“Well, what do you think?”: Working with communities to measure what matters


Let me tell you a brief story: “Imagine yourself sitting on the sofa in your living room.  As you look up, you realise that the water stain on your ceiling is slowly but steadily increasing in size every day. After careful observation and willing to take the necessary steps to fix it, you schedule an appointment with a contractor. Citing his expertise and without really listening to what you are saying, he theorizes that it must be due to a leaky roof and some old pipes. Begrudgingly you agree to pay thousands of dollars to have new shingles placed on your roof and have your pipes replaced. You hope for the best, but a week later the dreaded stain is back. You call the contractor again, but this time you really try to share your side of the story: “I’ve been monitoring this and over the past two weeks, every time after I take a shower in the morning on the second floor, I notice that the stain in my living room seems to get a little bigger. I also know that one of the tiles around my shower is a little loose”. The contractor seems surprised “Oh, that’s a quick fix – we can just buy a silicone paste and a new tile. Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Resigned you answer: “Well, you never asked.”

Now you might wonder, why am I telling you a story about a water stain and a home improvement effort gone wrong and what does any of this have to do with international development and community data collection. In short, the moral of the story is that oftentimes in development work, we as development professionals act similarly to the contractor: We have become so comfortable with the expertise we have built and often forget to be open to knowledge and insight that those directly affected by a problem may have. We waste time and resources and simply forget to cater to the inherent human desire of those we are trying to help to be heard, understood and valued in their experiences and knowledge.

We at Projects For All seek to address this inefficiency and place value on the consultation and participation of the communities we work with in every aspect of the project from design to implementation, including our data collection and analysis efforts.

Projects For All’s community-led data collection goes beyond a passive, one-dimensional process by helping to actively involve people in the monitoring and evaluation of the project. By involving the community in the collection and analysis of the data collected and by creating a feedback loop, our project adjustments and outcomes are well informed and based on data driven decision making, all while empowering community members in the process. Through our community-led data process we aim to foster the following six features:

Ownership: We place particular emphasis on ensuring that our data collection process is led by community members who act as information catalysts and have strong ties to the project or research question. By working closely with community members, we are able to incorporate their existing knowledge into our project design. Furthermore, by creating a sustainable information source that makes use of the input and knowledge of those directly affected, we are able to create a sense of ownership of project objectives over the life of the project, ultimately leading to long-term sustainability as ownership of the project is transferred to the hands of the community.

AutonomyAn added benefit of actively allowing communities to participate in the data collection effort is that the community works with us to set the terms of what they are comfortable collecting from other members of the community. The community has full autonomy and a say in what they feel is acceptable to share with the world in terms of data and information. We place very high value on ensuring the privacy of the individual and work together with the community to ensure informed consent.

Feedback Loop: By including community members in the data collection process, there is a continuous stream of mission-critical information to improve program performance, even when the organization staff is not in the field. This helps us to immediately assess what is working and what is not, thereby ensuring effective and timely alterations to project design. We are able to incorporate community insight into our decision making, thereby creating sustainable and effective solutions to sometimes unexpected problems.

TrainingFor communities to become co-creators and active participants in the data collection process, they need to have access to training and gain confidence in their ability to understand and imagine data collection efforts and analysis solutions. By actively involving community volunteers in learning about the value of data as well as sound data collection methods through hosting community data workshops, we encourage both social cohesion and personal growth.

Social CohesionA community-led data collection process supports a democratic process and places very high emphasis on community participation and buy-in. By understanding the value of collecting data, these communities are now able to present themselves to the world through telling stories and mapping out their communities geographically and through numbers and stories. Even the youngest members in the community can participate in administering surveys to one another and can help inform decision making processes within the community; for example, by taking a poll on which animal should be painted on the side of the school.

Personal GrowthOn a personal level, each volunteers has the opportunity to participate in skills development related to data collection and analysis. Being able to gain a better understanding of how data is helpful and what good data collection methodologies are, participants learn to better understand news articles and political polls, leading to more informed discussions and decision making in the community. Additionally, many participants that want to pursue a career in a quantitative field, such as economics or accounting, can greatly benefit from learning about the appropriate use of data by volunteering their time to our data collection efforts.

Projects For All’s community-led data collection approach is focused on actively involving and empowering people and communities and not simply on the pure extraction of data. We believe that community-led data collection should build local capacity to be able to define, analyze, and solve problems long after we have left. By living with and learning from the results of their own decisions, local community members become powerful agents of positive change, and not simply the passive subjects of the decisions made by program managers or development practitioners. In the end, we do not want to be like the contractor, but instead we want to ask the question to our communities: “Well, what do you think?”

Written by: Judith Mueller