The data we collect is useless if people don’t use them

Non profit organisations needs high quality information to support their works. Robust and affordable data management systems is widely available in the market. Do they really need to build new systems themselves?

The success of tech startups in Silicone Valley have inspired UK based non profit organisations including foundations and donors to following the path. Non profit organisations build new ‘data management systems’ with main intention to solving internal and external problems (e.g. partners, potential clients).

Representatives from well-known organisation once told me their (half-baked) CRM system, which had only been used by dozens of users then, would accelerate socio-economic impacts in England.

If only it’s that simple…   

These newly-built systems mainly serves to collect, store and process data as well as produce reports (see Figure). Despite these functionalities, non profit organisations market them with rather sophisticated names. Some use overrated terminologies like ‘innovative system’, ‘smart system’, ‘open system’ or ‘intelligence system’.

While claim to be ‘new’, at least on papers, its functionalities is often identical with existing systems available in the market such as CommCare, Akvo or Salesforce. The typical example of them can do mobile surveys, send messages or notification to users, create maps or visualise reports in graphs, charts and tables.

Information system value chain framework (source)

Having implemented and managed several tech-led initiatives myself, I find this phenomenon unsettling. We simply ignore valuable experience drawn from less successful projects where cost-benefits doesn’t add up. Experts in ICT4D have suggested, again and again, for non profit organisations with shortages in system development to stop re-inventing the wheels.

Data itself is not the end goal. The value of data is when actually used for decision and action (see Figure, downstream processes). To quote Prof. Richard Heeks:

Data per se is worthless.  Value – and development results – only derive from information used in decisions that are implemented as actions.