Impact of Digital Transformation in the Social Impact Sector

Tarul Jain

April 2021

Digital technologies have advanced more rapidly than any innovation in the past- reaching around 50 percent of the developing world’s population in only two decades. India itself has been on a digital-first trajectory for a few years. With recent developments in technology and an increase in smartphone penetration, the way we address issues in the social impact sector has drastically changed.

In a rapidly evolving world, social impact has been exposed to many digital opportunities to raise awareness, harness digital growth, strategically assess the impact and build policies for efficient implementation. To keep up with an ever-changing digital environment, organizations within the social impact sector need to invest in the use of digital tools and technologies more than ever. 

Digital technologies such as data pooling and Artificial intelligence are used to track and diagnose issues in agriculture, health, and the environment. Many NGOs, research organisations, and public policy institutions use National surveys like National Family Health Survey (NFHS), Annual Health Surveys (AHS), National Sample Survey (NSS), and Census  to understand the prevalence of different health, livelihood, and wellness indicators across gender, age, location, religion, and caste. Oxfam India provides for one such example of data pooling- they used the NFHS-3 and NFHS-4 to create a deeper understanding of various aspects of domestic violence in the country, which further provided for evidence-based policy recommendations. 

Mid-day meal distribution by Akshaya Patra Foundation is one of the best examples of using digital tools in achieving a large-scale social impact in our country. According to Social Cops Blog, They have been able to use big data analytics to minimize the transportation costs through efficient route allocation for distribution of food to about 2 million children across 10 states in India. They also use a data driven feedback from these children to ensure a high-quality meal every day.  

There are some recent and emerging technology developments in survey research as well. These include Computer Assisted Telephonic Interviewing (CATI) and Computer Assisted Self Interviewing (CASI) methods using audio and video for collecting data. These developments are already having profound effects on survey data collection. 

Educate Girls in Rajasthan has been able to retain 2,40,000 girl children in school. This was enabled through continuous collection and monitoring of data on  attendance, learning outcomes and using mobile based tools. Another NGO which used technology to its power is the Swades Foundation in Raighad district of Maharashtra- by tracking every individual and household’s livelihood, health, and education status through mobile based data collection tools, they have been able to effectively mobilize resources to create a sustainable impact.  

As we continue to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, rapid digitalization has enabled the social impact sector to adapt to the new normal- remote data collection. This has been possible only because of the dramatic digital transformation in the country i.e., mobile connectivity and declining data costs that have dramatically spurred internet usage. Over 80% of households have access to mobile phones in India, making it easy to reach the most remote and underserved areas with the click of a button. 

Digital tools not only help us to roll the intervention but also assess the impact. Considering the need to address boys on sexual and reproductive health and gender. Development solutions conducted an impact evaluation study recently which targeted adolescent boys in Rajasthan using Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools Given the Covid-19 pandemic, even our team at DS has transitioned to a remote system of data collection through CATI for research and evaluation. 

We can say that the development sector in the nation is realising the power of data and digital tools in improving work efficiency and cutting costs to make a long-lasting impact in society. One can expect the newer technological advancements like wireless applications and portable digital devices to offer many opportunities to expand the way we think of survey data collection, increasing the ways we can interact with survey respondents and expanding the range of stimulus material that can be used.

While digital technologies can make our world fairer, more peaceful, and  just, they can also threaten privacy, erode security, and fuel inequality. As we are all aware, recently, data of 553 million Facebook accounts and 500 million LinkedIn subscribers were breached. Data breaching in the social impact sector can lead to an unveiling of a lot of sensitive information without consent and is something this sector needs to take care of.   

Though digital transformation has provided for massive connectivity across the country, however, those yet to be connected remain cut off from the benefits of the new era and remain further behind. These people mostly include women, the elderly, and persons with disabilities. While remote data collection is here to stay, some of its challenges are hard to overlook- difficulty in measuring anthropometric indicators, non-responsiveness, respondent fatigue, building rapport with the respondents, to name a few. 

In conclusion, one can say that technologies that are built and embedded in almost all aspects of our lives  can change society for the greater good if used and handled wisely.