Monday, February 4, 2013

Open Data and Impact Measures

It is always educational and thought provoking to read Bill Gates annual letters. This year's letter focused on the importance of measuring the impact of the work we are doing to make the world a better place.

I wholeheartedly agree with my old boss (well technically bosses-bosses-……..-boss) on the aspect that we have to know whether what we are doing has the desired impact. Sadly there are still way to many projects out there that are not making the desired impact and yet get funded again and again (mainly for political reasons – nobody wants to rock the boat). This is something we must of course change.

At the same time corruption and mismanagement of funds has also caused the donor community to become very strict on accountability. Again something that was sadly required, because of “bad apples” in the humanitarian and development communities.

Both of these trends have given birth to a new breed of humanitarian and development workers that work in the newly created “Monitoring and Evaluation” field. Those people are responsible for keeping track of everything (for accountability reasons) and to provide proof to the donors that their money is actually making impact.

What struck me over the past couple of years as I have visited non-profits working in the aftermath of natural disasters is the fact that we have gone totally overboard in this attempt to correct and improve. I sometimes see more people filling out forms and reports “for the donors” than I see doing actual work in the field. We have in fact added layers upon layers of staff to keep up with these demands.

It sometime reminds me of the world that I came from before I joined the non-profit sector. During my last few years at Microsoft, the concept of scorecards was introduced throughout the company. Sadly the introduction of scorecards, while most likely having some effects to cut costs, has not had the intended effect within Microsoft. Sadly people focus so much on keeping the scorecard “green” that they forget all about innovation and growing things that aren’t being measured.

So what can we do to enable the accountability required and to enable us to measure the impact we need to know we are doing “the right thing”?

We at NetHope have over the past year been working on bringing the concept of Open Data to the humanitarian community. Our main goal for this effort is to improve coordination of response efforts by providing decision makers with better information. We believe that just that part of our effort will reduce suffering and save lives.

The additional benefit of opening up the data that humanitarian organizations gather and produce during response efforts is that it also increases transparency and enables not just themselves but also others to measure impact across organizations and sectors.

In one of his early TED lectures, Clay Shirky points out that the old way of coordinating is by creating institutions. But since communication costs are going down drastically, there is another option, putting the coordination into the infrastructure by designing systems that coordinate the output of the group as a byproduct of operating the system without regards to institutional models.

The same holds true for measuring impact. If our operational systems are automatically sharing the information they capture openly with the outside world, then we get the measuring of the impact automatically as a byproduct of operating the system without having to put in place the big institutional models.

The most important thing however in my mind, when it comes to measuring impact through open data is the fact that we can combine information from multiple organizations or sectors and thereby see the true impact instead of the siloed individual impact measurements from one organization or one sector.

If you are interested in working with us and a number of partners from the humanitarian, academic and private sectors on our Open Humanitarian Initiative, then feel free to reach out to us to find out how you can play a role in improving humanitarian coordination, increasing transparency and in enabling better measurement of impact.