NGOs must adopt technology to do good

March 2016

While the developing world adopts technology at a remarkable pace, Dr Lynch explores why NGOs are stuck with outdated tech and why it’s crucial they catch up in order to continue to do good.

There is a revolution happening in your pocket. Chances are, you are reading this article on a mobile device, possibly out of your home or office and maybe you don't even live in England. This is the mobile revolution which having a profound effect on people and businesses everywhere, though at different rates around the world. In the old world, where we have made investments in desktops and laptops, the revolution is slower than in developing countries where there is little fixed-line infrastructure and mobile networks are being deployed at a very fast rate and with the impact being felt differently by different constituencies which is interesting to see.

Advances in processing power, battery life and memory mean that small, mobile devices today are more powerful than a desktop computer of a decade ago thanks to a series of innovations that have led to an inverse correlation between size and power. For some of us, this has translated into a veritable explosion in gadgetry where we replace our phones every year, buy tablet computers for our children and compare our scores in inane games like Angry Birds.

As IT has become more fun, we have all become much more knowledgeable and open-minded with regards to technology and aware of the possibilities it opens up. And you can see the number of grandparents that now use Skype to talk to their out-of-town grandchildren, or the way Facebook has become a communications hub for so many.

It also means that professions that were reticent to adopt technologies that streamline work processes or improve outcomes, are much more likely to be open to them now. Take doctors for example. On average, it takes 15 years for a new drug to go from regulatory approval to being prescribed by your GP – not exactly an impressive speed of adoption. But, a recent survey of doctors in the United States suggest that 65% of them are using tablets to record and research patient data, doubling the number in 2011. Not life-changing you might think, but it might be.

In developing countries, the mobile revolution cannot be overstated. It is life-changing and, in some instances, life-saving. The developing world is adopting mobile technology at a very fast pace. In every country, use of mobile phones exceeds landlines by multiples. In India for example, mobile payment systems are facilitating the movement of money between people who do not have bank accounts, making trade between smallholders possible and easy and allowing remote populations to trade with people who are far away, and even abroad. In countries with poor infrastructure, mobile technology has also given millions of people access to basic healthcare and improved access to education.

The enthusiasm with which this technology is used sometimes contrasts sharply with NGO professionals who, for various reasons, are stuck with outdated, legacy technology systems and – worse- old-fashioned mentality. Now, I am not an expert on the NGO world and admire greatly those individuals who throw themselves into front-line work as disaster strikes, giving time and expertise to people in need. However, as organisations, they often fall into the trap of mistaking ingenuity for innovation. Where on the ground they overcome obstacles and make do with few resources, at the headquarters of big aid organisations, with the urgency at a distance, the picture is a little different.

Hiding behind the creaking IT systems of many of these organisations is a reluctance to be more accountable – something every single person who has ever given a pound to charity expects. And I don't think it is only a question of resource allocation but one of applying some of the methodologies of the enterprise to the NGO world, so that we can improve and save lives. Appropriate use of analytics tells a much more accurate picture of a situation. Data captured on the ground can be analysed in real-time and, combined with historical data, can help make decisions and predict outcomes in a meaningful way and yet too often, staffers are using pen and paper to gather information, data gets lost or inputted with errors and the analysis happens slowly or never.

NGOs only need to look around them to see how transformative technology is. A combination of mobile data capture and analytics can detect outbreaks of a disease such as cholera and predict the pattern of transmission, making it easier to contain. Data analytics can also help understand the effectiveness of programmes and thus determine how best to use scarce resources for maximum benefit and accountability, surely the mission statement of any NGO.