Luke Church and Joshua HolmesNovember 6, 2019

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We live in an age of metrics. More often than not, complex problems get reduced to numbers. In international development, we often try to make decisions based on these numbers. But what is there that numbers can’t say?

We all know that experiences can’t be reduced to a single data point – so what happens if we just tried listening to people saying what they wanted?

This was the driving concept of a recent LabStorm with Africa’s Voices. Africa’s Voices is a Kenya-based organization that deploys innovative solutions to enable bottom-up, citizen-driven decision-making. Through a unique combination of core capabilities – novel media, technology, and social science research – Africa’s Voices turns large-scale authentic citizen voices into evidence that can be used to strengthen the impact of decision-makers and help them adapt their work to the views and priorities of the citizens they serve.

They have developed a one-to-one SMS conversational channel for engaging citizens in co-designing interventions that aim to improve their lives.

Africa’s Voices closes feedback loops between citizens and service providers through meaningful conversational engagement with people, on their own terms and language – and works to interpret the “messy” subjective data that comes out of these conversations.

Africa’s Voices came to the LabStorm group to discuss the value of conversation on their SMS platform and brainstorm ways to communicate this value to external stakeholders. LabStorm attendees had lots of great points about why the conversation, and advice for how to communicate that value. Here’s what they had to say.

  1. Framing matters. Africa’s Voices one-to-one engagement platform emerged from the problematization of existing prevalent alternatives, such as household surveys. However, this leads to a critical narrative based on what is wrong with existing methods rather than what is beneficial about our Africa’s Voices’ method. Rather than using a double-negative the attendees felt that Africa’s Voices would benefit from a positive framing using empowering words such as “authentic”.
  2. Conversations offer something unique. Conversations are a place where citizens can have their say, a thing they value in itself. As such, they are more inclined to share authentic, unique opinions, which carry a nuance that would be unlikely to have emerged otherwise.

    An attendee pointed out that research indicators have suggested that conversational language improves the effectiveness of enumerators using conventional data collection methodologies – the same could hold true for Africa’s Voices. After all, when people are welcomed to speak in their own language, in a conversation, they are more likely to open up and share rich information about their experience.

  3. Authentic data help us see around corners. Honest, authentic conversations with citizens can be revealing. After all, citizens are more likely to mention a problem or negative observation in their conversation with Africa’s Voices long before an external auditor notices it. For this reason, conversations conducted through the Africa’s Voices platform could have potential applications for safeguarding. LabStorm attendees agreed that safeguarding is a key value proposition for open conversations. They also raised the point that “safeguarding” is in itself is aid-jargon, and we need to create more natural spaces that achieve safeguarding without the formality of traditional models. The conversations that Africa’s Voices has create just such a space.

This LabStorm reminded us about the importance of authenticity in conversations. When people are honest about their needs and experiences, we learn much more that metrics can’t convey. Do you see any other benefits to having subjective conversations in humanitarian contexts? If so, leave a comment below, or send a note to [email protected].

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