Collaborating For A Greater Good

Open Knowledge International is a member of Open Data for Development (OD4D), a global network of leaders in the open data community, working together to develop open data solutions around the world. In this blog, Nana Baah Gyan talks about his work carrying out an embedded data fellowship with Advocates for Community Alternatives (ACA) in Ghana as part of the OD4D programme. 

Generally, information needs often require different strategies in order to meet them satisfactorily. And this is even more the case in circumstances where technology know-how needs to be taught and gradually introduced to fit a particular setting of would-be technology adopters. Often, this case presents its own unique and (quite frankly speaking) exciting challenges for technology enthusiasts. It opens up otherwise largely unexplored avenues for technology innovation and learning in new communities. And this is exactly how I thought of it when I was first invited by Open Knowledge International (OKI) to be part of the  Open Data for Development (OD4D) embedded fellowship  working with Advocates for Community Alternatives (ACA) in Ghana for three months.

Some of the ACA team members in Ghana. From the right to left): Nimako, Naomi and Jonathan.

Registered as an non governmental organisation (NGO), ACA has as its main task, among other things, to help — through trainings and frequent community engagements — rural communities to independently explore for the themselves possible alternative livelihoods, especially in situations where these communities are threatened by big mining firms. In Ghana, the story has not always been a pleasant one whenever some such firm shows up at the door of the community with heavy machinery and equipments ready to mine. Often, mining companies have ended up destroying livelihoods by taking away farmlands, polluting drinking waters and significantly altering the way of life of people in the these communities for the worse. However, for some four villages in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana this was actively stood against by members of the communities, and their resolve to prevent one such mining giant in their communities presented, by itself, a fascinating story which attracted the engagement of ACA.

The OKI Fellowship

The fellowship took the form of being embedded as a data expert in an existing organisation, and comprised a 3-month contract with ACA facilitated by Ghana’s representative of OKI. OKI made all the pre-contract engagements and agreements for the project. My main role was to identify data needs of ACA and suggest and/or implement open standards-compliant tools to meet this need, including the training of staff to use these tools too.

ACA was just at that moment of exploring the proper collection and use of data in their work. They had realised the important role proper data management had begun to play in their work and also seen that, in order for them to succeed in their efforts in the villages, the timely collection, collation and delivery and analysis of information from the field was essential. This they saw to be crucial also for the purposes of monitoring and evaluating interventions over time as well as ensuring data integrity for its analyses and reporting needs.

Identifying Appropriate Tools

Right from the onset, R came up as the tool of choice for working with data. This was particularly because of R’s suitability in terms of its vast pool of packages to choose from for different analysis and modelling. But almost about a week or so into the fellowship this had to be reconsidered because of a number of issues. In order to deploy an R application for the needs described above for ACA, not only did R offer more than was wanted, it also presented unique challenges overcoming of which required significant investment (time, technical infrastructure, etc) — far more than necessary for a small organisation as ACA. For this fellowship, KoBo offered far more desirable advantages which made it the tool of choice. KoBo’s biggest advantage over R in this project was its ability to support offline form filling and, for the conditions which prevailed in the areas of ACA’s interest, this was especially useful. With it’s simple drag and drop interface for form design, and dual support for both mobile and non-mobile devices, KoBo presented all the was needed for ACA’s work. For that main reason, KoBo was the tool of choice for designing and sending out questionnaires, interviewing stakeholders in the villages for onward submission to ACA’s head office in Accra. It’s mobile/smartphone-capable tools only meant that end-users only needed SIM-enabled tablets to work with.

Training Stakeholders

Although KoBo is extremely useful and easy to use, it is still not largely known, and especially among non-technology inclined users. Therefore, stakeholders in the project had to be trained to use the tool. This included taking them through registering on the KoBo platform, designing and building questionnaire forms, deploying forms for use in the field, and analysing data sent by field workers on the KoBo platform.

A session with a farmer group in Kyeredeso, Brong Ahafo Region, Ghana. Here, I was explaining to the farmers, who are more than likely to become respondents to questionnaires in the future, how the new platform was going to be used by ACA’s field workers.

The trainees were of two categories: those who design and deploy questionnaires to the platform for use. These are the ones who decide on strategy and planning and are responsible for the kinds of data that should be collected. The other category consists of those who do the actual face-to-face interviews and fill out deployed forms answers from respondents. As expected, both categories of trainees required different training needs hence its design had to reflect these needs. Of particular mention is also the fact that, for some of the users, the training had to include basic instructions such as how to navigate the questions on a tablet or smartphone.  KoBo’s unique suitability for such purposes, among other things, is anchored on its superb ‘rural conditions support’ and the ability to operate the software offline.

What I thought also useful, and therefore put together, was a manual for using some of the basic features of KoBo. It contained, simple, straight-to-the-point steps for registering, designing and deploying forms, filling out questionnaires and using the platform for data analysis. It took such format that both categories of trainees would find it useful.

In total, five people were trained in the use of KoBo: two persons to design questionnaires and three in the field who would use them.

Looking Ahead

The training was successful in terms of explaining to end-users how the KoBo platform works and can be used. However, limited time would not permit at least one use case where that could be tested. It’s left to see how the training acquired could translate into actual use and practice — just as it is generally with the use of technology. However, there are good indications that the fellowship has been a success. There’s has been some increased awareness about data needs and tools such as KoBo that greatly help in its management. This, I hope, will go a long way in aiding ACA in their planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of projects.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the entire fellowship sponsored by OKI has been, in my experience of this nature as a data expert, a good experience. Every project of this kind that I’ve worked has had it’s own unique form and execution and this was no different. The whole idea of embedding or sponsoring experts in organisations with data needs is innovative and should be commended. It provides rare opportunities, in such developing countries as Ghana, to make the benefits of proper data management available to those who actually need them. This translates into better monitoring and evaluation strategies and decision making such as with ACA Ghana.

The data needs of Ghana, in general, are immense but it is also a largely unexplored territory lying dormant. Freely available tools and technologies for dealing with this problems are largely unknown and unused. Only few organisations and private individuals are now warming up to this idea of data management. If this hurdle can be overcome, a number of initiatives such as this are crucial. What would perhaps speed up the process is identifying the particular groups with such needs and matching them with experts who would share and engage communities on this need and, thus, creating a necessary, much-needed awareness.

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