations are expanding their outreach and feedback systems into accepting messages via SMS, calls or interactive voice response, in which pre-recorded messages are used to provide or gather information.

Aid organisations have developed several approaches to collect data remotely with mobile phones sometimes in combination with specialised software. This includes, for example, the use of hotlines, outgoing verification calls, phone-based surveys and other reporting channels.

2. Digital Data Entry

‘Handhelds’ such as smartphones, tablets or more basic digital devices are becoming cheaper and easier to use. Many aid organisations have found it convenient and cost-effective to use digital devices for data collection instead of traditional paper-based surveys.

Aid actors can now tap into a substantial market for digital form-creation and data collection applications. Digital data entry linked to electronic databases also facilitates automatic data analysis and visualisation.

3. Remote Sensing

There are a number of aerial technologies to gather information about objects or areas without having a physical presence. This is also referred to as ‘remote sensing’. This chapter focuses mostly on imagery taken with satellites, planes or unmanned aerial vehicles.

These methods, which are relatively new to humanitarian programming, can reveal context conditions and other observable changes such as construction, agricultural developments or population movement. Additional remote sensing tools, like radars and infrared, can further augment this.

4. Location Tracking

A range of tools make it possible to identify and trace the location of humanitarian deliveries or staff and to visualise information on maps. Location tracking requires transmitters, e.g., tags or GPS- enabled devices that can be attached to goods or carried by people.

These link to ‘navigation satellites’ (rather than image-taking, observation satellites, as explained in the previous chapter), which either send signals to GPS devices or scan whole areas to identify and note transmitter signals. The use of these tools in humanitarian logistics is not new. Yet, recent innovations and creative approaches are making it ever more convenient and cheaper to implement

5. FM Radio

FM broadcast radio remains the most popular technology that people use to receive news and updates in many resource-constrained contexts. In many insecure environments, it is the most reliable way to reach communities. But in humanitarian programming and monitoring, radio has not yet received much attention. It is often understood as a one-way communication tool that offers limited use for humanitarian purposes.

Challenging this perception, this chapter shows that radio programming can also be used for active engagement, involving or supporting communities in creating their own shows. Broadcasts can be used to share important announcements or explain aid efforts and feedback mechanisms to crisis-affected communities.

6. Online Platforms

Where online communication platforms are popular, aid agencies can use them for their monitoring, feedback and accountability efforts. This includes social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as instant messaging applications like WhatsApp. These tools make it possible to transmit information and messages via online connections – often free of charge.

For monitoring, online platforms are unusual, though elements can be used to share and collect information. When using them in insecure or conflict-affected contexts, several challenges need to be addressed, especially around information security and data protection.

Proceed with Caution

Most of the lessons identified during the research are specific to each tool and therefore reflected in the individual chapters. However, when using or considering using technological applications for monitoring and evaluating programs in insecure environments, be sure to follow three best practices:

Take your time to implement.

Practitioners are well advised not to rush implementation. Consulting with partners who already use the technology, and developing a thorough understanding of who influences and spreads information in the specific context, is critical for success. Also, factor in time to win the support and trust from colleagues and affected populations for the solution, and work with users when inventing, designing and testing tools.

Challenges can stem from inherent biases of some technologies – for example, men are more likely to own the household phone, making it difficult for women to use phones anonymously. Concerns can also arise from technical problems or be linked to resistance to change among staff. It is important to proactively address such concerns before they develop into general mistrust and rejection of a particular technology.

Do a proper risk-benefit analysis.

There are contexts or situations where certain technologies can do more harm than good. It takes some stamina to resist the urge to be innovative. But experimenting with untested technology on the back of affected populations should not be an option. Do not use technology when:

  • Data collected cannot be adequately protected and is so sensitive that it could put people at risk.
  • When acceptance of a certain tool is very low and using it can create security risks.
  • When the lack of infrastructure makes a project too costly
  • When your organisation cannot guarantee long-term implementation.

Hopefully this toolkit can help you to assess risks and learn about mitigation measures for each specific group of technologies.

Watch out for digital risks and privacy concerns.

Risks related to digital security are insufficiently understood and addressed, and not just in the humanitarian sector. Even though aid practitioners are becoming more aware that digital data may be intercepted, or that mobile communication can be tracked, many organizations still opt against using encryption to secure their data.

Increasing digitisation means increasing dependence on tools, which makes a potential attack on digital systems more harmful. At the same time, intrusion becomes more rewarding when attackers get their hands on greater amounts of information. Furthermore, technology-enabled aid often depends on for-profit actors, including businesses like Google, Dropbox or Facebook. It is important to keep in mind that aid organisations forfeit some control of their data by using third party tools. For a brief overview, see this toolbox for online privacy.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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