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ITE TIG Week: Open Source for Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning (MERL) by Stephanie Coker

I’m Stephanie Coker, an Evaluation Consultant at TCC Group and a member of the MERL Center Working Group on GitHub. While my evaluation, research, and monitoring work has focused on several topical areas including advocacy and international development, my work has also led me to using Open Source tools and developing content about Open Source for MERL. As part of the MERL Center Working Group, I work with a group of collaborators worldwide, creating materials to help MERL practitioners understand if, when and how to use Open Source as part of their MERL solutions. 

One of the topics we’re currently developing content around is how to assess Open Source tools against proprietary tools when you’re under tight time constraints. How do you know when to choose a proprietary solution that is ‘right out of the box’ over a customizable Open Source alternative? Our working group identified several major challenges for MERL practitioners: interoperability or the ability of systems to speak to each other, lack of technical knowledge, adherence to government regulations and collaborative working environments for users. There is also a certain lack of resources available that provide tool-against-tool comparability when it comes to Open Source. Popular software rating websites such as G2 crowd, Capterra and CNET often leave Open Source tools entirely out of their ratings. We’re still thinking up solutions to these challenges but here is a hot tip and a rad resource:

Hot Tip: It helps to think about your MERL work in terms of discrete workflows. There are three main types of workflows that we often engage in as part of our work: Data collection and management, data analysis and visualization, reporting. A single software tool won’t typically provide all the tasks you might need done in a typical MERL lifecycle but they might help you do one or two of these discrete workflows. For example, during the ‘Monitoring’ phase of a developmental evaluation, a tool for data collection and management is usually necessary. You’re more likely to find a good Open Source tool while exploring options for data collection and management, rather than searching for an Open Source tool for ‘Monitoring’. Developers also often think in terms of workflows and identifying workflows can be a good way to communicate needs for an evaluation project. 

Rad resource: GitHub’s report on Open Source Software in the Social Sector is a good resource for understanding where we currently are with adoption of Open Source. It draws on multiple fields within the social sector and also offers several recommendations for future use of Open Source. 

If you are a MERL practitioner or software developer and you’d like to contribute to the MERL Center on GitHub, reach out to Mala Kumar at malakumar85@github.com

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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