In recent years, mobile surveys and data collection capabilities have increased alongside rapidly expanding mobile phone penetration in the developing world. And with this trend, there has been a proliferation of small firms that have entered this space. At DAI, we realize that by allowing us to quickly capture hard-to-gather data and conduct surveys across our portfolio, new tools can change the way we execute development projects as well as win new business.

Our governance teams want to know whether ordinary citizens have access to basic services; our economic development staff want to monitor price fluctuations; our conflict stabilization experts want real-time data for early warnings; and our monitoring and evaluation teams need data that shows the results of our work in the field. Our clients are equally eager to embrace these new capabilities as well.

In response to this growing enthusiasm, DAI hosted an event with experts from the most prominent data-collection platforms that cater to the international development sector: Bamba Group, VOTO Mobile, Human Network International, GeoPoll, Premise, and Findyr. The aim was to introduce these firms to our colleagues and showcase their diverse capabilities and services that can be integrated into existing or upcoming projects.

So, what did we learn?

The Sector is Diverse

First, the mobile data collection sector represents a broad set of capabilities, and different players appear focused on specific niches. The organizations we gathered provide everything from text-message polling to crowdsourced data-gathering from the places where DAI works. So, for example, while GeoPoll relies primarily on SMS-related resources, Bamba and VOTO have opted for interactive voice response (IVR)-based data collection. Instead of reaching out directly to individual citizens, Findyr is creating a cadre of trained data collectors across the globe who can provide reliable updates on fast-changing information (the price of bread, for example) in near real-time.

The Sector is in Flux

Second, this event left us with a lingering question about how stable these niches are likely to be in the long term. At the moment, this entire sector appears to be in flux. For example, we had initially invited Human Network International and VOTO as two separate organizations, but realized they had recently merged to form a yet-to-be-named new entity. Premise, which only half a year ago was pursuing a model that virtually mirrored Findyr’s, is now moving in the direction of mobile-based behavior change communications, specifically in public health.

It’s hard to tell whether this sector will look the same in even a couple of years. Will there be more mergers between these companies? How will policy changes among donors and large implementers (such as DAI) continue to influence this sector? How will they cope with shifts in technology, both in terms of capabilities like machine learning, but also as internet access expands in developing countries, providing millions with free access?

Profits + Development Impact

One of the biggest shifts we’ve noticed in ICT4D is that organizations have gone from making a philanthropic case for information and communications technology to making a much more hard-nosed business case for their role in the development sector and beyond. So, for example, five years ago many ICT4D organizations were speaking only to donors, raising issues the development sector seems to care about. They were speaking the language of “empowerment” and “impact.”

The group we gathered together was different. They were eager to show how their platforms speak directly to the more pragmatic (and perhaps mundane) concerns of development professionals, such as project managers and team leaders, and beyond. Platforms that can be used to guide or monitor development projects can also be used to conduct market research for commercial clients. Their business cases were all some variation on the following theme: “Our tool can solve a problem that you and your organization faces on a daily basis…and this solution is worth paying for.” It was quite cool to see these organizations painting such a clear picture of the value they’re offering.