Implementing effective, meaningful feedback loops requires us to listen, engage, and actively respond by catalyzing appropriate change, and to execute these steps faster over time. On this post, Sam Lee, open data specialist and research lead on the World Bank Group’s Open Finances team, highlights some key points to consider along the path to closing the loop and remaining inside it.
Casting a Wider Feedback Net
Who are we collecting feedback from? The obvious choice is to collect feedback from end recipients and users of our programs, services, and products. But there are many other sources of validation in the feedback process along the way that are often less inclusive or diverse.
Feedback nets are being cast more frequently, given communications advancements, but they are not necessarily being cast more widely, and they often fall on the closest and most accessible waters. For example, an open government program might poll transparency experts or the open data community.
It is easy and somewhat natural to go to like-minded tribes like this for input and feedback. This kind of insular feedback is often helpful, but should not be exclusive.
This is not a unique condition to the development community or public sector. There are examples and lessons that can be learned from the start-up community and private sector, including those illustrating the dangers of false validation and misreading feedback. All of these examples stress the importance of seeking feedback from more diverse sources and non-traditional partners.
Embracing Technology to Reduce “Feedback Friction”
New technology can help drastically cut the time required for feedback collection, and increase its scale and depth, reducing “feedback friction.” An interesting example is the nano-survey.
This methodology allows tapping into a random sampling of internet users by extending short surveys to individuals who input a non-existent or non-trademarked URL address into their web browsers. Collection times are also typically shorter, opening up the possibility for real-time netizen feedback.
I have utilized nano-survey technology as a part of a recent project for measuring the demand for open data in online and offline communities. This technology has also been used to assess and predict the spread of avian flu in China and to measure the American and Iranian citizen appetite for direct government negotiations.
As with any survey method, there is always a bias. However, innovative approaches like nano-surveys are exciting and will continue to evolve and allow for collection of feedback in even more useful ways.
We must also be willing to try other emerging technologies that reduce feedback friction. Increasingly, this will include tools that offer built-in feedback features through data exhaust like mobile, drones, and sensors.
Bitcoin (or something like it) is an interesting example of a controversial technology with revolutionary advancements in traceability, accountability, and efficiency bubbling just beneath the surface. Without negatively affecting the privacy or welfare of development constituents, it is important to consider and try all of the growing tools at our disposal.
Building on a Foundation of Transparency
Transparency is a pre-condition for meaningful feedback. Asking people to participate in a process without sharing relevant information is a flawed approach.
Failing to providing access to relevant information undermines the process of creating more collaborative environments and participatory processes. Inviting participation without access to information is a recipe for greater friction, in extreme cases civil unrest and protest.
The process of feedback itself benefits from transparency, and data collection for these purposes should start and remain open. Efforts to be transparent about external operations and services can also be greatly enhanced by internal transparency.
Buffer, a social media start-up, is an interesting example of embracing radical transparency; the company is open about revenues, makes internal emails accessible to staff, and publicly shares salary formulas and all staff salaries.
This case highlights the power of transparency to encourage sharing of “every idea or new direction very early, before it’s completely solid.” Feedback is exponentially more useful before decisions are made, and being open can result in greater participation in feedback mechanisms. Open by default is most effective when wielded as a double-edged sword.
Combining Data-Driven and Human-Centric Approaches
By itself, collecting and “listening” to data is essentially just tracking. The digital age has allowed for much advancement in this area, and data gathering technologies have been applied liberally and successfully in many industries.
However, we are not applying feedback collection mechanisms to operate a theme park or department store. The international development community is in the business of making the world a better place — a more equal place.
The stakes are high, and while the language and ideals of innovation and experimentation are well-placed and necessary for disruption and progress, the analogy cannot extend all the way to creating a lab where humans are viewed as test subjects. The data revolution may skew some towards a more data-driven approach, but data-driven versus human-centric is a false dichotomy — a forced choice. It is possible, optimal, and necessary to be both data-driven and human-centric.
A feedback loop, much like a map, is a very useful tool. If a destination has been selected, it can show us where we are now relative to where we want to go. When using a map, a trip only begins when we move our position closer to the journey’s end.
If we do not know where we want to go, then we have only entered the Feedback Loop to Somewhere, which is only marginally better than the Feedback Loop to Nowhere.
Casting a wider feedback net, embracing technology to reduce feedback friction, building on a foundation of transparency, and employing a data-driven and human-centric approach all strengthen the necessary connections that compose a potent feedback loop, one with clear purpose and direction. Imagine being in touch with real-time data about a community, coupled with a sustained presence, commitment, and engagement with all the given stakeholders.
In essence, this opens up the possibility of being in multiple places at the same time. Welcome to the Feedback Hyperloop.
Sam Lee is an Open Data Specialist & Research Lead on the World Bank Group’s Open Finances team. Views reflected in this blog are personal. You can follow him on Twitter @OpenNotion. Photo credit: Arcturus Aldebaran via photopin cc