Digital tools, new technology and ethics in MERL

15 March 2017
Author: Linda Raftree

February’s monitoring, evaluation, research and learning (MERL) Tech London conference brought together 90 people from 75 organisations to discuss the intersection between MERL and technology and digital data.

Participants’ top priority over the next few years was in developing ethical standards for MERL and data collection and figuring out how to be responsible with digital data in order to avoid putting people and communities at risk.

The field is changing quickly, with new technologies opening up immense possibility. At the same time the pressure to better understand the value, impact and risks of these technologies for MERL is growing. 

Agencies and organisations have struggled to determine which approaches and tools are worth considering in their MERL work. The use of new tools and approaches can seem daunting to many, and it can be difficult to know which genuinely contribute to MERL and which are simply flashy new products.

Many are finding that digital data tools can be an ethical minefield 

Though these new tools and technology-enabled approaches appear to offer tremendous advances for development and humanitarian organisations, their potential to exacerbate risk for vulnerable populations is an area that requires much greater exploration. 

Only recently have donors and practitioners begun to seriously focus on developing and implementing “responsible data” approaches that ensure that the ethical, privacy, safety and security aspects are considered when collecting, using, sharing and storing digital data. Additionally, there has been insufficient attention to the potential ethical issues with newer ICT tools, such as drones, social media data harvesting and biometrics when used in development and humanitarian efforts. 

Alongside efforts to reduce digital data risk for these vulnerable groups and individuals are growing concerns about ways that digitally-enabled approaches such as big data or social media analysis may be used. So far, there has been very little work done to develop guidelines and standards that would help to protect the privacy of those whose data, much of it sensitive and personally identifiable, is collected by development organisations. 

Other priorities for MERL

Other priorities for the sector that participants highlighted were: 

  • The need for greater digital literacy in the sector
  • More work on user-driven, integrated technologies and lean data processes to increase efficiency
  • More user-centred design and planning
  • More downward accountability
  • Greater donor support for incentivising MERL work 

Some “aha” moments from the 2 days included that “we are all struggling with the same problems”, that there is a “real danger of data collection becoming an overly extractive process” and that “we should be thinking about tech in terms of how it can enable us to do what we couldn't do before, not just how can it help us do better what we could do before.”

We’re hoping to be back next year for another MERL Tech in the UK. In the meantime, join the MERL Tech discussion forum, sign up for the MERL Tech Blog or join us for MERL Tech in Washington, DC on September 7-8, 2017. 

About the author

Linda Raftree

Linda Raftree is an independent consultant who supports the ethical use of new technologies in development work.