March 24, 2017

Close Feedback Loops with Mobile Data Collection

Elaine Chang

Close Feedback Loops with Mobile Data Collection

From online reviews of enterprise software, to ethnographic studies allowing researchers to watch consumers use their dishwashers, businesses are constantly seeking consumer feedback to help drive innovation and improve support. Such for-profit feedback loops offer a model some nonprofits are also using to provide goods, services and data, which can help beneficiaries meet their needs or program partners make business decisions in real-time.

At the same time, mobile data collection and analysis technology is making it easier to close these feedback loops by allowing results to flow back to beneficiaries in the form of reports or benchmarks.

Dennis Whittle, a former World Bank economist and co-founder and CEO of Global Giving,has been studying and promoting the use of feedback loops in aid and philanthropy since at least 2013. Now Executive Director of Feedback Labs, Whittle believes:

“Promoting strong and timely feedback loops is key to making aid, philanthropy, and government initiatives more effective. Even in top-down programs, benevolent experts and government officials have an interest in knowing how well implementation is proceeding so that they can make midcourse corrections instead of relying on costly (expert) evaluations that come too late. But more broadly, feedback loops can also help us rebalance the way that development programs are formulated and conducted.” (Read More)

Managing the feedback process, however, isn’t easy. Marc Gunther, a journalist whose blog, Nonprofit Chronicles, covers nonprofit organizations and their impact, remarked in 2015 that asking for, receiving and then enacting change based on feedback is difficult.

“In theory, we want to learn, grow and change. In practice, not so much. We want to be loved for who we are. Nonprofits in particular are not as eager as they should be to listen, learn, grow and change.”

What Are Feedback Loops and How Can They Help the Poor?

One popular corporate feedback tool is the Net Promoter Score. This technique, first developed in the 2000s by Bain & Company, seeks to answer why a product or service is or is not appealing to customers. Companies contact recent shoppers, asking them how likely they are, on a scale of 0 to 10, to recommend a product, service or brand to others. Such questions can certainly be asked by a social enterprise to a smallholder farmer who purchased their solar lamp a month before.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy surveyed nonprofits to discover that 95 percent of respondents said they collected feedback from the individuals they served. However, in another report, Charity Navigator spoke with 1,250 nonprofits and found less than 7 percent of respondents publish this feedback. A smaller portion of this 7 percent go on to look at how this feedback data affects their organization.

Feedback Loops

Creating effective feedback systems can be a complex process, Feedback Labs Executive Director Whittle concluded in an article written for the Center for Global Development. Before nonprofits can reach the fullest potential offered from feedback loops, Whittle stressed that there are a few questions organizations must first answer. These include:

  • How do donors and nonprofits provide incentives for broad feedback?
  • How do organizations know “that feedback is representative of their entire population?”
  • How do leaders “combine the wisdom of the crowds with the broad perspective and experience of experts?”
  • How do decision-makers “ensure that the feedback mechanisms are broadly adopted and actually lead to positive changes in aid projects?”

Mobile Data Collection Tools Can Close Feedback Loops

Mobile data collection tools are dramatically changing the way nonprofits gather, analyze and apply customer, beneficiary and partner feedback. At TaroWorks, we see two feedback loops most often.

The first is raw field data collected from fledgling entrepreneurs, which can work its way back into improved products or services for those who originally supplied it. The second type of feedback system takes data in and returns analysis, which can help the original information provider (be they farmers or households) make better, quicker decisions about their business or qualify of life. The BOMA Project, Oxfam, Sistema Biobolsa and Grameen Foundation are among the TaroWorks customers providing such feedback.

  • The BOMA Project: BOMA’s Rural Entrepreneur Access Project helps women in rural Kenya move out of extreme poverty, providing them with the tools they need to launch small businesses and start a savings program in their community. The BOMA team uses TaroWorks to collect key program metrics to continually evaluate their project efforts. They seek out feedback from each of their female entrepreneurs and adjust the business advice they give each woman accordingly.
  • The Grameen Foundation: The Grameen Foundation’s mAgriculture programs aim to boost farmers’ income in Latin America by providing certification as a way for them to become more connected to the value chain and compliant with standards. Their team collects data about the farms and creates farm improvement plans with the farmers to help them certify their products. These farm plans are regularly updated with input from the farmers, so they can see and track progress.
  • Sistema Biobolsa: A seller, installer and maintainer of biodigesters for farmers in Mexico and Central America, Sistema Biobolsa’s technicians regularly gather data from farmers about their use of these waste-to-energy units and return reports on the amount of energy saved as well as system performance benchmarks to help their customers get the most from the technology.

Digital Farm Certification

Ways Organizations Leverage Feedback Loop Processes

As more nonprofits are asking questions of their clients or customers, they’re trying to refine the process for better results.  Gunther highlights some experiences implementing a feedback loop at Center for Employment Opportunities, a New York-based workforce reentry program for people returning from incarceration.

A 2016 blog post written by researchers from the Global Public Policy Institute outlined findings from surveys of over 2,700 individuals who received help in Somalia, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Syria.

Among the concerns expressed by those who gave feedback were that communities rarely heard back from organizations after they provided such feedback and that aid workers only asked for feedback at certain stages of their relief efforts or projects. Overall, the study found nonprofits must be more comprehensive and strategic with their feedback techniques.

According to blog post authors Lotte Ruppert and Elias Sagmeister:

“Consulting people about the aid they receive is recognised as central to improving the quality of humanitarian assistance. This is particularly valuable in insecure contexts, such as Afghanistan and Somalia, where humanitarian staff have limited opportunities for face-to-face contact with the population. But are we communicating in an appropriate way, on the right issues, on a consistent basis and through the best channels? And what happens when aid agencies receive that information?”


About the author...

Elaine Chang


Elaine’s background in marketing research and data analytics has shaped her goal of helping organizations use insights from better data to create positive change in communities. She has a BS in Marketing and Finance from New York University, and an MBA from the University of Michigan. Elaine is based in Washington, DC.


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