Violence and Evaluation: Why It Matters To Document Progress

My preferred field of research is in informal economies. This means, often, that information is very limited, existing data sets can be misleading, not cleaned up well, or just not complete. Unfortunately, a lot of the existing research is based on anecdotal evidence — I can prove some of the theories that I work with… after hours of compiling data from individual sources into my own data sets. Or going into the field and painstakingly collecting it myself.

I find that working with non-profits, especially those interested in reducing violence, yields similar challenges. The groups I work with and think about often devote their resources to the issues they are trying to address, which might make sense in the short term… but then we also run into issues where we can’t scale solutions or improve development models because there was never a system to document progress before/after a program was implemented and/or measure the impact that program had on the specific target groups over time.

What do I mean by this? Look at Ciudad Juarez. The documented homicide rate has decreased significantly since 2010, there has been a ton of investment in local social programs, the military left the policing programs to local police forces… but what worked? Many things happened at once. Which social programs were most effective and why? How do all of these changes in the local fabric of the city interact with one another? What failed? And what were the negative side effects of these changes? What are we not seeing in these new numbers? How do we evaluate “positive change?”

It’s nice that sometimes there is enough clear data from different accounts that we can draw some conclusions after the fact. Sometimes, we receive anecdotes that offer enough context that we can compare data from one story to data from another. This is an extremely slow process — compiling data from anecdotes and interviews, but it is possible.

I would love to see groups in all spheres of development, violence reduction, public investment, etc. being trained to document their findings better and making these records public. That would, of course, require them to disclose when their programs were not working… which is another public branding issue for non-profits, but would, overall, ensure that we can find better programs that really can scale to bring positive change.

A girl can dream.

TEDUniversity at TEDGlobal 2014

On Tuesday, I presented my talk at TEDGlobal 2014 to close out the TEDUniversity session. Here is a recap of the full event.

It was a really great experience. I rewrote and edited this talk frequently to get it right and try to fit my 7 minute mark. I had a lot of help and feedback from a number of mentors and the TED content team, which really helped me think through the content, sequence and strategy of the talk. It was, in essence, a very basic intro to why informal communities are interesting. I hope I will get to dig into more of the reasoning slowly as I keep moving forward with research.

I think I ran over in the end, but I was really in the zone during delivery… so I never looked at the clock beyond the 2.30 mark, where I was still making great time. After nervous run throughs all week and early early that morning in the hallway of the Copacabana Hotel… it felt good to walk on stage. Take a deep breathe and grin before delivering the best run through of my talk I had done yet.

It felt so good.

I received a lot of wonderful feedback and had really wonderful conversations about informal economies for hours (and now days….) afterwards. Which is essentially my ideal place to be.

It’s also helping me find ways to explain the ideas floating around in my head. The larger reasons why informal economies are interesting and worth noting. Especially for governments that want to understand fuller profiles of their cities.

To end, I’ll share one particular victory moment. A personal hero is a really talented researcher who works on black market/criminal activity and has spoken at TED before. I have asked him to advise my work before and he has been very supportive of me/my research. He was at TEDUniversity and saw my talk on Tuesday. And then found me Tuesday evening to tell me that I had done a great job. The feeling was comparable to what it would be like if Neil Armstrong told a young Astronaut that they had done a good job on a NASA mission. Not to say that my work is anywhere near as complicated and/or delicate as a NASA mission. But this was… well. I am very pleased with how this all turned out!

Thank you to everyone who sat through edits, run throughs, exhausted and frustrated phone calls/drafts/discussions with me. You are all so wonderful 🙂