How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

I’m advising on the implementation of the Data Powered Positive Deviance (DPPD) method across the different pilot projects of the DPPD initiative. The initiative is collaboratively created by GIZ Data Lab, Pulse Lab Jakarta, UNDP Accelerator Labs Network, and the University of Manchester Centre for Digital Development.

This method emerged from my PhD research at the University of Manchester which aimed at combining traditional (e.g. interviews) and non-traditional digital data (e.g. satellite imagery) to identify and amplify solutions of outperformers in a similar fashion to the Positive Deviance approach.

So far, we have applied it to identify and understand: farmers achieving higher than usual cereal crop productivity in Niger and Indonesia; cattle farmers in Ecuador who are deforesting below average rates; research publication outperformance among Egyptian researchers; public spaces in Mexico City where women are safer; and communities in Somalia which are able to preserve their rangelands despite frequent droughts.

This method makes use of large-scale readily available digital data to observe and filter outperforming units thereby reducing the qualitative search space (in the later stages) that requires extensive time and effort to uncover the factors underlying their outperformance. In most of the pilots, we are currently at the post-fieldwork stage of analysing factors underlying this positive deviance to inform the design of community and/or policy interventions.

What was the most impactful project you worked on this year?

I would say it is the DPPD handbook that we released last month. I’m an advocate of the proverbial saying: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”.

Notwithstanding the local solutions identified across the different pilot projects, I believe that the biggest value of the DPPD initiative lies in our ability to demonstrate (out of experience) the value, limitations and know-how needed for the use of non-traditional digital data in the search of grassroot solutions.

The DPPD handbook provides guidance on how these new and emerging data sources can be employed in the positive deviance approach, and how they can be combined with more traditional data to gain deeper, more meaningful, and context-aware insights. It presents a new way to extract development value from non-traditional digital data by putting knowledge about outliers into action while providing a systematic approach to bridge the gap between big and thick data.

What is one unexpected learning from 2021?

One unexpected learning for me was how important it is to be driven by the process as much as being driven by the outcome. Due to the trailblazing nature of the DPPD pilot projects, keeping an eye only on the outcome will lead to the loss of a huge learning opportunity.

It is important from time to time to remind ourselves how crucial it is to see the value in each step of the way leading to the desired outcome. In the end, this is an approach that is being tested for the first time at such a geographic scale and using new sources of data.

To ensure its replicability – which is a key objective of the DPPD initiative – it is paramount to know what went right, what went wrong, and why. Only through reflecting on and documenting each challenge we stumbled upon during the process, will we be able to capture value in exchange for the learning cost we paid.

What’s your favourite memory from the past year?

Professionally, my favourite moment was earlier this month when I successfully defended my PhD thesis. Personally, it was when I reunited with my parents after they had both fully recovered from Covid-19 (my condolences to all who lost their loved ones to it).

What’s a tool or technique you’re excited to explore in 2022?

Using the DPPD method, it is possible to identify outperformance or positive deviance that is driven by supra-individual factors (i.e. factors beyond the control of individuals). These factors can be transferred and amplified e.g. development interventions, policies, governance schemes, etc.

To embrace the complex dimensions of the problem and explore positive deviance as a system behaviour instead of looking into positive deviants as individuals in isolation, systems thinking techniques come in handy. Hence, I’m planning to further explore such techniques in 2022 to leverage the use of the DPPD method as a systemic lens that could inform more nuanced policy interventions.

What are your priorities for 2022?

I have two main priorities for 2022. The first is to figure out, alongside my partners, a viable business model to scale the DPPD method.

The second is a project I’m working on with the GIZ data service centre. We are exploring a new application of the DPPD method which is concerned with identifying exceptional responders to development interventions.

In this project, exceptional responders or positive deviants are farmers in India who adopted an early sown wheat innovation that aims at reducing the negative impacts of terminal heat at the end of the harvest season. Identifying the reasons behind their exceptional response can be used to inform intervention strategies and to increase overall adoption by “poor responders”.

Who are the mentors and heroes that inspire you?

Rana Elkaliouby has been a major inspiration to me since I attended her first TED talk in 2010 up until recently having read her new 2020 book Girl Decoded. She is an AI thought leader who commercialised her PhD research by developing a technology that enables machines to read emotions. Based on this technology she started Affectiva, a multi-million dollar start-up on a mission to humanise technology.

I’m also inspired by my PhD supervisor and mentor Professor Richard Heeks, whose support, wisdom, patience and example, as a teacher, supervisor, co-author and colleague, have been the greatest single influence on my progress in this PhD. I appreciate all that he has done to encourage my growth as both a development researcher and practitioner and all the opportunities he put in my way that shaped my doctoral journey.

What gets you up in the morning?

I’m not the kind of person who jumps out of bed excited to start off the day…some mornings are good, and others are bad. But sleeping at least seven hours a night, leaving the curtains open to let the sunshine in, early morning meetings, and having a clear list of what needs to be done, makes getting out of bed much easier.