Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning and the Internet of Things

(Second in a series of four blogs on how the Internet of Things (IoT) can improve specific aspects of global development such as monitoring, evaluation and learning, health outcomes, and infrastructure development.)

What is MEL and Why is it Important?

Each year, foreign aid organizations and development practitioners spend more than $167 billion dollars on development and humanitarian programs around the globe. These projects aim to enhance millions of lives through achievement of key health, economic, and education goals, like those outlined in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Massive efforts are undertaken annually in hundreds of countries to implement projects and initiatives that seek to achieve the SDGs and other objectives, but success is not always (1) guaranteed and (2) easy to articulate. That’s where monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) emerges as a critical component of all development planning and project implementation.

The ability to monitor and evaluate development interventions is crucial; it enables practitioners and policymakers to track progress and learn from that data. MEL planning and implementation determines project or key performance indicators (KPIs) as data points to inform an activity’s progress. For example, say a foreign aid organization, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), seeks to enhance employment opportunities in a partner country. The Agency may help to create a program with MEL indicators that include the number of: jobs created; local firms participating in a job placement program; job placement/interview fairs conducted, etc. These indicators may be complemented by or overlaid with other related data – like the change in unemployment percentage – to paint a more holistic picture of the program’s impact, if any.

How Can IOT Integrate with MEL for Development Purposes?

It’s important to align MEL frameworks and approaches to advanced technologies that allow managers to administer projects in real-time from anywhere in the world. This “flattening” of the international landscape presents a multitude of opportunities – like enhanced flow of goods and services across borders and continents – but it also makes the world more susceptible to challenges, like those posed by climate change or public health crises. For instance, the emergence of the COVID-19 virus and the global response has affected the lives of every person requiring enormous inter-governmental and inter-industry coordination. The distribution of billions of dollars in foreign aid and medical equipment and now worldwide COVID-19 vaccine distribution necessitates a robust monitoring and evaluation framework.

Applying MEL to the distribution and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines is a complex undertaking and requires: 1) an expanded monitoring footprint and 2) large scale data processing. In many traditional development interventions, a single MEL expert or a team can design, implement, and execute on the monitoring and evaluation of a program. Yet complex initiatives such as COVAX, the global collaboration to develop, produce, and provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines to every country, requires a new, methodical approach that relies on technology and data.

Enter The Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things – the billions of physical devices embedded with sensors to collect and exchange information over the internet – could be a valuable MEL tool in health, economic growth, education, agriculture, humanitarian assistance, and other development projects, including COVAX. International development practitioners and evaluators scrutinize the on-going efforts and impact of their programs, and the best way to accomplish that is to expand and automate data collection for these large and complex projects. IOT represents one of the most powerful tools and approaches for doing just that – integrating big data from a wide range of relevant sources to produce a composite picture of what is happening in the moment and help program managers make determinations about next steps.

Development practitioners and MEL specialists can take advantage of IoT technologies to support a variety of projects and activities by proactively installing these sensors on key project infrastructure to collect and process data, connect it back to existing systems, and house information in the Cloud in real-time. The benefits of increased data collection and aggregation for large-scale activities, like COVID-19 vaccine distribution, can help global health supply chains track the movement of vaccine shipments, as well as registration and delivery of doses. Introducing sensors and data reporting tools at development facilities, government customs and processing centers, and at delivery sites or medical clinics would allow practitioners and policymakers to determine how production and distribution strategies are working, and/or make decisions to fill gaps or expedite the specific targets. In addition, MEL professionals can leverage this data to report on these initiatives and articulate how successful a given intervention has been. Overall, employing IoT in this manner helps to accomplish several goals at once:

• Identifying scalable solutions/approaches
• Weeding out process and implementation issues
• Tying ends to means
• Painting a compelling picture about results

Global Development and IOT Moving Forward

The days of largely manual indicators and impact data collection for development projects are quickly fading as practitioners turn to digital technologies. The complex nature of large global development interventions – such as COVAX or the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) – requires a robust MEL framework rooted in large-scale data collection and processing. Structuring development approaches so that data collection and reporting components take place in real-time rather than relying on standard reporting periods yields better results. This can be achieved through the introduction of data collection and processing systems and sensors within an IOT environment, allowing various components to “speak” to one another and provide actionable, up-to-date pictures of a project’s status.

The Internet of Things represents a technological approach that can revolutionize how global development projects are monitored and evaluated, providing the space for iterative, kinetic MEL rather than snapshots in time, allowing practitioners to make better decisions about project implementation and resource allocation. Here at WBD, we work with our partners to use advanced technologies, including IoT, to help save lives, improve livelihoods, and create prosperous communities in the decades ahead.

Author: Trey Fields, Senior Associate at WBD, is a strategy and an international development professional engaged with the firm’s Private Sector Engagement Support award with the United States Agency for International Development.