Author: Dennis Whittle
Recently, I was on a “future trends” panel at CECP‘s annual meeting in New York City. Douglas Sabo (VISA) guided an exciting discussion with my fellow panelists, Kim Symon (New Profit) and James Powell (UNICEF).
Together, we asked: what is the role of technology, data, and citizen feedback for informing social innovation?
We live in exciting times in which technology allows us to by-pass traditional structures of knowledge so that aid and philanthropy can learn from those who know best– regular people. Take UNICEF’s innovative U-Report program. It’s a free SMS-based system that allows citizens to speak out on issues they care about in their communities. U-Report runs weekly polls with registered users on a broad range of issues (i.e. child marriage, access to education, water, and other public services).
Today, U-Report operates in 14 countries. By the end of 2015, it plans to operate in 20 countries, reaching over 1 million youth.
On the panel, we discussed the tremendous potential of this platform. Where we stopped is where a perennial question begins: with all this data, what do we do with it?
Feedback provides valuable information, but is this information power? Implicitly, we share a theory of change that data collection –> information –> institutional response. There are some big casual assumptions. We need to stress, is this information used to catalyze institutional response, to change the allocation of resources, to make the lives of regular people better?
One way to conceptualize the “feedback loop” is as a series of connected and necessarily sequential steps:
- Collect data from citizens
- Analyze data from citizens
- Present and discuss the data with citizens
- Adapt and make changes based on the data and discussion
U-Report is leading the important early steps in the feedback loop. We need to build on their innovate work, make sure we’re capturing all voices, and also invest in the mechanisms that allow for steps 3 and 4.
Investing in these mechanisms is admittedly more difficult as it involves more than supply-side technologies. Institutional response requires a stimulation of demand for this information, a capacity to respond, and a willingness to respond– often from entrenched institutions and power.
Technology and information are powerful but they are not, by themselves, necessarily power. Without this conceptualization of the full feedback loop, technology and information become ends when, really, they should be means to an end.