Development agencies and programs around the world are staffed with skilled Monitoring & Evaluation professionals, responsible for tracking a program’s progress against its goals through quantifiable results – think back to the days of creating SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, time-based) goals for your professional evaluations or science class hypotheses. The program I work on, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, measures our progress against twelve indicators, which include standard measurements such as number of people trained, number of transactions recorded to track tuna catch, and millions of dollars leveraged from the private sector. While all worthwhile measurements that seek to quantify the program’s impact, does this really capture the full program’s full accomplishments (or failures) in way that reflect beneficiaries personal gains and experiences?
With developments in technology, data collection, and increased use of social media in everyday life, the amount of data is ever increasing, along with professions to analyze and assess this data. How can development tap into this potential?
In response to America’s current political landscape and reduced funding of government agencies, a recent article in the Boston Business Journal poses how urban social listening can help to determine the impact of aid and social programs. In the study, researchers, “…began by listening to the ‘digital crumbs’ generated by collective searches and postings to social media like Twitter.” Urban social listening offers a, “systematic, rigorous collection and analysis of [social media] ‘crumbs…’ offering useful insights into understanding the government’s role in addressing urban problems” (Hollander and Renski, The Boston Business Journal).
It has been shown that there is an evidenced correlation between positive sentiment and health indicators. In a 2015 study, Twitter sentiment was shown to be a better predictor of cardiovascular disease than any conventional indicator like smoking or socioeconomics. Hollander, author of the Journal article, applies urban listening techniques to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). While he wasn’t able to find significant improved sentiment in cities with CDBG funding, it seems that the community scale being analyzed is too large to yield highly correlated results.
In development, non-profits and government agencies alike are increasingly using social media to communicate with stakeholders and beneficiaries, but listening is a newer trend. Payal Arora and Nimmi Rangaswamy echo this in Digital Leisure for Development: Reframing New Media Practice in the Global South. “…Research is driven by development agendas with a strong historical bias towards towards the socio-economic focus. Data that does not directly address project-based outcomes is side-lined.”
Tracking sentiment through social media is not a new concept, used for years in consumer confidence and political opinion. While certainly more people are tweeting on popular political opinion topics, how can we the development world harness and tailor these listening practices to hear our beneficiaries, and through listening show that their voice counts.
Arora, Payal and Nimmi Rangaswamy. Digital Leisure for Development: Reframing New Media Practice in the Global South. Sage Journals. October 10, 2013.
Hollander, Justin. Viewpoint: As Ben Carson Hearings Get Under Way, Can Social Media Help Identify Hud Impact? The Boston Business Journal, 2 March 2017. http://www.bizjournals.com/boston/news/2017/03/02/viewpoint-as-ben-carson-hearings-get-under-way-can.html
Eichstaedt, Johannes, et al. Psychological Language on Twitter Predicts County-Level Heart Disease Mortality. Sage Journals. Volume: 26 issue. Pages 159-169. Published January 20, 2015. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614557867