25 April 2013

RTM = Real Time Monitoring = Regression to the Mean?

Real time monitoring is the new kid in town: fresh faced, full of promise, using language some of us over 40 do not understand (not me of course).   

The potential seems limitless. Nearly half the world's population have a mobile phone. As Eric Schmidt of Google said in 2010, ‘Every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation up until 2003’. And the world is speeding up. Uncertainty, fragility, volatility, adaptation, resilience--this is the new language of development. But is RMT simply only old wine in dangerous new bottles? (See a sceptical blog from my sharp (under 40) IDS colleague, Keetie Roelen.)

So, what do we know about whether RTM helps to support development? My colleagues at IDS--Martin Greeley and Henry Lucas, together with Jingqing Chai at UNICEF have put together a nice collection of case studies in a new IDS Bulletin that explore the strengths and weaknesses of development approaches that attempt to use these new technologies and the data they generate (either as "exhaust" from other activities or as more efficient ways of collecting existing types of data). The IDS Bulletin is one output from a joint project with UNICEF (see here for a synthesis report on the project).

They also enumerate, usefully, all the different purposes for which RTM methods are adopted: service provision, monitoring programme effectiveness, policy influence, advocacy and system integration.  

They note that we are all operating in an RTM knowledge vacuum. Swarms of pilots, not enough evaluations. 

They note the intense interest in this space from and for the private sector, and they point to some examples where interests are aligned and some where they are not.

They explore whether RTMs can help organisations such as UNICEF to pay greater attention to those in remote and excluded areas. Again, RTMs do have the potential to deconstruct averages, to highlight populations at the margins.  But in the attempt to aggregate masses of information they also have the potential to create messy "average" views and to privilege the voices who have the technology and who have the greatest capacity to use it. RTM might just mean "regression to the mean".

To avoid these pitfalls, the authors suggest the most pressing need is for country led and country specific RTM common guidance, as was developed in other sectors such as microfinance, to ensure RTM measures the right things, for the right people, by the right people, at the right time. 

Highly recommended.