Put the Task Before the Tech

Rahel Dette     Aug 2015

As we research the monitoring of aid in insecure environments, practitioners repeatedly express great interest in new technologies to gather information or communicate with affected populations.

In contexts as diverse as Afghanistan and South Central Somalia, mobile phones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with cameras are promising: they can inform organisations about the needs of beneficiaries or, the whereabouts of food trucks. They can help us know whether vaccines have been administered and canals have been dug, and how many women, men, and children are staying in a shelter. Such knowledge crucially informs daily decision-making and keeps goals and efforts in alignment.

Technological M&E approaches by aid organisations include the following:

  • Smartphones or tablets can be used to run dynamic multi-media surveys and to automatically upload and analyse data unlike their bulky paper-based equivalents.

  • As mobile phones become cheaper and more widespread, call centres and SMS hotlines can receive and quickly process beneficiary feedback.

  • Satellites and UAVs can take high-resolution images to track changes over time and assess natural changes, building or reconstruction efforts, and more.

  • Radio, as typically the most common local media in conflict environments, can reach and inform affected populations about aid deliveries, conflict developments, and feedback channels.

According to our research, the widespread concern that technology solutions are prohibitively expensive often proves unfounded. Some of the most effective new approaches rely on simple tools like USB sticks, and many private companies or foundations actively seek collaborations that enable cheap and fast integration.

But technologies can be false friends, and many problems can and should not be solved with gadgets. Nothing replaces in-person conversations, and even the most user-friendly software will not always alleviate capacity constraints. Furthermore, new tools also introduce new challenges: technologies need maintenance; more data require more analysis; more feedback means more follow-up; and the risks of intercept and data theft cannot be ignored.

Against this backdrop, one message stands out: Yes, technology can help, but only if there is a clear understanding of the information gap it seeks to fill. Therefore, when considering technologies for monitoring, you should ask the following questions:

  • How do new technologies fit into existing information strategies?

  • What kind of data will new tools provide, and how will it be used?

  • Can smartphones or text messages on shared phones endanger those collecting or submitting information?

  • How will data be protected when sent from the field to offices and headquarters?

  • What information cannot be collected with technologies?

  • How will gaps be filled to prevent misguided decisions (think: qualitative data)?

As we continue to develop a catalogue of tools for humanitarian organisations, we are always interested in hearing about your experiences. To share lessons or ask questions, get in touch.