The intentional process of Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning – or “MERL” – certainly isn’t new, but so much has happened since it was first introduced. In just over half a century, technology has transformed the way organizations implement MERL into their programs and how they communicate with partners.
At the MERL Tech 2018 conference in Washington, DC, Senior Director for Humanitarian Programs at Internews Anahi Ayala Iacucci recapped what has been a busy history for Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D).
Technology was introduced into the MERL space in the 1950s, as multinationals and government organizations with access to early computers (largely from the United States) began running analyses of their efforts. The primary motivation at this point was an efficient allocation of resources, and organizations were, by and large, excited to improve their performance.
Only governmental organizations and multinationals had access to the earliest form of computers.
Over the next three decades, methods became more standardized and greater accessibility to computers meant more organizations could begin evaluating their programs. Funding organizations began to request measurement plans along with their grants, and a few programs began to evaluate performance on more than financial terms (including worker performance and program outcomes).
As the ubiquity of computers continued to grow (the number of American households with a computer skyrocketed during the ‘90s), the area of ICT4D took on a more formal shape. The advent of the Internet allowed for easy communication and sharing of data around the world, and similar to the beginning of technology in MERL, governments were once again the first to utilize the platform for development. Indeed, the G8 summits helped establish the first specific goals and frameworks for measurement, prompting the creation of ICT4D 1.0.
2010 Haiti Earthquake
The tragic 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti in January of 2010 took over one hundred thousand lives and prompted a massive international response. With the high availability and low cost of mobile data plans on the island (95% of the population has access to a mobile network), as well as the nation’s proximity to the United States (a hub for the advancement of technology in development), this response served as a global showcase of the power of ICT4D. Around the world, people were eager to make a difference, and with widespread mobile and smartphone use, they were able to. In fact, they aided in real-time crisis mapping that has been credited with saving lives from thousands of miles away.
The 2010 earthquake in Haiti inflicted devastation on the island but offered the first global showcase of the potential of ICT4D.
2010 – ?
After the benefits of ICT4D were put on display during the Haiti earthquake response, organizations around the world began developing new tools to support a diverse range of development programs. And this time, it wasn’t just the public sector getting involved from the start – private companies now either wanted to do good or found themselves perfectly situated to assist (telecom, social media, data analysis/consultancies, etc.). At this point, everyone was a producer and consumer of information, and the transparency and clarity of the data that became available changed the relationship that NGOs had with beneficiaries and donors.
This is ICT4D 2.0, and with a new age in technology for development, there are also new considerations to be made.
What to watch out for
Just like with any new technology, the advancements in ICT4D mean new problems. We still believe that ICT4D has made remarkable strides in improving the effectiveness of development programs around the world, but issues surrounding privacy, security, and behavioral impact and manipulation deserve our attention. Anything that alters human relationships is political, and technology is no different. This will need to be taken into account as we mediate the traditional approaches to technology (“fail fast!”) with their potential new consequences in healthcare, agriculture, and education.
Governmental organizations are beginning to recognize this, but there are still large gaps in business ethics laws that organizations will need to proactively mitigate while the larger bodies continue to introduce reliable and effective regulation.
International organizations continue to debate both the possibilities and necessary regulation of ICT4D.
What is in store for ICT4D?
The next horizon for ICT4D is the successful integration of artificial intelligence. The field of AI has made great strides in other industries to analyze massive amounts of data, integrate systems that otherwise wouldn’t speak to each other, and personalize platforms to their users. Organizations have already started using it on certain projects as a predictive analytics tool.
We will see how quickly incentives are aligned and funds are targeted toward AI-driven initiatives, but the hope is that these advances will spur the creation of better, more scalable and interactive ICT4D platforms.
New, but similar concerns are likely to arise around privacy, security, and behavioral impact, but if the ICT4D community is able to address them in its current state, then we will surely be able to realize the impressive benefits of the next age of ICT4D while mitigating its risks. How do you see the next iteration of ICT4D coming to life and what risks do you think we may encounter?