If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it

BY Patrick Tammer | April 19, 2016|Comments 0

During my internship with the United Nations Development Operations Coordination Office (UNDOCO), we organized a virtual innovation fair devoted to Real Time or Frequent Monitoring.  With only coffee as an incentive, Rose Sherman and Mita Paramita from Brightfront Group did all the leg work.  They put together a panel of  four progressive tech companies and nonprofit organizations and set up a panel discussion that we broadcast to our UN colleagues across the world.   The webinar was a great low-cost way to share new innovations – part of the UNDG’s efforts to  apply new data collection solutions in contexts where circumstances change rapidly, and people’s own knowledge is the best resource.

  • First up was Spatial Collective, a Nairobi-based social enterprise that uses Geographic Information Systems for community development. Local community mobilizers are trained in various data collection techniques and undertake accurate near real-time field level data collection. Then, the data is visualized and made accessible on platforms connecting multiple stakeholders.
  • Gramvaani (meaning ‘voice of the village’) is a social tech company based in Delhi capturing rural voices through social media. In 2009, Gramvaani started Mobile Vaani, a social media platform equivalent to Facebook/YouTube/Twitter for rural areas with low literacy and low internet coverage. Mobile Vaani works with an Interactive Voice Response system that allows people to dial a number and leave a message about their community, or listen to content produced by others. Communities thus share information about each other and awareness of rights and entitlements increases. This increased awareness helps create demand for public services and, in turn, raises the accountability of local authorities. At the same time, the platform generates important data, for instance on service delivery, that can be used for decision making.
  • “1.4 billion people in the world are illiterate, one fifth of the world’s population, let alone the other 20 percent who can only read in their local language. How do you reach out and engage successfully with these populations?” That is the challenge, Question Box wants to answer by installing public callboxes, which enable community members to go for help and to provide feedback near their homes and place of business. The easy and cost-efficient methodology offers a new place to provide programme services and a new stream of localized feedback data. Using callboxes, information provided to communities can be centralized and limited human resources can serve more people.
  • No Unidentified Flying Objects but Unmanned Aerial VehiclesUAViators mission is to promote the safe, coordinated and effective use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (better known as drones) for data collection, payload delivery and communication services in a wide range of humanitarian and development settings. It is hoped that drones may help to deliver high resolution geographic information assisting crisis relief, for instance in areas destroyed by earthquakes.

Nuggets of wisdom for real time monitoring in development and humanitarian work:

Even though every environment is unique, there are still certain dos and don’ts that make success more likely when applying new innovations. Here are the main takeaways that I picked up from the conversation:


  • Make sure to engage communities in open innovations. As much as we know we shouldn’t, many inventors come to a community with pre-developed products/solutions, based on the knowledge of “outside experts,” as Rose Schuman of Brightfront Group put it. Community members, as “inside experts,” possess a great deal of knowledge as well.
  • Think about the social embedding. The technology alone is not the solution, the whole approach around it often matters much more. Aaditeshwar Seth of Gramvaani explained us how they had to invent supporting tools for people’s engagement to spread their innovation, a task that required considerably more social than technical skills.
  • Build long-term relationships. Many efforts to collect data are one time actions without a sustainable concept in mind to create a relationship with the stakeholders. To sustainably engage your data source, you have to give back value. Question Box does so by giving people using their callboxes immediate help to handle their urgent problems.
  • Only layering different data taps the whole potential of new and untraditional data. The main benefit of new data technology is that it offers diverse and non-traditional data sources. Often, insights tremendously increase when traditional data sources are combined with new ones, for instance survey data with Participatory GIS[1] as Primož Kovačič of Spatial Collective
  • Don’t be afraid of the costs of real time monitoring innovations! Leaving no one behind doesn’t have to imply big costs. Basic technology can be acquired for a reasonable price and scaled up later. I was quite stunned when I heard from Andrew Schroeder of UAViators that you can acquire a highly functional drone like the DJI Phantom for less than $1000!

And now it is your turn: As Thomas Edison said – “There is a way to do it better – find it!” Many innovations don’t need to be created, they already exist. The challenge is to find those that can be used to solve our specific challenges.

[1] Participatory GIS implies making GIT available to disadvantaged groups in society in order to enhance their capacity in generating, managing, analysing and communicating spatial information.


Patrick Tammer Patrick conducted an internship at the UN Development Operations Coordination Office with the Knowledge and Innovation Team from September 2015- March 2016.  You can follow Patrick on Twitter.

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