Could lean data help your charity?

Kris Gulati looks at lean data, a somewhat new innovation which can help small charities improve their services.

My passion for online learning recently led me to a course held by Acumen. The course was about ‘lean data’, a topic which sounds boring, but can be of utmost importance for small charities or non-governmental organisations.

Lean data is a streamlined method to collect information that can help to improve decisions in non-profit organisations. It tests to see whether customers are actually being helped by interventions. More development projects fail than we would like to think. A good example of a project which sounded good but ultimately failed to meet expectations is the PlayPump.

Lean Data is not a something new. In fact, it’s applying what has been used in for-profit firms to the charity sector. This is that data on customers is very important. With additional data, non-profits can make their operations more targeted and efficient.

There are three main components of lean data:

  • The first is to utilise new mobile data collection tools. Data doesn’t have to be a tedious, time-consuming process. Data can be collected through the simple response of a text message, an automated phone message, or even a simple phone call.
  • Short and concise surveys, which allow for some fairly in-depth information.
  • Integrate the collection of data into already existing organisational or operational processes.

It is an important tool to help measure social performances levels. Using these three components companies can cheaply monitor and improve performance.

The great advantage of the lean data method is that it is not difficult to implement. On a continuum of research, lean data is slightly more intensive than the information which companies collect daily/regularly about their customers. By introducing quick streamlined surveys, organisations can gather useful data. It is ideally used as “decision data” because it influences how decisions are made. It is far less intensive than the gold standard of research which is RCTs (Randomised controlled trials).

Perhaps most importantly, the lean data approach can be easily applied in developing countries. Mobile phone usage is also increasing substantially.

The course provided a simple and easy to use anagram, which should be kept in consideration when designing a streamlined survey. The anagram is SMURF

Specific: Questions should focus on a specific thing.

Measureable:  Can the answer be in a variety of ways? Can it be measured? Will the answers be honest?

Understandable: Will the respondents understand the question (this may seem obvious, but there are numerous cultural differences as to how questions are answered)

Relevant: Will the question provide information which can then be used?

Framed: Questions must be contextually based and time specific.

Having now designed a survey, it is now important to highlight the touch points between customer and company. This is the least intrusive moment of interaction between customer and company. By isolating these points, it is possible to implement the collection of lean data in a manner which is easy for both the customer and company. The purpose of lean data is to build upon pre-existing operations.

There is a living breathing example of lean data. It is the PPI index (Progress Out of Poverty Index). Poverty is a notoriously difficult terms to define, let alone quantify. The PPI index is an inexpensive tool which helps to track the poverty rates that non-profits need to know, in order to know that they are serving the needs of the poor. PPI has 55 country-specific measurements. Each country has an individual set of 10 questions (a streamlined survey) which purport to indicate the affluence of the individual answering them. This helps organisations track and evaluate their interventions, helping them prove their projects are working but also find new ways to improve their operations. To view an interesting case study about Acumens work with Ziqitza, see here.

All in all, the course was an interesting introduction to lean data. It is important to know that interventions are working, but also how to improve them. If this can be done by building upon existing operations then it is all the better. This is an easy method to help charities working in the international development sector improve efficiency, evaluation, accountability and ultimately help more people.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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