Implementing digital solutions to human problems seems like a no-brainer in our connected age. Technology is powerful; it connects people worldwide, it offers innovative solutions to age-old issues, it simplifies situations. On the other side of every digital platform, however, is a human being who needs to relate to and operate it.
Disrupting the system is a popular catchphrase these days; implying that the system needs to be interrupted and upset in order to resettle into an improved form. Perhaps the system really could use a serious disruption, but on the receiving end, have we disrupted a person’s life in order to prove a tech point?
On June 10, the UN High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation released “The Age of Interdependence,” a report which advocates for improved digital cooperation and stability while concurrently developing human capacity and mitigating the risks. It’s encouraging to see that more than 2,000 people were met with to discuss inclusive development, data, human rights, and digital trust and security.
We must have empathy and understand the context in which the person on the ground will use the tool. No matter how elegant, helpful, or potentially life-changing, a tool will only work if a human being can use it without too much fuss and if it makes sense, given their particular context.
Questions to ask yourself before disrupting:
Here’s an example for you: As is typical in low-and middle-income country healthcare settings, staff at a local health clinic kept huge registry books of all patients to record what services and commodities were provided. There can easily by five to eight registers (or more) in just one clinic, each delineated by programs, such as ante- and post-natal care, HIV/AIDS, family planning, and immunization. Last year, during a data use assessment in Eastern Africa, I observed staff carefully entering each person’s details and treatment by hand although a new digital patient registration system had recently been implemented in this and a few other facilities. This system was supposed to eradicate the need for the manual registry as patients could be entered directly into a new digital platform and their records pulled up quickly.
However, the interface was in English, a language in which most community health workers were not fluent at the level required to navigate an interface requesting medical information, and many were not well trained in how to operate the new technology. It’s an all-too-common scenario where digital solutions that are not fully contextualized and/or don’t have a reasonable plan for scale and elimination of the paper entry system actually causes dual data entry. This does not ease the clinicians’ workload—it makes it more burdensome.
Digital systems and human implementation have to be coordinated, both on individual and larger community levels with a localized understanding of how the system interacts with other systems at play in the environment. And, there needs to be a clear, realistic, and funded plan for rolling out the digital system so it can replace—not duplicate—manual systems. Fragmented solutions are not enduring solutions; they do harm rather than help.
At Kati, we work with you to think through these issues before program implementation so that the chance of success and satisfaction is increased. We help our clients leverage digital to meet humanitarian needs. We are excited to see how the UN High-Level Panel works with partners to implement its recommendations. With every innovation, real people and communities are affected. Let’s work together to ensure that disruption isn’t disruptive, but instead leads to coordinated community action and improved outcomes for all.
Image: Healthcare workers at a clinic in Tanzania. Courtesy of Kirsten Gagnaire.