The interest in impact assessment, metrics, and all things related to project monitoring and evaluation in international development is increasing. Rightfully so. Too many well-intentioned development projects fail to produce the intended outcomes and often cannot explain why. The better the answers the international development community has to the questions “what works?” and “why?,” the better equipped we will all be in affecting positive change.
However, assessing project impact and understanding those vital cause and effect relationships is not easy. We humans are notoriously tricky study subjects. We tend to be forgetful, frequently unobservant, desirous to give answers we think the researchers and interviewers want to hear and/or intent on giving less self-incriminating information that disguises that fact that we rarely wash our hands with soap even though we know better.
Even attempts of more subtle forms of observation (relatively speaking), such as structured observation and spot observation techniques, are fraught with their own tendencies toward inaccuracies.
This is why the research on small sensors that Portland State’s Sustainable Water, Energy and Environmental Technologies Laboratory (SWEETLab) is conducting is so exciting. Profiled in Michael J. Coren’s article, Do Aid Projects Work? Tiny Sensors Will Now Let Us Know In Real Time, SWEETLab is developing sensors that can be attached on or near technologies and monitor various functions and conditions in real time. Mr. Coren explains:
“SWEETLab is deploying latrine monitors to record door openings and motion, fire sensors to detect gas emissions and thermal efficiency and microbial water filters that ensure water stays safe. Each sensor is powered by a few AA batteries for up to a year. Mobile phone or WiFi signals send data to a web-based platform where the results can be analyzed and fed back into any programs or educational efforts on the ground.”
While these sensors will not be a panacea for the ills of data collection and will not replace the need for traditional survey methods, their potential to be game-changing is significant. Suddenly, there is a powerful, and notably objective, tool in the development practitioner’s toolbox to help get around that pesky problem of tracking human behavior. The sensors, and the data collection systems being developed around them, will help the international development community by providing regular and reliable information about technology usage and behavior.
The perenial questions, “Does it work?” and “Do people use it?” may actually get answers.