More than just technology: 3 success factors for digital M&E systems

The use of technology has the potential to make M&E more efficient and more informative for everyone involved. At Mainlevel, we have seen this potential in action: In Lesotho, for example, where our digital M&E system supports a civic education project with monitoring its activities across the country; or in Malawi, where we are developing a web-based M&E system for a project working on nutrition and primary education.

But it would be misleading to think that plugging in user-friendly digital solutions is enough to improve M&E. The technology needs to be complemented with professional M&E expertise to ensure the digital tools build on effective M&E processes. And the underlying management of data – covering its collection, analysis and distribution – needs to be handled inclusively, responsibly and securely.

These three success factors – solid M&E expertise, user-friendly technology and responsible data management – were among key insights that our consultant, Daniel Brumund, took away from the first MERL Tech conference in Johannesburg which took place in early August 2018. The conference brought together over 100 practitioners from NGOs, academia, government and donors to discuss practice, experience and lessons from using digital technology to improve monitoring, evaluation, research and learning (short: MERL).

First and foremost, there is a growing need for M&E experts because many organisations – large and small – struggle with monitoring and evaluating their activities and impact. From defining theories of change and indicators to collecting and analysing data, M&E is often seen as a book with seven seals: too complicated and best left untouched. This, of course, is a wasted opportunity because good M&E is not complicated but empowering. If done right, it improves both strategic decision-making and institutional learning.

Once effective M&E processes are in place, technology can help make them more efficient, inclusive and informative. At MERL Tech a wide range of digital solutions was presented – from interactive voice response for data collection and WhatsApp to facilitate focus group discussions to Wiki portals that help manage knowledge and tools for scientific data analysis. It was inspiring to see how these digital solutions can work complementarily to strengthen M&E practice.

Yet while focusing on technical aspects of M&E and digital solutions, we mustn’t forget who is using and providing this data: people. Whether it’s practitioners, implementers, public servants or project beneficiaries – it is important that our data strategies include ‘people strategies’: Who is collecting the data? Who is analysing it? Who is represented by it – and who isn’t? Who has access to it – and who doesn’t? And is the data stored securely? Such people-centred, responsible and secure data management need to be at the core of any digital (or non-digital) M&E system.

For us at Mainlevel, the insights from MERL Tech reinforced our passion for working at the intersection of development cooperation, digitalisation and M&E. We are particularly eager to explore synergies and opportunities to collaborate with other players in the MERL Tech field. Because we believe that we are stronger together – and that our approaches can complement each other for the benefit of our clients, and for jointly bringing the field of technology and M&E forward.

What is your experience with M&E and digital solutions? What are the needs or challenges in your own work? We’re looking forward to exploring them with you and to jointly developing solutions that support you with making a difference. Daniel is happy to hear from you: daniel.brumund@mainlevel.de.