The Ebola outbreak that devastated West Africa in 2014 and 2015 was an important test for the entire international aid community. Aid organizations from around the world integrated innovative applications of mobile technologies such as mobile data collection, epidemic mapping, and SMS-based communications systems, many for the first time, in order to assist affected communities and overburdened healthcare systems. Applied in a challenging environment with many different actors, these tools enabled the collection and analysis of real-time, granular data. As the development sector thinks about the long-term recovery from the Ebola outbreak and applying lessons learned to other contexts, it is important to consider how these technologies and data-driven innovation can improve international development outcomes.
The Center for Data Innovation hosted a panel discussion, “Data for Development: Powering Evidence-Based International Aid with Mobile Technology,” to discuss how policymakers and international development organizations can take advantage of new opportunities to collect and apply data to improve the planning, implementation, and evaluation of aid. Panelists representing both the public and private sector explored how mobile technologies are currently deployed in the field, immediate opportunities in the use of data, and how to address the barriers to data-driven development.
Vivian Ranson, Senior Program Manager with the U.S. Global Development Lab at U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), explained how USAID is exploring applications of mobile technologies across the program cycle. Citing USAID’s work on Ebola informatics, Ranson said her team was now “focusing on value creation” in data uses with the goal of creating a feedback loop between policymakers, frontline workers, and affected communities. Samia Melhem, Lead Policy Officer in the Transport and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Global Practice at the World Bank, agreed that donor organizations were shifting focus to consolidating sources of data and applying standards so that data continues to be useful after organizations like the World Bank complete a project. She cited the example of a World Bank project that delivered a mobile app to collect data on agricultural markets in Rwanda. USAID took the project over and continued to expand upon this system, which now serves as a tool to track commodity prices across the Rwandan economy.
Because mobile technologies are now integrated into many different parts of a development project, all panelists stressed the need to integrate technologies in way that considers both current use of data and future potential re-use. Sean Martin McDonald, CEO of FrontlineSMS, asserted the value of data was determined by the context. His company designs tools to help clients manage, structure, and automate communications via text message. According to McDonald, his clients, whether advocacy organizations or local governments, are better placed than someone in Washington, DC to make judgements about the information and type of public interaction that is most valuable in a given context. Recalling her experiences deploying custom technology solutions for government ministries and non-governmental organizations, Siobhan Green of Sonjara, Inc., simply stated that data should outlive technology. Since a new platform will likely be out of date in a few years, data should be structured in a way that it can be utilized within new systems.
Interoperability, standards, and data governance emerged as recurring themes in a discussion of immediate opportunities to fully benefit from mobile technologies. Because data collection is already fairly robust in practice, there should be standards in place to ensure interoperability and openness that it can be used for multiple purposes by different organizations. Green cited USAID’s Development Data Library—the agency’s online repository of machine-readable data from US-funded projects—as a good step for the U.S. government and other donor countries to treat data as an asset that should be maintained and made publicly available when appropriate. This would make reuse possible. Catherine Highet, Technical Advisor for the Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) project implemented by FHI 360, discussed the opportunity for data to address gender inequality in developing economies. She and her colleagues at the mSTAR project have created a survey toolkit to measure the gender gap in ICT use. Researchers in the field can use mSTAR’s questionnaire with standardized indicators to collect data on women’s use of ICT that can then be combined or compared with other data on this issue. In this case, standards support collaboration with gender data.
In a discussion on the barriers to progress, most panelists agreed with Green’s assessment that “technology is the easiest part.” Ranson added the caveat that technology “comes with a lot of baggage” so far as human values and behaviors still determine the standards and architecture of new systems. As in the example of response and recovery to the Ebola crisis, the hardest issues to overcome are legal issues, local capacity, and collaboration. Many developing countries do not have legal and regulatory frameworks that support open data, data sharing, or personal data protections. For example, not all countries have freedom of information laws guaranteeing public rights to information held by the government. And even those that have legislation, do not necessarily have the technical capacity to implement them. This issue of technical capacity also extends to international aid organizations in general, many of which, in the experiences of the panelists, do not have sufficient technical capacity to utilize data to maximum impact.
Finally, the issue of collaboration was raised repeatedly by all panelists as an area for improvement. Melhem pointed out that that the World Bank now recognized the need to focus on data as “soft infrastructure” to be structured and governed for effective use and reuse. Furthermore, the optimal way to achieve this data architecture is through public-private partnerships. The Center has previously explored how the U.S. government is using public-private partnerships to foster data-driven innovation. According to Ranson, the USAID Global Development Lab has used a new procurement method known as the broad agency announcement that invites all interested organizations to contribute ideas to a development challenge. USAID may then choose to partner with select organizations. This process is not without issues, however. Highet argued that these open calls were costly to invited agencies who contributed resources to the process without guarantee of a contract. Green pointed out that smaller businesses in particular were hesitant to commit resources to a broad agency announcement. Panelists agreed that collaboration that focused on long-term use was the best way to ensure that data being collected today continues to bring social and economic benefits to beneficiary communities in the future.
In sum, the international aid community is embracing mobile technologies to improve all parts of the program cycle. Now organizations must focus on structuring, storing, and sharing data in order to maintain this long-term asset for use and reuse.