The Wows & Woes of M&E Technology
Introducing a mobile monitoring system in our food security programme in Tanzania
7 min read. Article by Toon Driesen
Six months after introducing an open source mobile monitoring system in our food security programme in Tanzania, we are taking stock of our digital journey so far. The first results are promising. Implementing technology for monitoring and evaluation (M&E) shouldn't be expensive or complicated. But don't get too excited, technology alone won’t solve your M&E issues.
simple tools in a multi-actor setup
Maisha Bora is a five-year food security programme in Simanjiro and Longido districts in Northern Tanzania. Our programme involves 15 development organizations carrying out more than 140 different activities in four main sectors: water, livestock, business & entrepreneurship, and nutrition.
The Belgian Development Agency (BTC) coordinates the Maisha Bora programme. To do so, we closely collaborate with our Tanzanian institutional partners at district, regional and national level. Within this multi-actor setup, we were looking for user-friendly data collection tools to make smarter, faster and better-informed decisions based on reliable data.
small team, limited budget
Early 2016 our search began... In terms of resources we were on a shoestring. Our BTC-team in Arusha is made up of two people. Neither of us has an advanced IT-background and our available budget is limited. Based on information we found online we tried to review several platforms in terms of added-value, costs, technical skills requirements, and interoperability with other systems. It turned out to be a challenge to get unbiased and up-to-date information on these ever-evolving platforms, so we consulted our partners and peers in East-Africa to find out which M&E technologies they were using.
open source solution
Learning from the preliminary experiences of our partners in Arusha, we chose for the Kobo Toolbox platform. Our free hosted account at Kobotoolbox.org allows us to create forms, upload them on the platform and collect data with an Android App (ODK Collect) or with Enketo for data collection through web forms.
Kobo Toolbox was built on top of the Open Data Kit (ODK) system, a free and open source set of data collection tools. ODK's open standards ensure compatibility with other tools and guarantee the flexibility to customize our ODK system to our own needs or easily shift to another (ODK-based) platform if necessary.
"These tools simplify the job. Instead of coming back from the field and start writing my report I just send my observations instantly." - Annascola, regional officer
listen, design, train and keep listening
Putting in place the technology is the relatively easy part. We had to be flexible and pragmatic to design a meaningful monitoring tool taking into account the concerns and expectations of our partners. We also needed to train our local government partners in the correct use of the tablets and building a common understanding of the topics covered during data collection: e.g. the progress of the activities, the extent of community participation and the opportunities for scaling-up.
"Involving our Tanzanian government partners in every step of the design process might be one of the most important factors of the success and adoption of our common monitoring system." - Mathias Lardinois, programme coordinator
in the right direction
A strong commitment of the Belgian Development Cooperation towards digital for development (D4D) provided the initial stimulus for exploring the use of M&E technologies in our programme. Six months after taking our first cautious steps along the road, we are looking back on our journey so far. It took hours of self-study, a one week intensive training course in Nairobi, trials and errors and a fair dose of determination to reach where we are now.
But we're heading in the right direction. We are collecting rich and reliable data, we limit the time spent on data collection and analysis, minimize data entry errors and we ensure a fast flow of information from the field to the office. With the interactive data visualization tools of Tableau Public we are able to create meaningful data insights and act fast based on the results.
"It's nice to keep track of our work as we're taking GPS coordinates and pictures of all the activities we monitor." - Arnold, district officer
community of practice
Creating synergies is at the core of our Maisha Bora programme. We work together with our partners for setting up mobile data collection campaigns and sharing knowledge on M&E technologies. By reaching out to other actors in Tanzania we are able to contribute to a growing local community of organizations using open source M&E technologies.
"I know I can rely on a few other ODK practitioners in Arusha to help me out when I face a problem designing our forms." - Goedele, micro-finance advisor TRIAS Tanzania
Yet, we still have challenges ahead. How to improve the synchronization between our server and our data dashboards? How do we share our data and harness the vast amounts of open data for development? How to make sure our staff and partners can keep up with our M&E tools? So we keep on working hard towards a lean and user-friendly M&E system serving our essential information needs with high quality data.
"We provide the livestock expertise and the experience and BTC supports us in implementing the M&E systems and technologies. That's the added-value of our programme approach." - Peter, Vétérinaires Sans Frontières Belgium
on Icarus' wings
M&E technologies have opened up new ways of collecting, analyzing and sharing data on development interventions as well as on the communities we aim to support. This brings some ethical questions to the table. Who owns the data? How to balance our open data policy with local communities' concerns about data security and privacy? How do these technologies influence our relationship with the communities we work with?
No amount of technology will replace sound and strong M&E strategies. So let's be critical and use these M&E tools and data wisely. Rather than just rejecting or accepting new technologies, let’s actively shape them to the benefit of and together with the communities we aim to support. Or to borrow a phrase from Peter-Paul Verbeek, we'll have to learn to fly on Icarus' wings.
some advice before you start...
It takes time. Implementing M&E technology shouldn't be expensive or too complicated, but you will have to invest in human resources. Create a work environment where your staff gets time to learn, test and gain experiences. As an organization, be critical and agile to take into account all lessons learnt: both successes and failures.
Think about an integrated ICT4D approach. You'll be analyzing, visualizing and communicating the data, and even linking it to your existing programme management software. So, make sure you can integrate (and preferably synchronize) your M&E system with your other (existing) tools.
The success and adoption of your tools depend on your primary users. Invest sufficient time in training and include your partners and users in every step of the design and implementation process.
It’s not about the amount of data you collect, but the ability of your organization to take meaningful decisions based on reliable data. Technology has made it really easy to collect large amounts of 'fast data’. But how much data can you handle and use to the benefit of your target group? Don’t ignore the stories behind your figures.
Start with open source technology. There are relatively simple open source (& free) tools available, which are ideal for piloting a first phase and building capacity in your own organization. Later on you can upgrade to a paid plan, shift to a more advanced (open-source) platform or find professional support.
Take a look at the Principles for Digital Development for guidance on integrating best practices in technology-enabled programmes.
"It's my first time using tablets. But it was pretty easy to learn and it really helps me in coordinating the Maisha Bora programme." - Issa Mnzava, regional officer Manyara Region
Do you want to react to this article? Do you have ideas or suggestions that could help us or other organizations? We are happy to hear from you. Find us on Twitter or at http://www.maishabora-tz.org