Hungry for the Feedback Loop

I am currently involved in three different projects revolving around ICT4D with four different roles: evaluator, designer, manager, and end-user. The technologies vary across multiple disciplines with different goals in different settings for different target audiences. Across all the projects, one theme keeps surfacing and proving to be critical for any ICT tool to be successful: the feedback loop.

For the MWA-LAP, I have the pleasure of working with AKVO.Org and their tools, FLOW and RSR. We spent 2 weeks together in Honduras and Mexico to train local staff in using the tools, during which time the survey administrators were able to beta-test the tools. The feedback they provided was incredibly helpful in understanding the local challenges of using smartphones in rural Latin America. I believe the quality of data we will have at the end of the program and the functionality of the AKVO tools will be better because of their input.

Unfortunately, this type of feedback and open communication between ICT developers and the end user doesn’t always happen. The team of M&E researchers at UNC I am working with is currently conducting a systematic review of ICT protocols and case studies within WaSH interventions. Any initiative for implementing WaSH programs require local stakeholder buy-in, and ICT4D projects are no exception. Criticisms from local users are prevalent in many of the studies I’ve come across; they wish for more support or more input into the development and use of the tools provided to them. Creating open channels for communication between all stakeholders will be one of the key points of the ICT protocol our research team will be developing.

Beyond frameworks and evaluations, the feedback loop is something the UNC EPA P3 (my third project) team is building in to our community decision support tool. There is a wealth of knowledge at the local level and it would be foolish for developers to not harness this resource. Before we even begin to design and code our surveying app, we have gone into the field to solicit community input for what should be included in the functionality of the tool and in what context they could see themselves using the tool. Our implementing partner, Rotary, has also provided critical feedback on how they plan to use the data collected from the tool and has caused our team to completely restructure the data management framework.

Feedback has begun to take shape through new mediums thanks to modern technology. Crowdsourcing and hack-a-thons have capitolized on the internet and flexibility of modern coding languages to encourage collaboration while promoting open-source development of new technologies. The rise of Github has also provided a platform for developers to share their work with peers around the world and, by the nature of opensource programming, has created yet another way to get feedback on the products we work on.

ICT4D is all about apps and dashboards, but they are worthless if they aren’t serving a purpose and embraced by the users. Most of our users won’t post reviews on the App Store. We have to make an extra effort to include them in our feedback loop. Getting input from all stakeholders repeatedly from conception to design to piloting to launch, and creating a platform for feedback and support after technology is in their hands should be a core principal of all ICT4D projects.

Susan Davis from Improve International recently explained the triple loop learning approach to feedback while I was in Honduras.  We need to do a better job asking the right questions: “Are we doing things right? Are we doing the right things? And most importantly, how do we decide what the right things are?”  I’m hungry for better feedback loops. We desperately need to include more input from the end-user and our fellow developers in our product development process. It is through this type of fully-open collaboration that we can grow the most. If you have examples of good communication models, platforms, or feedback examples, please share them in the comments.

Photo credit: WSP 2013 Calendar

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