Can technology connect the dots for development evaluation?

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Can technology connect the dots for development evaluation?

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are a part of everyone's daily landscape. We are all drowning in data.

Alongside this reality sits another – that of the world's poorest people, three quarters of whom depend on subsistence farming for their existence; and worldwide, over 820 million people are still malnourished (2019 est.). Against this bleak backdrop, climate change further undermines food security, exacerbates health threats, reduces the availability of water and boosts population displacement. More rural youth than ever may be connected by phone but they will also be hardest hit economically by the effects of the climate crisis.

Today, the pace of change calls for a new response as growing technologies such as big data analytics, machine learning and remote sensing present development practitioners, especially evaluators, with new opportunities particularly in trying to meet the ambition and complexity of the 2030 Agenda. For evaluators this means being able to measure the progress on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - in faster, cheaper and better ways.

For that reason, in 2017 the Independent Office of Evaluation of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IOE) held a conference on ICT for Evaluation (ICT4Eval) which explored data collection, analysis and dissemination and cross-cutting issues in relation to achieving the SDGs.

To continue this dialogue, a book, Information and Communication Technologies for Development Evaluation, part of the Routledge Studies in Development Economics series, gathers a team of expert practitioners from IOE to explore more in depth this debate. Edited by myself and Evaluation Analyst Prashanth Kotturi, the book examines how evaluation is being improved through remote sensing, wireless devices and communication, cloud computing and machine learning with a look at the importance of geospatial science in data gathering. The volume includes fascinating case studies on simulated field data collection missions, producing humanitarian maps and sharing data in real time.

The book, which presents only a select number of ICT instruments, also tries to answer some of the most pressing questions. What is the best use of existing technologies in producing, collecting and analysing data? Are evaluators adequately skilled to use them? How best to capture the true effects of the SDGs? Most importantly, what are the ethical considerations of increased use of ICT for the vulnerable people whose lives are being evaluated when using technology for evaluation work?

The SDGs and their guiding principle of 'leaving no one behind' present enormous opportunities and challenges for the global evaluation community. Evaluators must turn the idea of who has benefited on its head and use technology to better identify who has been excluded and why.

Marco Segone, Director of the Evaluation Office of the UN Population Fund, highlights the fact that the SDGs are so interconnected - one of the strongest links is between those goals referencing poverty and inequality - that policy integration and coherence across sectors as well as strong partnerships, are more important than ever.

Michael Bamberger looks at how big data analytics might help to fill data gaps. He concludes that despite the barriers to be overcome and the new skills required big data has enormous evaluation potential. However, the human element of partnering and complementary competencies is still of paramount importance.

The ethical questions posed by ICTs are examined by Linda Raftree and include privacy, inclusion and bias.  While technology can bring the world to us, it can also magnify existing inequalities. Privacy, equity of access and biases are concerns that have evolved together with technology. The increasing complexity of big data, data privacy, protection and security require an effort to build the necessary ethical systems, skills and expertise to prevent harm to the most vulnerable.

The book concludes with a look at the broader implications of technology for nations and development partners and looks at how both are coming to grips with the reality that technology is now influencing and driving global economic change. While ICTs have the potential to make the economic activity more sustainable and deliver prosperity to a broader base, these changes are at the risk of leaving the weaker sections of the population behind. Then, one could argue, why focus on ICTs? Because technology can increase outreach and expedite data collection and analysis. It can also amplify the voice of the most vulnerable if used appropriately. Looking forward, the question is - can development partners keep up and ensure that technology benefits the broader population?

I hope this book will add valuable insights into and raise further questions about development evaluation practice for researchers, practitioners and policy-makers. Organizations must ask how best to invest limited resources to get maximum leverage of ICTs and practitioners must sharpen their competencies. Above all evaluators must keep people at the centre of their work. The SDG clock is ticking. Technology and the SDGs will wait for no one and the needs of the rural poor remain pressing. It's time to shake up the status quo!