Using open-source and freemium software in M&E: A cursory take

May 25, 2020

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Victor Sapar

Do you know what available open-source software can be used in monitoring and evaluation (M&E) activities?

Do you know what available open-source software can be used in monitoring and evaluation (M&E) activities?

Are you wondering whether Software-as-a-Service or hosted software provided for free can be considered in your M&E tech toolbox?

There’s a lot of excitement (and caution) in integrating (or embedding) information and communications technologies (ICTs) in M&E given ICTs becoming more accessible and affordable to project implementers and beneficiaries. While there are real and potential applications, challenges in various levels require informed approach. There are groups who are in the forefront of this discourse notably MERL Tech that broadens the discussion to include research and learning (thus MERL). Its yearly conferences that started in 2015 have drawn a lot of learnings and new insights.

Non-profit organizations (NGOs) typically operate in very limited budget. This is more pronounced in community-based groups. As far as use of ICTs is concerned, most fall behind given software costs, availability of training and access to expert help. Open source and free hosted software can partly address this, but there’s a gap in continued awareness on what’s available and what works.

Open source and freemium software

My main interest is to explore whether there are existing free software that can be used for integrating ICTs in M&E. I think most will agree that there is no single solution nor a one-size-fits-all solution. Bespoke solutions that the big NGOs have been using may not trickle down to small groups.

I’ve been looking at this for a while. Two years ago, I had a chance to write a concept note for a national office of a UN agency about developing organizational capacity to integrate ICTs in M&E using free software. Also had the privilege to facilitate a similar process for a local NGO and a development agency.

Digital Data collection, I think, is the most common first application of ICT in M&E considering the challenges of paper forms. Kobotoolbox is a great choice. Its free, stable, packs with great practical features and easier to approach even for non-technical people as well as good documentation. It has grown substantially since I first looked at it in 2013. It has visual editor for creating basic to complex forms that can be accomplished online or using a companion mobile application with or without internet connection.

For a group starting to adopt digital data collection, it has to deal first with valuable data in spreadsheets collected over the years. Not only they require organizing but most often they need to be cleaned and corrected before any processing happens. This where OpenRefine is good at as an app for messy data. Formerly Google Refine, it is now a community project thus the rebrand. Though it’s not something you can just easily pick up, I was able to train in a short period non-technical people to use at least its basic features.

A typical challenge in any organization, especially those with presence in several locations, is to efficiently share, track and collaborate on data, information and documents. Email is a usual solution by small NGOs as other options are just costly. But email is not meant for such. Google Driveprovides shared online storage while its office applications allow collaborating on documents and spreadsheets, among others. Its mobile applications offer flexibility to NGO staff who are not office-based assuming reliable Internet connection.

Visualizing data used to be a complex task that requires special software. While open source applications OpenOffice and QGIS create charts and maps respectively, for simple visualization requirements there’s Google Fusion Tables, an app that comes with Google Drive. It is lesser known compared to Google Docs, Sheets and Slides. M&E staff I’ve trained to use it asserted that it could have made their tasks easier had they known it exists and what it does.

This article is not meant to be exhaustive, but hopefully will start discussion and sharing on what’s possible.

What has been your experience using open source and freemium software to your M&E tech? What do you think are critical issues in using free hosted software in M&E activities?

(Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash.)

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