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Knowing How To Help - Data, Aid and Impact

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White foam washes gently up the beach on an idyllic Mediterranean island. In the darkness, a young woman struggles ashore. Clearly exhausted, she is missing many of her heavier clothes, sacrificed to the struggle to stay alive in the dark sea. But she is on shore now, and safe. For now. One treasure she has clung to – a small plastic bag with a few things tightly wrapped in it. It is the first thing she reaches for when she reaches the beach. Relief floods her body when she discovers that not only does she have the bag, but it is dry inside. The old Huawei smart phone shows a low battery warning and won’t start.


A person with a vest marked “Volunteer” strides down the beach to meet her. He addresses her in Arabic “Salaam alikoum – how are you?” Almost before the words are out of his mouth, she asks “where am I? He points silently to the flag. “Greece.”

“Do you have WiFi? And where can I charge my phone?” comes the next questions in rapid succession.
Let me take you there, comes the gentle reply. We will answer your other questions on the way.

With a charged phone, and a new SIM. The young woman uses WhatsApp, and Facebook messenger to connect to family and friends in Syria, Sweden and Germany to let them know she is alive. And that her sister and younger brother didn’t make it. She will use data to inform decisions along the dangerous road across Europe, provide distraction from the stressful journey by listening to music and playing Candy Crush, and stay in touch with family – always staying in touch.


To her, access to the internet is as important as water, medical treatment and shelter. Data IS aid.

How do you know you made a difference?
This is a question that is both the bane and challenge to every manager of an international humanitarian project. As workers in the NGO space, we desire to see lives transformed, and through them we want to see communities called to lives that are more just and equitable; communities well governed for the benefit of all. But untried sentiment is worthless.
graphicstock business concept minThankfully the industrial revolution is over, and the digital revolution has begun. We have transparency to an unprecedented level, and the power of social media to unite people around ideas. The digital revolution has begun like a rockslide, disrupting everything in its path and changing the landscape with it. The old ways in which traditional NGOs offered value are waning and a new methods of offering value are on the rise. So, what does it mean to make a difference?

In one sense, nothing has changed. People still want what’s best for their families, they still want the right to earn a sustainable income and to participate in community life. When these positive changes happen, then our work has made a difference – maybe even the one we desire.

It is the how that has changed. For those of us in the humanitarian sector, the tools, the methods, the funding models are all in flux. And this is enabled and accelerated by data. Data offers unparalleled access to people and places: we can communicate easily with individuals to share ideas with or talk to a group to launch a revolution. Data analysis offers us new lenses with which to see the world and make better decisions – and to see the results of our bad ones.

So if you want to know you have made a difference in this brave new world, you need analytics, innovation and focus, and all of this delivered at scale, with speed. Welcome to the realms of knowledge management and information technology.

Scaling for Impact
Someone once said that computers can help you do stupid things really quickly and at scale. The reverse is also true. But either way, digital is all about scaling impact – for good or ill. Tipping the balance towards digital for good is where program design fits.

All aspects of the program need to be structured to capture and feed data into appropriate analytics that aid in good decision making which maximizes impact. It means that the program design needs to be resilient so it can pivot based on the data coming in. Most importantly it means getting – up front and in advance –the right processes in place supported by the right staff. First.

It’s tempting in the hustle that surrounds a project startup to short-cut a clear understanding of the processes that will drive meaningful change. Finding the creative and motivated staff that will give life to the goals of the project is also a challenge. But without this early stage thinking and action, fantastic technology or brilliant strategy alone will not be sufficient to bring the desired change.

Please note that this is not about using tech to drive efficiency. Efficiencies will happen, but tech for efficiencies’ sake is an artifact of the industrial revolution. And efficiencies alone are not enough for achieving the kind of impact we are looking for.

Platforms and Data Architecture
If we know the kind of project and the impact we want to have, we should be able to define a tool set to enhance the impact of program design and amplify the capabilities of the staff. Current approaches to data collection are too narrow, fragmented and labour intensive. This thinking means good data is not collected everywhere it should be, and is sometimes accidentally locked up in silos that don’t benefit the whole data ecosystem. Instead, thoughtful design needs to ensure that data is collected easily, cleaned and stored with integrity and analyzed everywhere using tools that interconnect seamlessly. Privacy concerns are also key, and we must ensure that information flows securely and appropriately into analysis, decision making and ultimately, impact.

At every step along the information value chain, we should strive to collect and analyze the results of each activity – in near, preferably real time. The question we should always ask is “How do we know?”

  • analysis wordHow do we know that event was successful?
  • How do we know that variety of seed is the right one for those field conditions?
  • How do we know the producer sold 5,000 tonnes of tomatoes?
  • How do we know clients are reading the information articles on the project web site?
  • How do we know that the project goals are offering real value to clients?
    So, how do you know?

And the First shall be Last, and the Last First
With a deepened and broadened understanding of the project beneficiaries that is now possible, it is appropriate and important to change the project focus from donors to beneficiaries. This means that projects need to be designed starting with the client not the solution. The digital revolution can provide much more granular approaches to sustainable livelihoods than has been possible before. Donors need to become comfortable with the notion that some market based solutions to poverty may be emergent rather than prescriptive. This means they need to be comfortable seeing efficacy with the analytics that surround program activities.

Fundamentally, technology is allowing for the disruption of the NGO value chain. Donors can go straight to beneficiaries, bypassing the NGO. NGO and Private Sector partnerships are materializing, and local organizations are developing viable and sustainable local options to solve their own problems. This last point is exactly the impact we have collectively been looking for all these decades.

But for us in the NGO space, we need to be aware of this tectonic shift and know if, when, how, and where to add value. We definitely do not want to increase the vulnerability of our local clients and partners with our priorities, but rather resource and empower them to chart their own future. After all, Development is not the ability to have, it is the power to become.

Her face gently lit by the light from seven monitors, she sits still in the quietness of the truck. Equipped with the most advanced telecommunications equipment on the market, the vehicle is designed to carry the equipment that connects people in crisis to the internet. She watches a new cell phone connect wirelessly to the antennas outside and monitors the flow of data from the new device, ensuring it doesn’t represent a threat to the network. The operator knows that skimming credit card data from refugees is a favourite pastime of criminals and she is determined to ensure this doesn’t happen on her watch.

Her company directly supports this initiative, and she has volunteered from her normal work as part of the company’s security team. She is here for three weeks to help ensure refugees get access to accurate information about travel, news and weather conditions, and to ensure they can stay connected to loved ones back home. She admires the work of the NGO staff who she is serving with and is proud of her contribution to the effort.

The analytics from the truck and others like it are used to chart and track populations, helping ensure appropriate resources are brought to bear along the migration route. They are also used to track and mitigate the damage from criminals who seek to exploit the bank accounts and even the bodies of the world’s most vulnerable people.

I am just like these people, she thinks to herself. Vulnerability is often a matter of context – and data can make all the difference.

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