Data is a type of infrastructure. As much as the poor need access to schools and markets, they also need access to information. Organizations that aim to serve the poor also need timely information, so they can better serve the poor. This highlights a critical information gap that prevents development from happening at a faster pace.
What's missing is an information bridge - a mechanism that can collect and disseminate critical information between end-beneficiaries, field staff, and headquarters. Much has been said about the power of big data – and I’m as excited about it as the next person – but in conversations with organizations trying to use data, I often see a struggle to get even the smallest amount of good and timely information from the field. Before we can get to big data in the development world, we need to start small.
The good news is that it is starting.
We at the Grameen Foundation are building on our experience working with poverty-focused organizations in the field to create a mobile-enabled suite of data tools that gives organizations a way to manage their information, people and products. Though our partner organizations tend to work in “last mile” areas that are rural, hard-to-reach and typically lack cell reception, they are uniquely positioned to be on the forefront of using data to benefit the poorest. We've been inspired by our partners’s drive to use data dynamically throughout their operations, so we're creating a tool that works without reception and puts the information that field staff need at their fingertips while allowing managers to see data stream to their desks and focus on performance.
So how are groups using small data with our tool? Here are some examples:
- Social enterprise: VisionSpring has a business model for achieving revenue through the sale and distribution of low-cost eyeglasses. They're equipping their sales agents with Android smartphones to collect information about who they've met with, how many vision tests they administer and how many eyeglasses they sell. They want to track activities using Salesforce, use the collected information to forecast sales and inventory levels and quickly pivot the business based on their learnings.
- Large multinational for-profit: Through ACDI/VOCA, a large agricultural company wants to gain transparency into their end-suppliers in the poorest regions. They typically work with co-ops or suppliers, but they want more transparency throughout the supply chain and need to trace goods all the way to the source.
- Multilateral NGO: Mercy Corps needs to collect data from the field for an impact report for donors. They've hired researchers to administer these surveys over a period of four months. Information will be exported to SPSS for advanced analysis.
Collecting small data is just the beginning. Once we add other layers of information from systems like Salesforce, this small, reliable and timely data will compound into big insights. Add in the ability to manage field operations and track inventory all without reception, and that starts becoming big data.
Elaine Chang is the Product Manager for Global Market Development at Grameen Foundation. She works in the Inclusive Business Tools team, developing a mobile-enabled suite of tools to help organizations manage their field information, field staff operations, and products. Leveraging other layers of information from Salesforce.com, the tools provide the ability to collect, aggregate and analyze data to ultimately guide business and program decisions.
Elaine graduated from New York University and the University of Michigan with concentrations in marketing, finance, and strategy. She has extensive experience conducting marketing research, performing data analytics, and starting social enterprises. She is now working to enable social enterprises to use data to alleviate poverty.