Filed under: Development Development 2.0 Social innovation

Drawing of an desert island while many things are happening underwater

On a deserted, wave-swept shore, he stood – in his mind great thoughts grow Photo: A desert island, by xkcd, CC

While sitting on a beautiful hill, overlooking the tranquil expanse of water, it is difficult to notice the pulse of life there, in the depths.

Sometimes ripple-like patterns from whales’ tails or submarine periscopes appear on the surface, which could provide only a sketchy idea of the life in the depths. Over time, scientists have created a number of tools to explore the depths, which fall into one of two large groups.

  1. We take a moment from the depths and study it in detail. However, we do not care how numerous the specimens are, how they interact in the ecosystem and so on.
  2. We consider the system as a whole — we track shoals of fish, water flow or distribution of volcanic emissions. In that case, we care little,  or not at all, about what happens to specific moments, we are interested in macro-phenomena.

In the social sciences, we use exactly the same tools — roughly speaking, case studies and statistics, each having its own pros and cons.

Case studies (focus groups, in-depth interviews and other similar methods) allow for an in depth look into the problem, describing it in detail and in colour, highlighting some features that are difficult to see otherwise. However, such stories are not representative, and reflect a specific case. We have too many variables in our society, and it is too hard to pick a “typical representative” (try to find “a typical representative of your country” or “a typical country in Central Asia”), and there is no guarantee that his or her experience would be typical.

On the other hand, namely statistics, operating with large numbers, can highlight the typical cases, trends and other average values, by which you can judge a society as a whole.

The trouble is that most of these indicators give an understanding of underwater life, roughly speaking, by ripple-like patterns from whales’ tails or submarine periscopes. The razor of research hypotheses completely cuts out the flesh of meaning from the bones of numbers.

There are numerous and repeated attempts to befriend a variety of tools that would give us an understanding what’s going on in the depths of society. For example, the article Managing Yourself: Zoom In, Zoom Out, published in the Harvard Business Review, offers a very simple approach — zoom in or out on the problem as you would with Google Maps. When the map is zoomed out, one can see the mountain ridges, state borders and big highways. When the map is zoomed in, these are dropped out of sight, but one can distinguish individual neighbourhoods, streets, and houses. Zooming out, you can see the problem in context, while zooming in allows you to see important details that are blurred when you zoom out.

Cognitive Edge offers a similar tool, which brings together stories (micronarratives), and the meta-data about these stories. In this case, research hypotheses do not play a major role. Certain patterns of stories begin to emerge when a large number of stories is collected and plotted around certain metadata options — whether the story is about the past, present, or future, is the story about corruption, cooperation or competition…. In this case, accuracy of the sample is not so important — whether there are 400 or 401 stories in the cluster does not matter at all.

What is more important is the appearance of a cluster. It is possible to go into deeper analysis, using the layers of clusters by adding variables — demographic characteristics of the storytellers, the emotional background of stories, and so on. Moreover, the tool allows you to dive deep into the cluster and catch the specific history, thus merging the statistics and personal experience.

This combination is very useful — politicians and decision makers rarely hear the voice of the people, relying on public opinion studies, and other average values. Using this tool allows us, sitting on the hill, to observe the beat of life at all stages of programme or project — analysis, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

Currently we are implementing this approach for Chernobyl-affected areas. More than 25 years ago, a catastrophe at the Chernobyl Atomic Power Plant resulted in massive radioactive contamination in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine and affected lives of millions of people. Large territories received the status of “special zones,” with regular radiological control and severe limitations for economic activity.

With time, thanks to specific measures and nuclear fission, the level of radioactive contamination has been decreasing. However, special zones seem to be frozen as they were back in 1986, when the accident happened, together with huge development challenges. Even before the accident, these territories were less developed, made even worse by their special status.

As part of the International Chornobyl Research and Information Network, we plan to collect stories from people living in Chernobyl affected areas.

We have two specific goals here:

  1. We want to understand the type and magnitude of challenges, and how current measures work (or don’t work) in helping people. Legislation, adopted just after the accident in the the former USSR, promised wide support to people living in Chernobyl-affected areas. In reality, this support could not be provided due to fiscal constraints, and real allocations could be five to ten times less than promised by the law.
  2. The stories may not just point to issues and problems, but we’re hoping to see some solutions from people too. Development challenges in neighbouring regions are very similar, and learning from experience could be especially productive for reducing stigma (partially self-imposed) and apathy of populations trapped in these areas.

This article was originally published on Mihail’s blog, Measuring Unmeasurable.