Large or small, technophile or technophobe, all charities rely on various types of data to inform their work—to make plans, monitor delivery, and understand and improve their impact. The better quality the data, the better equipped charities are to learn and develop. This we can take as a given, like a person depends on their eyes and ears to evaluate and respond to the world around them. The exciting part—the part we at NPC are really interested in at the moment—is when charities find ways to develop their ‘senses’ to see more clearly and improve more easily.
We’ve been seeing a whole series of tech-enabled measurement practices driven by the boom in digital, data and connectivity, new collaborations and recent theories of human behaviour. These emerging practices in learning and evaluation take us in lots of directions, and for every new area we are asking: what’s the potential?
Mobile phones, for example, can now capture data that offers unique insights into people’s lives, as individuals record and share perceptions, behaviour and sentiments. In the commercial sector, attempts to harness mobile phone culture range from apps used to record video diaries and stories, to mobile surveys and crowd-sourced information. Innovative approaches, like Girl Hub and their use of Sensemaker, are an emerging attempt to apply these techniques to driving social change.
Some innovations are linked, of course. Digital technology makes it easier to connect to people, offer real-time direct feedback, engage with and involve users, and therefore make services more accountable. We saw an inspiring example of this after the August earthquake in Nepal. The Accountability Lab and Local Interventions Group collaborated to create SMS reporting hotlines and financial aid tracking systems to ensure relief efforts reached those most in need. The technology made it much quicker to respond to incoming information, which was crucial in a situation of uncertainty when fast learning and adaptation was needed.
In some cases, the technology itself isn’t that new, but what is changing is our ability to measure, combine, and make sense of previously hard-to-obtain data. With better software and more sophisticated data analysis, charities can analyse recorded data to make predictions that lead to informed decisions—known as ‘predictive analytics’. One example is the Medway Youth Trust, who use software to identify which young people are at highest risk of unemployment after leaving school, by profiling them based on a series of risk factors tracked over time. Here their smart use of data allows them to target services and heighten their impact.
There are limitations of course. To refine their use of data to improve services in the future, organisations need to understand the success of their predictions. Google, for example, knows within seconds if its search engine prediction is correct, and if not, what alterations it should make for the future. But in the complex world of social problems it may take years to see outcomes and improve accuracy.
Nevertheless, innovations in the way we measure are bringing charities closer to beneficiaries, speeding up data collection and improving the quality of intelligence available. Exciting times lie ahead, so we’re on a quest to identify the innovations in data use and measurement that should be most valuable to charities. We will be speaking to experts from around the world and developing case studies that show how those approaches work. So get thinking, and we will too!