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Key Findings from MERL Tech London
Last week I attended the first London MERL Tech conference which brought together 90 researchers, evaluators, development practitioners, humanitarian aid workers, technology developers, data analysts/scientists, funders and others to continue the discussion that the MERL Tech community has been engaging in around the role of digital data and technology for monitoring, evaluation, research and learning for social good. I attended as a participant in Tech Change’s Technology for M&E Diploma which grounded my studies with experiences from those working with ICTs for the DM&E of humanitarian and development sectors, often in conflict-affected settings.
As such, I felt like I was conducting my own evaluation on the state-of-play of MERL Tech in these contexts. Plenaries were my focus group discussions; workshops, my participatory analysis; lightning talks, my story-gathering; and conversations with attendees were my key-informant interviews. What follows is brief description of eight key findings, questions, and themes from my two-day venture into the heart of the MERL Tech community with the hope we can carry on the discussion here for applying insights to the DM&E for Peace community.
I will cast these insights against the current debates about how to respond to the challenges of contemporary peacebuilding where practice has taken both ‘technocratic’ and ‘local’ turns. The main discussions about addressing these issues can be categorized as ‘effective’ and ‘emancipatory’ where the former seeks to improve current ‘top-down’ peacebuilding approaches with ‘lessons learned’ and the latter advocates for a new paradigm of ‘bottom-up’ approaches that focus on local agency and everyday needs.
Focusing on organizational and operational questions, these tech-related insights might lend themselves to making the current peacebuilding DM&E more ‘effective’:
1. The potential for disruption: Consensus at the conference was that MERL tech allowed professionals to do traditional M&E faster, better, and cheaper. For example, mobile monitoring allows real-time data collection with less margin for human error by reducing the steps in the data flow before analysis. What remains to be seen is how MERL tech can move beyond facilitating traditional M&E to create new approaches. The plenary on the future of MERL tech was an honest conversation that we have a ways to go before realizing the potential of the frontier technologies of biometrics, block chain, and big data in MERL.
2. Taking the ‘L’ in MERL serious: A recurring theme throughout the conference was incorporating learning into every stage of the process. What are we doing for the ‘L’ in MERL tech? How does tech assist us in asking and answering the question of “So what?” Related to this is the dilemma of noninteroperability and ‘pilotitus’. How can tech build bridges across organizational silos as well as foster sharing and collaboration between organizations to avoid duplication and lack of coordination in the same, or similar, development or conflict response settings? The workshop on information management in consortia was a great space to explore practical issues around interagency collaboration and sharing of data.
3. How to incorporate MERL tech into operations? How can technology facilitate the integration of MERL into operations as opposed to being viewed as a separate process? How can we use tech to collect data from ops and not disrupt participants from what they are doing? Understanding how to use tech to collect data seamlessly and use it in meaningful ways in operations is a significant area for further exploration.
4. Data literacy: Maliha Khan facilitated the closing session of the conference where attendees co-created a historical timeline of MERL Tech, a vision for 2020 and 2025, and used priority ranking to identify the top issues to address in reaching the community’s collective vision. The most important theme identified by the conference participants was data literacy. How can we develop the capacities within organizations and the communities we work with to understand what data can and cannot tell us? Closely related to this is fostering digital literacy within organizations and communities where people are able to navigate the digital world and understand their digital footprint as well as their rights and responsibilities. MERL technicians work with fostering both competencies to improve the wellbeing of others.
Focusing on methodological and ethical questions, these tech-related insights approach what might be considered a more empathetic, emancipatory approach to peacebuilding DM&E.
5. User-driven, accessible tech. One of the biggest refrains of the conference was the primacy of the people we work with and for (users, beneficiaries, recipients), over the other people we work with and for (donors, policy-makers, executives). Development, humanitarian, and peacebuilding programs are seeing a recent uptake in more empathetic, ‘Human Centered’ approaches to program design signaling concerted efforts to lean into the ‘local’ turn. The ethos of the HCD movement was present at various points of the MERL Tech conference where it chimed with the user-centered design ethos for technologists. An interesting example of this overlap came in a discussion about using emojis as indicators in mobile-based self-reporting; one attendee commented, “Different cultures attach different values to emoticons. How much do we think about the role of culture in how we apply technologies?” Critical questions like these throughout the conference were an encouraging proxy for how evaluators and technologists are wrestling with issues of context and culture. In a debriefing session in my Tech Change course, Maliha Khan captured the sentiment aptly: “Solving problems will come from understanding the everyday needs of end-users as well as understanding how technology can meet those needs.”
6. MERL Tech can privilege the marginalized: This seemingly unintuitive insight was made evident through the various case studies that were shared at the conference. A lighting talk by Salla Mankinen from Good Return shared experiences from Nepal and Cambodia of using apps designed for illiterate beneficiaries to provide feedback to pro-poor financial service providers. During another session, an attendee commented that “Technology may be gender neutral, but access to technology is not.” Another participant added that “As soon as you put the tech in somebody’s hands, you have issues of inclusivity as in who will approach them and who will try to exploit them.” Sharing another perspective, one participant shared “Most of frontline workers we work with are women. Now that they go there with a digital device, they are seen with a lot more legitimacy. Access to tech is skewed to men. We need to mitigate for this, but tech can help equalize.”
6. More citizen-driven feedback loops are key: The extractive nature of MERL came into sharp focus when George Flatters compared data to a natural resource that is mined, refined, and sold to the powerful. The session on feedback loops and downward accountability was one of many spaces where themes of data ownership and data use in local communities was explored. While this is not a new issue to practitioners, technology has the potential to either magnify or minimize the extractive nature of data collection and more consideration is needed when attempting to move toward more context specific, locally-driven, and conflict sensitive approaches to peacebuilding.
8. Responsible Data: Rounding out the key findings from the London MERL Tech conference is the growing buzz of responsible data. Balancing the protection of the privacy and security of data while ensuring improved services and greater inclusion can seem to be a daunting task for MERL professionals when technology is facilitating the generation of so much data. However, as one participant explains, “When you up the data, you up 2:1 the responsibility of managing the data.” Thankfully, the organizers and participants from the conference curated this hackpad on responsible data to point you and your organization in the right direction.
Which one of the ‘key findings’ from the London MERL Tech conference is most relevant to you and the DM&E for Peacebuilding work you are doing now? Comment below to join the discussion.
Zach Tilton is a 2016-17 Rotary Peace Fellow pursuing an MA in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford. His research and work is focused on peacebuilding evaluation, complexity science, critical peacebuilding research and Mormon peacemaking.