International development organizations support critical work to improve livelihoods and solve widespread, complex and often systemic problems in some of the most challenging environments around the world. Yet these organizations face challenges in adopting new technologies, in part because there is significant risk in taking on technology that’s untested. If organizations want to accelerate the speed with which they are able to assess need, disseminate aid, and even deploy existing resources, they must be willing to make better use of technology that already exists and is relatively easy to adapt.
At Premise, we work with partners to engage local citizens in supporting NGOs, private stakeholders and governments make meaningful change. I’ve also seen how technology can encourage behavioral changes in citizens, changes that ultimately improve their communities. For example, in early 2019, USAID-Honduras and Dexis worked with Premise Data to supplement statistical data with community-level observations and sentiment. The goal was to demonstrate how to engage local citizens to report on a variety of indicators related to quality of life, and where gang violence is a daily reality. With the hope of detecting subtle changes in gang activity that may preclude violence and give programs implementers the early warning needed to divert resources to support the community.
The project required little more than a group of citizens armed with smartphones to take photos of empty lots to observe maintenance levels, spot evidence of gang graffiti, and to report the amount of businesses that were open in the evening. It demonstrated how real-time, citizen-generated data could inform a more accurate picture of realities on the ground and support program implementation by way of ‘soft’ indicators.
For the USAID-Honduras/Dexis project, Premise also collected relevant sentiment indicator data from citizens about safety, economic satisfaction and access to essential services.
The use of soft indicators based on community members’ observations and sentiment represents significant innovation on the part of USAID, as well as demonstrates the impact Private Sector Engagement (PSE) can contribute to a country’s journey to self-reliance. The first innovative component here is engaging citizens to provide data using their own smartphones about their own neighborhoods. Those who live in a certain neighborhood can access places and make observations where traditional enumeration is too risky.
The second innovative component is exploring how this data collected over time can add nuance to statistical data like homicide rates. Whereas data on homicide rates highlight dangerous areas, programs must largely react to this information rather than divert resources to communities most at risk of perpetuating cycles of violence. Citizen-generated data collected at regular intervals, on the other hand, could prove invaluable to program managers who may act upon data suggesting a deteriorating situation or subtle gains that traditional data collection methods may not detect.
These two innovative components, can allow USAID and partners to have a more detailed account of dynamic situations on the ground that traditional methods may not always capture. With the use of tools to illustrate change over time, such as heat maps at the neighborhood level, a range of interested parties, namely program implementers, can add an indispensable tool to gaining insight into challenging environments.
As citizens throughout Africa and much of the Global South leapfrog landlines to smartphones, the potential to engage citizens at scale toward supporting economic and human development rises exponentially. We must continue to push forward with innovative ideas to continue accelerating the impact that can be made to improve people’s lives around the globe. Data is one solution that has the power to provide unparalleled insight into the operations and communities that need the most assistance.