KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Do our projects need really simple reporting?

with 5 comments

I was lucky enough yesterday to attend a presentation at UNDP by Peter van der Linde (@petervdl) and Frodo van Ostveen (@frodo1977) of Akvo.org

They were explaining their  “Really Simple Reporting” tool/platform for grass roots real time reporting on aid projects to an audience from UNDP’s Knowledge Management and Web communication teams, to which I managed to get myself an invite (yes you can see the side of my head in this picture!).

Akvo have developed an online platform that allows local partners at project sites to directly share updates on their projects which are then aggregated and can be visualized on a common website, and which can be linked with financial data.

They talked in more detail about a pilot project they are running with the Netherlands Government using their platform to collect information on projects they are funding in the Water sector. Here the government funds water projects with a number of Dutch/International NGOs who in turn fund projects with a number local partners in a wide range of locations. The platform is a way of collecting together reporting from across all of these – to show what is happening on the ground. This complements financial and project information which the Dutch Government now makes public as a signatory of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) but which are very valuable, but also somewhat dry.

Some of the characteristics of the Akvo system are:

  •  Reporting is spontaneous, done by project workers across all of the work rather than by communication professionals cherry picking select examples.
  •  Updating can be done simply using a web interface, by e-mail or cellphone. This can also include images and other media as well as text.
  • The reporting can aggregated and visualized and linked to funding data, and geotagged.
  • The platform is open source so code can be freely shared. Akvo finance their work on the site by operating it as a service and providing support and training.

One of the nice features of using this approach is that there is a constant stream of updates coming from the projects without having a very heavy bureaucratic reporting structure which makes it easier to get timely updates as well as reducing some of the burden on local partners in complex reports. The updates provided are also in the form of “authentic” stories that demonstrate real progress and challenges which makes them more interesting and readable (and potentially more appealing to donors especially taxpayers or individual contributors). Given the project sites provide updates directly onto the site without being edited or filtered through headquarters also adds an element of transparency – especially when linked to transparent financial reporting.

During the pilot phase the Dutch Government are still requesting traditional reports however – so for the moment it is still an additional burden -but the longer term aim is for it to replace periodic project reports this saving the often quite extensive burden of writing and analyzing these. It’s also worth stressing that this system can’t and doesn’t replace formal monitoring and evaluation mechanisms.

Above transparency and grassroots supporting there are other potential benefits once could imagine. For example if multiple donors and intermediary NGOs were to adopt the same platform it would reduce the burden of local partners having to complete reports in multiple different formats for each funder. Another local (and global) benefit would be the ability for project sites to learn from each other by seeing how other sites were progressing, learning from any innovations they were developing and from how they were overcoming shared challenges. similarly from a central level it could be a good way to identify and scale up new approaches or to help flag common problems.

The presentation and the Q&A got me thinking about how such a platform might be used within the UN.  On the one hand it could be a good way to better demonstrate real and tangible progress from the UN’s work in a human way by showing impacts on real lives.

At the same time, while some of the UN’s work does go through NGO to local partner channels, a lot of the UN’s resources also go into technical assistance and policy advice and advocacy which can have a  large impact, but whose direct human impact is less easily captured and linked to the funding provided. Some thought would be needed on how to adapt this approach to easily capture these impacts in a way that still tells a story.

I could also imagine taking this system a step further in order to  collect feedback from beneficiaries (or at least from country counterparts such as the national and local governments that the UN is helping). It could be used to get them to talk about how the UN assistance has helped them in their own words.

I’d say there is certainly strong potential for carrying out a pilot of this to see how it could work within the context of UN development assistance. I’m sure there would be many practical and political challenges, but it could be a great way of opening up the “black box” of how UN assistance works and what is the impact of this on the ground.

(Photo “borrowed” from Frodo van Ostveen – see original on his blog post about this presentation and other meetings they had in New York)

Written by Ian Thorpe

October 13, 2011 at 11:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. Its definitely has a potential, we are about to start a prototype of RSR for UNDP in the Europe and CIS region with AKVO, starting with just a couple of projects which managers and beneficiaries are quite keen to try new approaches. WIll see how it will work, especially within UN context.

    Jura Khrapunov

    October 13, 2011 at 12:01 pm

  2. Hi Ian, I am Thomas Bjelkeman and one of the co-founders of Akvo.

    It is very good to see your thoughts on this, and I wanted to add some more ideas in here.

    I think it would be fairly straightforward to make Akvo Really Simple Reporting (Akvo RSR) to be part of the formal process around programmes and projects. One could require all progress reporting to go through Akvo RSR and even attach documents to the projects. Sweden has started putting all documents online, contracts, reports etc. on the http://openaid.se site. We could relatively easily provide document storage capability in association with projects on Akvo RSR. The difficulty here isn’t really the technical parts. The hard thing is to get everyone to accept that their work is going to be public. The Swedish government has decided that this is how they want to communicate development aid, by being completely transparent (except for when it security dictates otherwise) and I think this is the right approach, even if it takes a strong commitment to make it happen.

    I don’t think that all information around a project will be completely transparent always. There are conversations, emails, phone calls etc. which you will never capture. But I do think there is a certain amount of information which very easily can be lifted into the public space, without extra burden to anyone and thus serve multiple purposes.

    A clarification as well. Email can’t be used at this point to send in an update to a Akvo RSR project, but you can use the web and we are testing the SMS updates right now.

    We are working on several major improvements to the system, including being able to have all the Akvo RSR tools on your own website with your own branding and URL and with no complex system or software or software maintenance.

    Several organisations have recently decided to start putting all their projects online using Akvo RSR which they will be announcing and showing relatively shortly.

    Best regards

    Thomas

    bjelkeman

    October 14, 2011 at 6:12 am

    • Hi Thomas – thanks for the extra information. You are right to stress the mind-set change in making all this information available in a transparent way. It’s good to see the Dutch and the Swedes leading the way – I hope the UN won’t be too far behind.

      Ian Thorpe

      October 14, 2011 at 6:16 am

  3. […] partners this week. Following our UNDP briefing, via Twitter we spotted a blog by Ian Thorpe, who did a nice job of explaining what we do, and raised some interesting questions on how our platform could be adapted and used in new areas. […]

  4. Thanks Ian for sharing your thoughts on really simple reporting. The meeting was good indeed and useful things that we captured. While traditional project reporting should be on, simple updates are valuable source of what is going on the ground. In the UN context, there are so many unspoken reports, because they just don’t fit into the format of a formal reporting. it includes day-to-day operations, efforts and brainstorming sessions and short-term wins. We could use some of the good examples of really simple reporting through picture updates, blog posts and quick messages from the field. It tells us a lot while creating a sense of urgency. Cheers, Ifoda

    ifodakhon

    October 18, 2011 at 3:37 am


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