Connecting the data dots

(or how I learned to love technology for development)

“Mostly data analysis.”
“Crosswalking databases.”
“Research on…(what else?) data.”

These are some of my (drier) answers when asked what I’ve been up to this summer. Of course, these responses don’t even begin to cover all I worked on and learned during the past 10 weeks as an AidData Summer Fellow at UNICEF Uganda. For a better idea of what I was doing, check out an overview by Martha Staid on AidData’s involvement in Uganda and the two projects with UNICEF that I worked on as a Summer Fellow.

Martha Staid, Senior Associate at Development Gateway, checks out a “school in a box” at the UNICEF Innovation Lab in Kampala.

You might have the same follow-up question that many of my friends and family had. “That sounds cool, Rebecca…but what does that really mean? And what does all this data look like?”

Good question. Here’s my shot at a response.

Solar panels powering Technology for Development (T4D) projects at the UNICEF Innovation Lab.

Before I begin, I have a confession to make: data is not my specialty. I assure you, the d-word was pretty mysterious to me at first. As an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary, I’m still exploring where I fit into the development universe. Working as a Research Assistant at AidData, I’ve mastered geocoding and honed my research skills but have never before dived into crowdsourced data collection or worked on active projects in the field. In Kampala, I found myself thrown into both at once. The result? Lots of questions, a few concrete answers, and the groundwork for much future research.

An older “digital drum” model and a newer “school in a box” at the UNICEF Innovation Lab.

During my time at UNICEF, I learned a couple golden rules of data:

Data is only as good as its availability and accessibility to users.

We saw real-life examples of this at the UNICEF Innovation Lab in Kampala. From “digital drums” to “schools in a box,” there were many creative solutions to connect youth with technology.

Matthew Robinson (AidData Summer Fellow), Danny Walker (AidData Research Consultant), and Martha Staid hear about UNICEF’s digital kiosks at the Innovation Lab.

T4D, or Technology for Development, is poised to open doors for thousands in schools, clinics, and youth centers across Uganda. But these cool gadgets are just one way UNICEF is creating opportunities for engagement…

The UNICEF U-report team meets with the National Secretariat of Uganda Youth Coalitions in Kampala.

UNICEF also uses mobile technology to connect with youth throughout Uganda. U-report is a free SMS program allowing Ugandans to report on what’s happening in their community. Development partners and local leaders can then use this crowdsourced data to take citizen voices into account as they make decisions, thus completing the feedback loop between donors and community stakeholders. Given AidData’s interest in crowdsourcing and citizen feedback, U-report is a great platform to examine. While research on this tool is still being piloted, there were many insights gained about how and when U-report data can be used to tighten feedback loops and promote more effective development outcomes.

Group photo after a meeting on the usage of U-report data with leaders of the Gulu Youth Coalition.

This summer, we focused how and when local government leaders will incorporate crowdsourced data into their normal activities. We heard many valuable insights from district government leaders, technical staff, and civil society organizations, such as:

Data is cooler when it’s broken down.

A brainstorm board at a U-report conference for leaders in Abim and Moroto districts.

When presented with analyzed reports on what U-reporters are saying, many decision-makers requested the information be broken down by gender, age, and geographic location (district).

Disaggregated data allows local government officials to make decisions based on conditions in their district. This also allows for differences across gender and age to be highlighted. Through the creation of geocoded datasets, AidData has led the charge for more granular data to increase aid effectiveness and transparency.

Data is lonely without context.

Community Development Officers in Jinja complete a lab workshop activity on the use of crowdsourced data.

Examining data from a single source is both limited and boring. That’s why AidData and Development Gateway are working on integrating two databases with complementary development information. DevTrac is a UNICEF tool used primarily to track site visits and monitor projects in the field. In addition, the Government of Uganda has implemented Development Gateway’s Aid Management Platform to track aid flows financing projects nationwide. By combining these two sources of information, development partners, policymakers, and citizens will be able to trace projects from their donor funding source down to sites visited on the ground.

Crowdsourced information from tools like U-report also gains more meaning when overlaid with data from other sources. This information is usually more familiar and conventional (such as data from surveys or common development indicators) and can be compared geospatially with analyzed data from the “crowd.”

An older digital kiosk model at the UNICEF Innovation Lab.

Data isn’t scary.

While it took a little while to convince me of this, I’ve learned to love T4D and, of course, data. For example, we worked on developing standard ways to analyze the wealth of information sent in by over 260,000 U-reporters. Identifying patterns and trends took us from the overwhelming “raw data” to actionable items for presentation to partners, leaders, and citizens. This process was really rewarding — like piecing together a puzzle or connecting the dots.

Think data still sounds scary?

Danny Walker gets the crowd to burst out laughing at a U-report conference for government and civil society leaders in Abim and Moroto districts.

…it’s actually a great way to make new friends.

Everywhere we went, leaders were excited about U-report and incorporating citizen feedback into their decisions. In addition to the awesome team at UNICEF, I met many stakeholders in local government and civil society organizations who are interested in accessing new sources of data in an effort to make their work more effective. U-report may become a new type of social network, connecting citizens and leaders as they provide information to each other.

UN World Food Program vehicles outside the UNICEF zonal office in Moroto.

So, yes, I did spend time staring at Excel spreadsheets and comparing data fields while sunny Kampala beckoned outside my office window. But I also gained an understanding of the unique challenges and benefits of implementing T4D projects and, most of all, learned to embrace the data.

Rebecca Schectman

AidData Summer Fellow, UNICEF Uganda

I’m a junior at the College of William and Mary pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations. I’ve worked with AidData as a research assistant since 2013.