Data are crucial to informing how we design sustainable solutions for development. In order to realize the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the 193 Member States of the United Nations, changemakers are turning to technology to help achieve better data collection. Whether they are implementing SMS text systems to record census responses, or using image sorting technology to categorize photographs of inadequate sanitation, they are innovating the process of information-gathering across the world.
“Leave No One Behind – Making Voices Heard and Count” is a project hosted by the International Civil Society Centre that includes 12 international NGOs pursuing the goal of including marginalized communities in SDG implementation.
In 2018 the group piloted research in Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nepal, and Vietnam and in 2019 brought their preliminary findings to the LabStorm table to get feedback from 15 mission-driven professionals. The Labstorm was electric with critical thinking at its best.
We’ve learned from folks like William Easterly (who appeared at Feedback Lab’s 2019 Summit), and Henry Mintzberg, that international development becomes problematic when we rely on outside-in approaches. So during the LabStorm, we asked ourselves, “How can we best involve the community to collect data, and infuse that data into future policy and planning?” Here is what the LabStorm group came up with:
1. Engage with communities honestly. Building trust is a part of the data collection process. When it comes to sharing data and information, people feel more comfortable when they understand the intentions of an interviewer/data collector and what will be done with their responses. If they trust that the interviewer/data collector will do them no harm, they will answer more truthfully and completely, leading to higher-quality response. As outsiders, we must do the work to build trust in communities we are entering. This could look like sitting down for coffee with different community members and chatting about the weather, or as complicated as integrating into the community structure of a town the course of years. By putting in that up-front work, you build community buy-in for the project and discover which community members can help in the data collection process.
2. Strengthen the local data collection team to own the data. Data-collection initiatives should prioritize not only collecting data from marginalized communities, but also sharing that data back to communities. When a community owns the data that was collected it can be accessed for years to come, and used to support other initiatives. That way, the data is not used as a one-time tool for an outsider, but rather, is a useful asset for the community. Investing in capacity building around themes like SWOT, interviewing, and survey building will empower communities to take a strategic approach to their own growth, so that they can use the data they own to improve their futures.
3. Adjust to the local context. Can you use SMS or IVR to collect data in this community? Is this community prepared to answer surveys through an app? Can the community members read my survey? These are the types of questions that data-collection initiatives are often stumped by. The simple answer is that there is no “one size fits all” method for collecting data in developing countries. We must assess the infrastructure of individual communities to ensure best practices. One community may have access to free wifi, while the neighboring community may not. Some communities may have low literacy, or only be comfortable responding to surveys in a certain local language. Assessing the technology use and community norms will help data-collection initiatives design the most efficient way to collect data.
A common theme emerged as we discussed data collection for SDG attainment: center on the community. In an effort to serve and build for collective advancement, we need not look too far – no one knows a community better than its members. To all of the changemakers out there, remember that we are allies to others and must walk together to manifest change, sometimes side by side, and other times right behind the community, never in front. Are you an expert on community-led data collection? We would love to hear more! Please leave a comment below or send an email to [email protected].