Changing the game of M&E in Syria with mobile-based apps
There is a growing use of mobile technology in monitoring and evaluating data collected in Syria, and it is making communications within the community and with aid agencies easier. Several humanitarian organisations have realised that internet-based applications are vital to reach difficult-to-access locations and are probably the only way for refugees to communicate with their families. Estimates show that more than 80% of the population owns a mobile phone, of which almost all are smartphones, but it is the cost of internet access that prevents many Syrians from connecting. However, given that smartphones are the preferred tool of communication, humanitarian organisations have decided to invest in phone-based M&E practices.
Nevertheless, the use of mobile technology in conflict-affected areas, such as Syria, comes with challenges. Firstly, the connection speed is not always reliable. Access to internet and electricity supplies is often interrupted across the country and the population still relies mainly on internet cafés or 2G networks, as 3G is more expensive. In order to bypass this issue, Trust mainly uses KoBoToolbox which allow the user to collect data offline and then transfer the data to a server for evaluation when the device is connected. Another problem that is often associated with the use of technology is the risk of surveillance and interception. This can result in the population refusing to use smartphones for fear of being targeted. Plus, agencies focus a lot on big data analytics, which means that they need to pay more attention to the quality of the data being collected. On one hand, mobile apps allow data to be rapidly disseminated but on the other, their credibility needs to be assessed thoroughly. It is essential, in fact, that aid agencies do not over-rely on phone owners as this will undoubtedly distort their perspective. It will eventually lead them to focus exclusively on remote management practices and neglect those who do not possess the necessary technology.
In order to avoid that the limitations of mobile technology outweigh the benefits, studies emphasise the importance of avoiding collecting sensitive data through smartphones if this could put the beneficiaries at risk. For instance, if intercepted, information on gender-based violence or people’s locations could be abused or used against the community. Humanitarian organizations are also advised against setting up new platforms if others are already in place. Interviews, in fact, have showed that mobile apps users do not distinguish between personal or aid-related use, hence they are more likely to use the platforms they are most comfortable and familiar with for more than one purpose. This growing field has the potential to provide Syrians with cash transfers or digital food vouchers directly sent to their smartphones, and to significantly improve the quality of aid delivery.
As one of the people interviewed by the International Rescue Committee put it, “WhatsApp is truly the humanitarian tool of the century”. It is used regardless of the faction controlling a particular area and has proved useful to both the youth and the elderly. Aid agencies are taking advantage of its popularity to improve the speed and the quality of data collection. For example, Trust uses it to coordinate with local staff and check on progress. In fact, now it is easier to reach out to the beneficiaries of aid programs as WhatsApp has made instant communication and real time monitoring possible, with the advantage of being encrypted. Agencies use mobile apps to collect feedback from beneficiaries through instant messages or hotlines as well as to run surveys and be constantly connected with local communities. As several other mobile-based apps, however, WhatsApp is ineffective for the collection of large datasets.
Of course, face-to-face interaction cannot be replaced completely, and data collected through smartphones require some extra effort to ensure that their reliability is not compromised. Therefore, it is important that phone-based M&E practices are accompanied by other in-person systems with the help of local staff or third parties. Mobile-based apps will continue to be popular among aid recipients in Syria as long as the online interaction with agencies and organisations is mutual. In fact, all feedback and complaints collected through smartphones need to be followed by an adequate organisational capacity to respond in order not to erode the established trust.
Author: Silvia Fiore
Silvia is a Research Intern at Trust and studies International Security, Intelligence & Strategic Studies at Glasgow University and Charles University Prague. She is passionate about global security challenges, refugee integration, and threat hunting.