When working on a mobile data collection program – or any development program – it can be easy to fall into the trap of deferring all decision-making to the funders of your program or the government. But in the spirit of the digital principles of development, we owe it to each other and to the success of the project to work collaboratively. That means asking specific and important questions early in the development stage of your project. When speaking with new organizations, we ask them questions like:
- What does success look like for your project? Determining the specific criteria that constitute a minimum viable project has to be done at the very start of your program. Setting a plan now for what you will do once you reach those goals is also vital. For instance, once you complete V1, are you going to add more scope or freeze the app and focus on scale?
- What is unique about your organization and your data collection plan? The most successful organizations we work with use what sets them apart to increase their impact.
- Who cares most about the outcome of this project? What do we think they will say at the end? The person designing a program is not always the one accountable for its success. This question is about including their voice in the planning process, even if they are not there.
- Why are we planning five years for this process? Could we accomplish it in one or two? Global development has longstanding norms that technology like mobile data collection can help disrupt. With the speed and accuracy of mobile data collection, five-year projects might not be five-year projects anymore.
- What is going to be the hardest thing about the data collection process? Every mobile data collection program runs into obstacles. Knowing what they are ahead of time helps you figure out how to overcome them.
- Who is the most important person to this project’s success? Many programs involve government organizations, funders, technology partners, NGOs, and many others. Figuring out who plays the role of a blocker to your progress or who can help facilitate a smooth project launch is vital from the very start.
Some of these questions can be tough to ask and even tougher to answer. People don’t like to admit that they might not be the most important person to the project’s success, but these questions can make sure that everyone is on the same page as you move into the research and design phase. And sometimes it can take a newcomer to the room to ask the hardest questions of all.
Have the tough conversations early to make sure everyone is on the same page.
What are you asking questions about?
Mobile data collection plans can be complex and account for many components. Make sure you’re asking questions about each of them. For example:
Your project objectives:
- What constitutes success for this project?
- Are different stakeholders looking for different outcomes?
- Who is responsible for organizing and running the project?
- Who is responsible for the project’s success?
- Who can you count on for support and what can they offer?
- What are the characteristics of the people/place you are looking to serve?
- Does your plan fit their environment (e.g. cultural norms, connectivity, digital literacy, etc.)?
- Are you counting on your beneficiaries for any part of your program?
These are just a few dimensions to consider when mapping out a strategy. Tried and true project management resources, like Scott Berkun’s Making Things Happen, are a great way to explore dimensions of a project you haven’t thought about before.
Organize your thoughts – together
The specific questions you ask about your data collection plan should provide you with specific insights. The next step is to organize those insights in such a way that someone joining the project after this process has a clear way to understand how it works. Eventually, this can take the form of an information flow diagram, but one of the best ways to get started is an old-fashioned whiteboard and marker.
You don’t get too detailed, but it gets everyone invested in the discussion and on the same page, and you can change things easily and quickly. Nothing is permanent, assumptions can be challenged with a quick swipe of the eraser.
The resulting shared mental model you create together is invaluable to the rest of the planning and design phase, and the momentum of your common understanding can carry you over many rough patches. You might even need to perform this process a few times at different steps along the way, sometimes upgrading a phone call to an in-person meeting.
Investing the time early to create a shared understanding is fairly uncommon in the development space, but the results this practice can provide are often uncommon, too.
It’s better to align early. The work you do to prepare avoids conflict later and ensures your readiness when the situation inevitably changes.
When it all goes wrong
The saying that “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything” is very true. Once you have a plan, you have to be prepared for it to change almost immediately. It may feel like all the time you spend asking those questions and organizing the insights was wasted. In reality, this is precisely when all the hard work to develop a shared understanding will pay off.
Projects can be so volatile that contingency planning is often difficult. How are you even supposed to predict what will go wrong beyond a high-level risk assessment? Natural disasters, staffing changes, loss of funding, and unexpected change in a political regime are some examples of what your program may face. But a common understanding between all stakeholders will mean everyone is aware of the context of an issue, what components of your plan it affects, and most importantly, who is capable of solving it and how.
Have the hard conversations early, ask the tough questions, organize the answers together, and we promise your mobile data collection program will stand a much better chance of success. Good luck!