Art of the Possible #7: Technology Decisions

Chris Wood Associates

This is the seventh and final entry from Chris Wood in the "Art of the Possible: Technology and Tools for Improved Monitoring and Evaluation" blog series, which covers design, data collection, databases, analysis, and using your results. All articles cover the use of technology, the options available and how to decide on the best approach for your projects. This article discusses the technology options and decisions you need to make for your M&E system.

Key consideration:

Select the technology to fit your situation and M&E design. Don’t allow technology to dictate what you do.

When researching and selecting your M&E technology solution, there are five areas you should consider - as well as the specific requirements of the technology to do the job.

Volumes

Always calculate the total amount of data you will be collecting and managing. Look to the future and consider how many years you will be collecting data in order to measure impact. These volumes will have an influence on the database you use to store and manage the data. Simple programs running for 3 years probably need a relational database as spreadsheets will quickly become overloaded.

Locations

Where do you need the technology to operate? Not only should you consider where data is collected, but where will it be stored and managed. Do you need to provide access to the data to people in other locations or even countries such as donors, analysts or consultants? If so, think carefully about the legal implications about sharing potentially sensitive data across borders.

Staff skills and flexibility

As with any technology you use, make sure that your team has the skills to operate and amend the systems and designs. Things will change during the lifetime of your programs and you need to be able to adapt the M&E tools to suit. Working with spreadsheets is one thing, being able to build pivot tables and complex formulae require a different level of skill. Implementing mobile devices or building a database requires even more specialised skills and knowledge. If your team does not have the required skills, where will you get them from?

Analyses & reporting

Collecting and managing data is only part of the M&E equation. You need to be able to make sense of the data and turn it into meaningful charts, tables or graphics to create powerful statements. This is not a simple task and sometimes requires an outsider to help tease out the important information. Take care to review your M&E design and confirm the questions you are trying to answer through M&E. These will guide you to analysing the right things.

Cost

Be aware of the cost of your technology solution. There are many solutions offered as “free” or “open source”.  On the face of it, the fact that there are no license fees for the software and an army of contributors keeping it working sounds great. You just download the latest code, install it on your server and away you go – all free!

Well, there is no such thing as “free” software in reality because you need to consider the long game. Open source is free in the sense of a puppy not a meal. With a free meal, you receive the food, eat it and that is the end of the transaction. With a puppy, you receive it and then have to pay continually for the lifetime of the puppy / dog. So the puppy is not really free. The same is true with software. Just because you do not pay for it does not mean that it won’t cost you money. You must calculate the total cost or ownership of the technology over the lifetime of your programs. Make sure you include staff and consultant costs. You will be surprised!

Do a cost-benefit analysis to make sure that this approach is appropriate for your situation. If you have less than 100 students to survey, is it worth it?