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Remote Sensing: Welcome to the New Data-Enhanced Era of M&E Tech

By Guest Writer on January 14, 2015


Demonstrating impact has become an important focus in international development. Yet, how to accurately capture this impact is a challenge many organizations are grappling with. In fact, many rely on twentieth-century data collection techniques that are poorly suited to the task.

How We Do It Now

In practice, this often means infrequent paper surveys designed to document the self-reported behavior of individuals and their families. The problem of this approach is that it opens the door to important measurement errors. There have been ample cases of courtesy bias (respondents trying to please enumerators by telling them whatever they think they want to hear) or recall bias (providing erroneous information due to difficulties in recollection) in development interventions. Not to mention large-scale surveying can be extremely costly to implement.

The improvement of data collection methods, it turns out, has not caught up yet with the recent push for more rigorous monitoring and evaluation. We have all heard the stories of those malaria bed nets used as fishing nets or those water pumps that quickly fell into decay – most often because local communities were not consulted in the design process. The point is: Whatever we are delivering to people, they might not use it or maintain it as we originally thought.

So if we want to know whether we are making a difference in people’s lives, we need to assess the sustained impact of our programs. This means looking at adoption and usage rates (hard to measure) instead of coverage or installation (easy to measure). Something traditional data collection methods have failed to achieve.

The Promise of Remote Sensing

This is where novel remote sensing technologies come in handy. Those small devices, which come increasingly cheaper and more robust, have numerous applications. Want to know whether people are using fuel-efficient cookstoves? Get a temperature sensor. Monitoring the use of pit latrines? Use infrared. Curious about the use of water pumps? Install a motion monitor. Measuring indoor air pollution? Use a particle monitor. Examples are many.

The added value of remote sensing? Accuracy, (near) real time information, independence from human bias, and yes, cost effectiveness.

But don’t be fooled. Sensors are not meant to completely replace traditional surveys anytime soon. We still need face-to-face interviews to understand the hows and whys of our programs success (or lack thereof).

One thing is sure. Sensors, just as other new measurement technology platforms like microsatellite imagery or mobile phone devices, are about to profoundly reshape the way we collect, visualize, and analyze data. For organizations, this represents a unique opportunity to better understand program beneficiaries, demonstrate impact to donors, and provide management with timely and actionable data.

Curious about the use of new technologies for better measurement? Be sure to check some of the research that we, at the Center for Effective Global Action, are funding and some of the events we organize.

Guillaume Kroll is a Program Manager at Center for Effective Global Action and presented at M&E Tech in DC.

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