Following on from my last post, I started to write about how better access to meaningful, accessible information for Aboriginal leaders can improve decision-making, but I realised the issue was bigger than that. This post discusses how graphical data collection and display, app proliferation and mobile technology can improve decision making and accountability, both for community leaders and funders. I just want to start the discussion and I’m keen to hear what others have been doing.
Better board/council reporting
Senior managers always get a little depressed preparing their reports for the board/council. Many Aboriginal leaders shy away from the thick stack of operational and financial reports, dense with technical terms and complex financial statements. They would be daunting for your average person in the street, let alone with people who speak English as a second language, and live in a culture without writing or western-style mathematics (desert languages, for example, don’t have a word for any number beyond two). Instead, boards primarily get information about the performance of the organisation from their family and friends that work there or are serviced by the organisation, who generally go to them with complaints.
I’ve heard many managers complain about these things – why won’t they learn the technical terms to understand the reports and so on? It’s always easier to blame failure on others rather than look for a solution. Yet having access to good quality, accessible information is key to good decision making. Determined to do something different at Larrakia Nation, I trialled something I had looked at in Canada as part of my MBA – not for profit balanced scorecards. These display goals and performance in the four areas of finance, HR, customer and process (I added a fifth, governance).
(Note, this is just a generic image) Presented in an accessible way, the board could see what was happening across the organisation at a glance, and suddenly board discussions weren’t about a family member’s complaint but instead board members zeroed into the amber areas. I also used graphs with lines to show trends and targets over time. The main difficulty for me was needing to get all the operational data in from all the programs and functions in time to input the data. Yet this barely scratches the surface of the possibilities for data visualisation, a field which is improving all the time. Currently, we get a few graphs in an annual report – how about on a poster that is displayed around the community? Now that’s transparency and accountability in an accessible format.
Visual apps for better engagement and performance management
This brings me on to the next part – data collection – a standard requirement for any government funded program. Trying to get staff with (very) low literacy and poor English to fill in all these paper forms to measure outputs and track program performance is one of the major challenges in remote communities. If management and board don’t have an accurate picture, they don’t really know what’s going on. These (sometimes dodgy) numbers also get reported to government, who in in turn often may not always have an accurate picture of program outputs, let alone program impact.
In contrast to unattractive paper forms, try taking a tablet to a remote community. It quickly attracts a lot of attention, drawing a large crowd, with everyone desperate to have a go. Whilst conventional literacy levels often appear to be falling in remote communities, digital literacy (or at least the appetite for it) is exploding. It’s much easier to get people to engage with a tablet than with paper. For example, East Arnhem Regional Council recently developed an app for community engagement into strategic planning, allowing people to indicate their priorities using turtles.
East Arnhem aren’t the first to use apps – Cybertracker has been around for a while and is well know. This software ran first on PDAs, then as an app on mobiles and tablets, and is used by Indigenous ranger groups in Africa and Australia to collect information on the location of plants and animals, as well as their activities. Local support for it was defunded in June last year, I believe because perhaps its benefit was often not well articulated (why collect this data?), and because it had to some extent been superseded by similar free apps and Google Earth that were (ironically) easier to use.
To my knowledge, apps have never been applied to record performance for service activities in Indigenous programs. At Larrakia Nation, I put together a proposal to government to develop a visual app for program performance recording and reporting to run on a tablet. It would allow staff to use pictures and simple words to input their activities in real time as they drove around, instead of paper reporting at the end of the day (or later), particularly important as the staff were largely long-term unemployed with very low literacy and numeracy.
The costs of app development have dropped dramatically, and having a few pages of virtual buttons to press is simple to code. In the context of a program with expenditure in the hundreds of millions, it’s barely a rounding error, yet visual apps for data collection could make all the difference to improving quality and justifying a programs’ existence.
Location data for asset tracking
The possibilities of using simple, visual apps for data collection and reporting are vast. Another example – many disadvantaged staff struggle to fill in a timesheet with its simple maths and filling in, debating over and verifying timesheets take up a lot of time in an Aboriginal organisation. Yet we could do it differently. Another common issue is for vehicles and tools to go missing – used for personal purposes in a community where these valuable assets are extremely rare. We had a major issue with this – till we put mobile trackers on them all. It’s not the most revolutionary idea but suddenly, the personal use stopped. If it happened, it was automatically flagged by the software, reported and followed up. The financial effect on our insurance claims and vehicle maintenance and replacement costs was significant.
These assets, by and large, are not technically the organisation’s, but are instead legally owned by the government. We ended up fitting them at our own cost to new vehicles rather than being allowed to claim them as part of the vehicle fit-out. Hopefully this attitude will change.
The advent of satellite broadband and increased mobile use, the proliferation of mobile apps and new, visual ways of presenting and collection information has the potential to improve accountability drastically both to communities and to government. These challenges aren’t just faced in Aboriginal Australia but around the world wherever community organisations are run and governed by disadvantaged people. What else have people seen or are thinking about?
Image sources: nailsma.org.au, balancedscorecard.org, westarnhem.nt.gov.au; ezy2c.com.au