How to Win In An Uncertain Aid Landscape: Better Project Delivery Through Real-Time Data Analytics

In today’s aid funding climate, only one thing is certain: The future of foreign assistance will look very different from anything we’ve seen before. And whether aid reform comes sooner or later, the pressure on implementers to “do more with less” will only keep growing. Now, more than ever, demonstrating impact and showing results—early, often, and proactively—is essential for winning new work and extending current projects.


But generating quick results on multi-year awards is easier said than done: By the time startup is complete and work plans are approved, a project is halfway through Year 1. Close-out can consume the better part of a project’s final year. In the intervening months, staff turnover can be high and funder priorities can change repeatedly. In many cases, implementers have 12 to 24 months at best to show “value for money”—all under the watchful eye of external evaluators. None of these constraints are new, but as uncertainty builds across the sector they become more acute.


Thankfully, funders are increasingly aware of these challenges—and as a result, they’re encouraging implementers to think creatively. The concept of leveraging technology to optimize project delivery, monitoring, and evaluation—once a fringe concept at USAID and the State Department—has now moved to the fore: USAID Missions are launching their own GIS and MIS platforms widely, and public-facing portals (for projects, embassies, and Missions alike) are becoming the norm rather than exception. In this new era of heightened aid transparency, digital solutions are viewed as cost-effective channels for sharing information.   


So, how can implementers seize this opportunity and leverage technology--to drive better project management internally, and better reporting externally? For many implementers, “big bets” on tech inspire fear: Technology changes quickly, and in-house capacity to manage it is limited. But focusing on the basics—and on real-time data analytics, in particular—is an ideal, low-risk place to start. Since 2008, Souktel has supported 50+ implementers in launching data analytics for over 75 projects. Across these engagements, three key change drivers have emerged which implementers can put in place to ensure “quick wins”:   


  • Multi-Channel Data Collection: The best projects capture the right data--from communities, field offices, and the home office. With stakeholders all having different levels of tech literacy and access, flexibility in data collection is crucial: Basic cell phones may work best in remote locations, tablets may be easiest for field staff, and smartphones with chatbots may be optimal for areas with wifi or 3G/4G. Data collection platforms that accommodate all of these options ensure all sources are accounted for, and all voices are heard. 


  • Intelligent Analysis: To manage and interpret the massive data flows collected by any project, tech-driven analysis is essential. Increasingly, this means machine learning and artificial intelligence: Leveraging software to triage data more quickly, and using applications that learn progressively as they analyze data sets. Here, a range of choices exists--from packaged products to custom-built solutions. Regardless of which option is chosen, implementers should prioritize one key factor: Automating any processes (especially for quantitative data) which don’t actively need human intervention. 


  • KPI Dashboards: Whether they’re built from scratch through a human-centered design process, or by blending off-the-shelf products with custom software, dashboards are the apex of the analytics pyramid: They help the entire project team—from senior management to first-year field staff—understand exactly how well a project is delivering on key performance indicators, on a daily basis. When they display strong, relevant data that’s been analyzed intelligently, dashboards can highlight successes and pain points instantly--saving projects significant time and cost.


By providing day-by-day updates on the project components that matter most, real-time data analytics empowers implementers to stay ahead of the project curve, lead adaptive management, and demonstrate rapid impact to funders. Unlike stale quarterly reports that are outdated by the time they’re submitted, real-time reporting helps implementers and funders identify challenges early on, and work collaboratively on solving them. In any country, and under any foreign assistance model, that’s a win-win outcome for everyone.


This article was originally published by the Council of International Development Companies / Professional Services Council.