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The Feedback Hyperloop

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This post originally appeared on the FeedBack Labs blog.

Arcturus Aldebaran
Photo credit:  Arcturus Aldebaran via photopin cc

Feedback is always present. Even silence is not the absence of feedback, but a quiet subtext open for interpretation. In both online and offline communities, the most difficult part is not generating feedback or even collecting it. People typically care about what is happening around them and are often willing to share their sentiments and reflections- sometimes even unable to hold back expression. The advent of writing perhaps marks an innate human desire to share information and to be heard without speaking; “true” silence may actually be quite rare, more a condition of looking and listening in the wrong places or employing a less holistic approach. The graffiti that marks the architecture of repressive regimes past and present is in itself a type of feedback, representing citizen engagement with institutions that refused to officially afford that right or offer practical channels to its citizens. As such, the key challenges that exist with feedback loops are whether or not we are listening, engaging, and actively responding by catalyzing appropriate change.

With these aspects in mind, implementing an effective and meaningful feedback loop becomes an exercise in executing these elements and doing them faster over time. Here are some key points to consider along the path to closing the loop and remaining inside it.

Casting a Wider Feedback Net
Who are we collecting feedback from? End recipients and users of our programs, services, and products are obvious choices. There are many other sources of validation in the feedback process along the way, often less inclusive or diverse. While feedback nets are being cast more frequently given communications advancements, they are not necessarily being cast more widely and often fall on close and accessible waters.

An open government program might poll a community of transparency experts or the open data community. Insular feedback is often helpful but should not be exclusive. For efficiency’s sake, a VC might even choose to focus on their immediate networks based on analysis of eventual investment sources. Unfortunately, this particular model doesn’t apply well to international development. It also doesn’t test or challenge core beliefs and assumptions, perhaps leading to a type of self-validation affectionately labeled “breathing your own exhaust.”

It is easy and somewhat natural to go to like-minded tribes for input and feedback. This is not a unique condition to the development community or public sector. There are examples and lessons that can be learned from the startup community and private sector, including those illustrating the dangers of false validation and misreading feedback. All of this stresses the importance of seeking feedback from more diverse sources and non-traditional partners.

Embracing Technology to Reduce “Feedback Friction”
New technologies offer much promise to help us better access and collect information in different ways. Technology can help drastically cut the time and increase the scale and depth of feedback collection, reducing “feedback friction.” An interesting example is the nano-survey. This methodology allows for tapping into a random sampling of internet users through quick hit surveys (hence the nano) by polling individuals who input a non-existent or non-trademarked URL address into their web browsers. In addition to being able to geo-target users by sub-national location, nano-survey response rates are higher and can be more informative than traditionally collected responses. Collection times are also typically shorter, opening up the possibility of real-time netizen feedback.

As part of a recent project, I utilized nano-survey technology to measure the demand for open data in online and offline communities. This technology has also been used to assess and predict the spread of avian flu in China and to measure American and Iranian citizen appetite for direct government negotiations. As with any survey method, there is always a bias; the potential shortcoming of this approach is that it only reflects the sentiment of internet users. Even so, innovative approaches like nano-surveys are already exciting and will continue to evolve and allow for collection of feedback in even more useful ways.

We must also be willing to try emerging solutions that reduce feedback friction. Increasingly this will include technologies that offer built-in feedback features through data exhaust like mobile, drones, and sensors. Bitcoin (or something like it) is an interesting example of a controversial technology with revolutionary advancements in traceability, accountability, and efficiency bubbling just beneath the surface. Without negatively affecting the privacy or welfare of development constituents, it is important to consider and try all of the growing tools at our disposal.

Combining Data-Driven and Human-Centric Approaches
Only collecting and “listening” to data is essentially just tracking, a concept that has been ingrained in the very DNA of the internet experience through cookies and trackers. The digital age has allowed for many advancements in this area, and data gathering technologies have been applied liberally and successfully in many industries. However, the constituents of international development work are not shoppers. We are not applying feedback collection mechanisms to operate a theme park or department store. The international development community is in the business of making the world a better place, a more equal place. The stakes are high and while the language and ideals of innovation and experimentation are well-placed and necessary, the analogy cannot extend all the way to a lab where humans are viewed as test subjects. The data revolution may skew some towards a more data-driven approach, but data-driven or human-centric is a false dichotomy and represents a forced choice. It is possible, optimal, and necessary to be both data-driven and human-centric.

Building on a Foundation of Transparency
Transparency is a pre-condition for meaningful feedback and participation. Asking people to provide feedback or to participate in a process without sharing relevant information is a flawed approach. If we seek to create an environment for more collaborative and participatory processes but do not provide access to relevant useable information, very noble goals are being undermined by a lack of actionable transparency. Inviting participation without access to information is a recipe for greater friction, in extreme cases civil unrest and protest. The process of feedback itself benefits from transparency, and data collection for these purposes should start and remain open.

Efforts to be transparent about external operations and services can also be greatly enhanced by internal transparency. Buffer, a social media startup, is an interesting example of embracing radical transparency; the company is open about revenues, makes internal emails accessible to staff, and publicly shares salary formulas and all staff salaries. This case highlights the value of transparency’s power to encourage the sharing of “every idea or new direction very early, before it’s completely solid.” Feedback is exponentially more useful before decisions are made, and being open can result in greater participation in feedback mechanisms. Open by default is most effective when it is wielded as a double-edged sword.

A feedback loop, much like a map, is a very useful tool. If a destination has been selected, it can show us where we currently are relative to where we want to go. When using a map, a trip only begins when we move our position closer to the journey’s end. If we do not know where we want to go, then we have only entered the Feedback Loop to Somewhere, only marginally better than the Feedback Loop to Nowhere.

Casting a wider feedback net, embracing technology to reduce feedback friction, employing a data-driven and human-centric approach, and building on a foundation of transparency strengthen the necessary connections that compose a potent feedback loop, one with clear purpose and direction. Imagine being in touch with real-time data about a community coupled with a sustained presence, commitment, and engagement with all given stakeholders. In essence, it opens up the possibility of being in multiple places at the same time. Welcome to the Feedback Hyperloop.

World Bank Group Finances is the online access point for IBRD, IDA, and IFC open financial data. The website features datasets that cover loans, contracts, trust funds, investments, and financial statements. A related mobile app, which allows you to “talk” to us more easily about operational and financial data in nine languages, is available for download for Android and iOS smartphone and tablet users at the Google Store and the iTunes Store, respectively. Follow us on Twitter to join and remain engaged in the conversation about the Bank’s open financial data.


Samuel Lee

Consultant with SuM4All

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