WHO IS DR. CHRISTOPHER ROBERT?
“Innovation in the development happens when incentives are aligned. Incentives matter.”
Those of us in the innovation space in development and humanitarian aid often talk about making sure that what we do is market driven. Not only should following this path provide the best solution to those who are interested in using your product or service, it should also create a clear roadmap to sustainability. Because, after all, if you have created a solution with such value that the demand not only sustains your organization, but allows you to continue to refine, grow and take risks (or, in one word, thrive), you’re doing something right.
This relentless pursuit of providing a product of consistent high value is the passion that drives my guest for the 113th episode of the Terms of Reference Podcast. Chris Robert is the founder of Dobility, which produces SurveyCTO, an electronic data collection platform used worldwide by leading researchers and evaluation professionals. As of December 2016, the company is pleased to introduce Data Explorer, designed exclusively for the SurveyCTO network.
IN TOR 113 YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT:
- The path of Chris, from young tech nerd to political science and economics graduate, PhD, then back to tech.
- Lessons on gradual experimentation, and a devoted life’s work and mission.
- How boredom can be the biggest problem in data collection.
- What it’s like to be on both worlds: the highly competitive tech markets, and humanitarian technology development.
- The divide between the paces of tech and large buyers cycles.
OUR CONVERSATION INCLUDES THE FOLLOWING:
- Annie Duflo’s Innovations for Poverty Action
- Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
- World Bank
- Humanitarian Technology Conference
- Wired Magazine
- Data collection and reporting, quality, innovation
- Political Science
- Actionable insight, intuition
- Technology buying cycles
- Cambridge, MA
EPISODE CRIB NOTES
Early 2011. Chris is a PhD student in Impact Evaluation on a microfinance assignment.
The challenge: going paperless.
There were technologies, but they were not accessible, affordable, reliable, powerful.
Annie Duflo. Open source platform. There is an opportunity to build the Open platform for better reach, empowerment.
SurveyCTO comes from this effort. The community help them reach a global audience.
Chris is very motivated.
Becoming Christopher Robert
Vocation, early on in life. Immersed in technology.
Also since youth he was involved in development. Has economics and political science degrees.
But looking at academic market prospects made him “realize” how much he missed building things.
“I was stuck using bad technology. My coworkers too.”
Microfinance starter. Garage story
Personal experimentation. Personal savings invested.
Finishes PhD, teaches at Kennedy School. Revenues from teaching and advising went to SurveyCTO.
Innovation is a survival strategy. But this is not always aligned with consumers’ best interests. “Our social mission dictates that if a new technology appears that is better than us, our clients should drop us.”
“It becomes deeply uncomfortable at times, but necessary and ultimately rewarding.”
For profit in a non-profit world
It makes some people uncomfortable.
“But I make less money today with a PhD than I did at 18.”
The World Bank promotes data collection technologies. They have a common problem with the enterprise world, but their incentives are not only efficiency.
There is a funding cycle that affects teams. Chris agrees with Stephen on how software is a “living, breathing organism.” Funding cycles hinder ongoing development.
Crowded fields, plus the ones we don’t know
Stephen: A lot of “this does not work, better do it myself.”
“It’s all about choices and incentives.”
Teams will come and go. But sometimes their ideas will be good, and other teams will adopt it. Practices can be transferred generation after generation.
These ideas are directly tied to product development and marketing, to keep thinking about the future.
Companies are exploding, the speed of some can make Chris jealous.
Successful products tend to be those fit to users in the field, serviced directly.
Support teams are crucial to keep communicated with the ground.
The less intermediaries between developers and the field, the better the feedback, the more scalable possibilities
“Ultimately, the market will decide.”
Is there something reproachable about smart, educated people trying to solve the world?
Smart, dedicated people will always want to change the world.
“The development sector has not been tremendously successful.”
Smart people are still failing. “There is something fundamentally wrong somewhere.” Incentives?
People who benefit from alleviating a problem might not want to fix the root.
Applies for empowerment. Some might not want to “empower too much.”
There is a role for capacity building, training.
Some problems remain difficult. Data collection for the Indian government, for example.
“Investing more in interactions is something we will start experimenting more with in India.”
Sometimes work is boring. Data collection is not sexy. I said it
Stephen: Sense of connection (to people, purpose) alleviates the drudge.
Boredom feeds the propensity to bias.
Surveying tools should be smarter, eliminate needless questions or steps.
More attention to the surveying process is made to help and improve. New issues on the fact that a person is being monitored arise.
Data collection startups are not perceived as ‘hot,’ in the eyes of VCs.
Awareness is a challenge, even for mobile data collection.
“Luckily it hasn’t killed us.”
And at the end of the day people still go with their gut
People tend to dismiss poorly reported data.
“If the data is poor, they should prefer their intuition.” Only then.
How to get good data? “We put data quality at the core of our mission.”
Principal and agent problem. Field people don’t have data quality as their main concern. The vast majority of projects sometimes outsource the data, with their issues. Third party collectors have no incentives related to the quality of data.
“Our job is to make it very easy. If you care.”
Governments and large players long decision cycles conundrum
They tend to make long term purchases which does not match with the speed of tech.
A lot of purchases occur in emergency times.
Buyers should expect ongoing improvements from their vendors, user-centric development and research.
SurveyCTO needs large but also lots of small consumers, for better feedback.
“I spend my time on the boring stuff, head down. I am almost militant on turning stuff down.”
Prices of tech make it more usable.
Crowdsourced data collection. It is moving quickly and starting to create real value.
My users are my news feed.
Humanitarian Technology Conference.
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