One reason I love working at AidData is that I get a front-row seat to the process of scientific discovery and innovation. I also get to see how the innovations that emerge from that process are actually used by development organizations to target, monitor, and evaluate their own investments.
Over the last several years, we’ve seen our data, methods, tools, and analysis put to good use by USAID, the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility, and the German Development Bank, among many others. But we’ve also made our fair share of missteps -- in many cases because we didn’t pay enough attention to the barriers that prevent policymakers and practitioners from using our data, methods, tools, and analysis. Therefore, as we look to the future, we have to be honest with ourselves and keep the lessons of the past in our rearview mirror.
Four key takeaways
Here’s what we’ve learned about what it takes to run a development research lab with global reach and influence:
First, you have to invest in top talent and provide the members of your team with the resources and autonomy that they need.
Second, you have to pick strategic partners with complementary skills and networks and double down on those partnerships that bear the most fruit.
Third, if you want to achieve impact at the ecosystem level, you have to be willing to make some big bets on risky ideas that you think have the potential for scale, which often requires that you find organizations that buy into your strategic vision and are willing to put their money where their mouths are. The College of William & Mary and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation are two such organizations for AidData. They are institutional partnersthat provide us with the long-term, core support that we need to invest in ahead-of-the-market innovations and create an environment in which our staff have the flexibility to experiment, fail, learn, adapt, and scale with their partners. Without such support, I’m sure that the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ would leave us narrowly focused on project-specific deliverables and deadlines.
Fourth and finally, if you want to have field-altering impacts, you have to be willing to take your innovations out of the lab and expose them to a ‘market test.’ And once the market has spoken, you have to be willing to cut bait on those innovations that might have merit but are unlikely to be taken up by the organizations you wish to influence.
What is our vision for the future?
As an organization, we’ve taken stock of these lessons learned and spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how we can maximize our reach and impact in the future. Here’s where we have landed:
Going forward, AidData’s work will be guided by a three-year strategic vision that we’re calling Vision 2020.
Our goal, by the end of 2020, is to help leading development organizations make better-informed decisions at multiple stages of their programming cycles — from design and implementation to monitoring and evaluation — with our data, methods, tools, and analysis. More specifically, we will prioritize strategic partnerships with both HQ- and field-based development organizations that are willing to challenge the status quo and innovate when:
- priorities and standards are being established;
- interventions are being geographically and demographically targeted;
- programs are being implemented and monitored; and
- determinations of effectiveness are made and fed forward into the next round of investment decision-making.
We will focus our efforts on a select cohort of development policy and practice leaders because we’ve learned that ‘early adopters’ can build momentum within the broader ecosystem of organizations that we want to reach, and thereby stimulate broader demand for types of data, methods, tools, and analysis we want to see the global development community use.
How will we pursue this vision?
Over the next three years, we will focus our efforts in five specific practice areas where we believe we can have the greatest impact:
- Listening to Leaders (LTL) — understanding the priorities and perspectives of leaders in low- and middle-income countries, and measuring the influence of their partners on policy and program outcomes
- Transparent Development Footprints (TDF) — tracking underreported financial flows from public and private donors, lenders, and investors that publicly disclose little about their overseas activities
- Sustainable Development Intelligence (SDI) — geographic and demographic tracking and targeting of sustainable development investments to ensure no one is left behind
- Geospatial Impact Evaluation (GIE) — using spatial data to rigorously evaluate the impacts and cost effectiveness of specific interventions and large investment portfolios
- Geospatial Data and Tools for Analysis (GEO) — creating high-resolution, high-frequency measures of development outcomes, powerful spatial data integration and extraction infrastructure, and next-generation geospatial analysis tools
We’re extremely grateful that the College of William & Mary and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation are co-investing in this strategic vision for the future.