Data Innovation Mini Grants: What we learned one year on…

By Andrew Thornley and Derval Usher

How to track cases of malaria across all these islands..?

The problem with the word ‘innovation’ is the expectation that it will be the silver bullet that can yield instant results for a company, organization or government department. This is very rarely the case and indeed the sheer volume of innovation challenges these days means that competition to perform is fierce with an expectation to reap good results instantaneously, preferably with an ability to scale up the ‘innovation’ for good measure.

In 2015, Pulse Lab Jakarta initiated a Data Innovation Mini Grant competition to promote a shift from theory to action in data innovation and support the Government of Indonesia to provide more effective services. While small in value, at no more than US$10,000 each, these projects represented variety in origin and focus. Award winners included local civil society organizations, a university faculty, and a local government department. What we were looking to do was highlight burgeoning local innovation and offer a wide variety of examples across the Indonesian archipelago of how small scale ‘mini grants’ could potentially trigger better public services by making changes with new methods, idea and products.

The winners of these mini grants have been well documented but we wanted to go further. In collaboration with the Knowledge Sector Initiative, Pulse Lab Jakarta was interested to examine — one year on — the successes and impact of these four mini grant projects and capture lessons to inform ongoing support for data innovation for development. Pulse Lab Jakarta received funding for these mini grants from UNDP’s Innovation Facility and we are grateful for this support.

So how are the mini grant winners faring one year on. Key results include the following:

  1. The South Halmahera Malaria Center (SHMC) in North Maluku successfully developed and tested its SMS-based LaCaK Malaria reporting system to improve the speed and quality of malaria reporting. As a result, SHMC secured local government funds to fully support implementation of LaCaK Malaria.
  2. Swandiri Insitute in West Kalimantan demonstrated that unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) mapping could support cheaper and more effective treatment of pests and disease in order to improve rice yields. As a result of the project pilot, Sungai Itik village budgeted for its own UAV aerial mapping. Swandiri Insitute won a coveted GovInsider award, presented in Singapore on 28 September 2016, as one of five outstanding drone for development projects in recognition of its work under this grant.
  3. Pulse Lab Jakarta developed a comprehensive toolkit on urban vulnerability mapping based on the project experience of Urban Poor Consortium (UPC) in Jakarta testing an integrated method for data collection, management, and visualization that empowers local citizens.
  4. Padjajaran University, working with Floodtags and Radboud University in the Netherlands, used important experience from this project — in particular, relating to validation of field data and classification of tweets — to inform a longer-term research strategy into the use of social media data in forecasting water-related diseases.

This is what we learned from the data innovation grant winners themselves. We are pleased with the overall results and impact from these mini grants. However, Pulse Lab Jakarta accumulated so much more when assessing these mini grant projects and some important takeaways include:

Innovation really is about people

People on the inside. Innovation begins with the generation and communication of ideas but depends on the collaboration imperative. Longer-term success requires employment of appropriate human resources and the engagement of partners and champions along the way who can help facilitate technical expertise, support networking, and promote advocacy with key stakeholders. For example, Swandiri Institute alone cannot effectively test, monitor, report on, and conduct advocacy related to its aerial mapping prototype.

People on the outside. Political economy analysis and human-centric design are buzzy concepts. But the reality is that despite being vital to the longer-term success of development innovations that aim to improve social protection and livelihoods, they are rarely employed systematically. Innovation for development entails beneficiaries as well as important stakeholders who have the capacity and political incentive to facilitate or hinder successful implementation. These actors should be considered early in design processes, feature extensively in testing, and remain front and center of implementation strategies. Both UPC and Swandiri Institute were surprised by potential beneficiaries who rejected participation in prototype testing.

Ground-truth initial hypotheses. Ideally, innovation addresses challenges and problems that have been observed and validated on the ground. UNPAD and partners learned this the hard way. Their plan to prototype a disease forecasting model using Twitter data was not feasible since they had not sufficiently addressed the lack of timely and reliable official health data in Indonesia (important for cross checking) in their project design.

Keep it simple and real. The experience of these initiatives further confirms that development innovations are successful when they use environment-appropriate technology and demonstrate clear and immediate benefits. SHMC succeeded with SMS-based reporting after trying, and failing, prior to this project with online computer-generated reporting that proved costly and unreliable.

Money matters. Innovation prototypes are never the end game. Pilots developed under small grants such as these inevitably aspire to significant impact. The journey to implementation and scalability requires financial support — and so even small grants should help in preparing partners plan for this reality. Projects should also consider all hardware and software needs to sustain implementation, including procurement of relevant licensed software — important in an environment where reliance on pirated software is rife.

Don’t overlook analytical capacity. With data comes data analytics. Project partners sometimes aim for promotion of a community of practice, local community engagement on spatial analysis or social media analytics, or engagement with policy makers around relevant data-driven evidence. But the success of this depends on sufficient analytical capacity among implementers as well as key stakeholders.

Set realistic targets and report accurately. We know this instinctively, but — from donors to community-based organizations and government institutions — we should avoid hubris in the initial definition of project goals and objectives as well as in project reports. Overreach of aims at project outset can set the stage for unjust criticism of actual results or a temptation to exaggerate stated project results, neither of which supports effective learning. Objective reporting can be complicated by the reality that while innovators embrace failure, this particular appetite may not be shared by other stakeholders in government or among other implementing partners.

Communicate effectively. Project implementers can be self-centered or may not be effective at engaging beyond their immediate communities. But innovation is one-part inspiration. Institutions such as Pulse Lab Jakarta can serve as important publication platforms and venues to amplify sharing — both in Indonesia and with an international audience.

Plan around stages of innovation for development. This is the focus of a forthcoming blog which will detail the various stages involved.

In summary, Pulse Lab Jakarta’s mini grants demonstrate that even modest support can facilitate the achievement of concrete and cost-effective results. But results and experiences vary. And so of equal importance is the extent that these small grants have yielded valuable lessons from which these partners and others — including Pulse Lab Jakarta itself — can benefit.

The funding for these mini grants was through UNDP’s Innovation Facility which is funded by the Government of Denmark. Thank you for the support.

Pulse Lab Jakarta is also grateful for the generous support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Government of Australia.