From Snapshots to Movies: A New Approach to Data

“It’s time to stop taking snapshots and start making movies!” George Overholser of Third Sector Capital Partners said at Wednesday’s breakout session on “Multi-Sector Collaboration in Impact Investing.” George was insistent that the era of antiquated backward-looking data is behind us. For years, he argued, we have been relying on the likes of 3-year-old datasets – the “snapshots.” Now, thanks to the reduction in the cost of data collection and evaluations, George believes we are at a stage where data can be collected and inform both real-time internal decision making as well as external financing.

George spoke about impact investing in the context of Roca, an organization doing impressive work with young men at risk for recidivism in Massachusetts and engaging in a randomized controlled trial for a pay-for-success contract. George suggested that “movies,” or regularly flowing data, are the wave of the future, and will be necessary for organizations hoping to get pay for success contracts (which obligate the payer to pay a fixed amount for outcomes upon assessment of actual impact) or social impact bonds (which provide the up-front capital and absorb the risk of non-performance in pay for success contracts).

It was interesting to consider the role of data in the context of our organization. Dispensers for Safe Water is a program that we at Evidence Action are scaling to bring safe water to poor communities in developing countries. Given our heritage of working on programs that stem from gold standard randomized controlled trials with Innovations for Poverty Action, we are fortunate that monitoring and evaluation is a core part of our fabric and our culture. We have engaged data at every step of the way, in:

1) Identifying chlorine dispensers as the intervention that would cost-effectively increase access to safe water through a randomized controlled trial that also allowed us to be precise about the baseline;

2) Piloting various operational models for chlorine service delivery – testing direct implementation, a hub-and-spoke model and a partnership approach, and tracking cost and adoption rates over time to hone in on our current model;

3) Scaling by supplementing our regular evaluations with real-time data to inform our decision making. Our field teams actively use smart phones and the customized applications we have developed in-house that give us real-time information about our supply chain and service delivery, and allow us to make immediate tweaks and engage in continual learning.

At other points throughout the Conference, Antony Bugg-Levine of Nonprofit Finance Fund noted how CitibikeNYC built data collection into the solution from the beginning, Jeff Bradach of The Bridgespan Grouphighlighted the importance of being disciplined about tracking impact as we scale, and Darin McKeever of Gates Foundation urged us to share insights externally. I am proud of our work on #1 and #2; now we need to consider #3. The Conference’s sessions are making me more keenly aware of our next data-related frontier – how do we use the data we gather to not only inform our own internal decision making, but share it externally in a way that promotes transparency, informs best practices, and even attracts investments? We are filming, but now need to think about movie distribution.

Christina Riechers is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Evidence Action, a new organization that scales proven development interventions and crafts resilient business models for long run success. Two programs evaluated and incubated within Innovations for Poverty Action, which are currently making a difference in the lives of millions of people in Africa and Asia – Dispensers for Safe Water and the Deworm the World Initiative– are transitioning to Evidence Action.