Q&A: Laura Scanlon, director of TEGA, on building girl-powered data

A Technology Enabled Girl Ambassador in Indonesia using Girl Effect’s girl-operated mobile-enabled research tool to capture authentic and real-time insights. Photo by: Girl Effect

Efforts to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls have long been hindered by a lack of data about the barriers they face. Surveys and other needs assessments are often conducted with heads of household — usually men.

A growing movement of organizations is now seeking to fill in the data gender gap. One of them is Girl Effect, a social enterprise that developed the Technology Enabled Girl Ambassadors program. TEGA trains and deploys girls in their own communities to gather data from their peers.

TEGA ambassadors are trained over a period of three months and then equipped with tools that allow them to collect information and record video. The data from their interviews is immediately uploaded through an internet-enabled mobile device linked to a content hub, where the Girl Effect team or a partner NGO can access the information.

“Unless we have data, we can't understand what a girl needs to realize her full potential,” Laura Scanlon, director of TEGA, told Devex.

TEGA was designed in partnership with a team of developers and designers from Maido, a London based technology agency.* The project was recognized as the best innovation for research last year by the Market Research Society, an international research association based in the U.K and has been commended by Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a shining example of how to conduct research in the global south. 

The Girl Effect team hopes to expand the program to reach half a million girls by 2020. “Our ambition was to design a solution that gave fast access to authentic understanding into the lives of girls,” Scanlon told Devex. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What inspired the creation of TEGA and what was the process involved in creating it?

Laura Scanlon, director of Girl Effect's Technology Enabled Girl Ambassadors program. Photo by: Girl Effect

Between 70 and 80 percent of surveys conducted in the global south begin with the question, “Can I talk to the head of the household?” And the head of the household is likely to be a man, so eliminating the opportunity for girls to participate in that survey.

The methodology used to interview these girls are pretty intrusive and intimidating. Asking young girls between [the ages of] 10 and 19 very intrusive questions about her life, menstruation or the challenges she is facing, with her father or brother leaning over her shoulder and listening to her answers. That dynamic rarely creates a space for the girl to open up and speak candidly about her life. The problem with that is that you don't get an accurate understanding of the challenges she is facing. And the bigger problem with that is that we can't design solutions for her.

Three years ago, we set about overcoming this problem and designing a solution that not only enabled us get an accurate understanding of a girl's life but also use evolution in technology to allow us much faster access to this understanding. It is born out of the insight that a girl is far more likely to feel comfortable opening up to another girl just like her.

What type of training do these girls undergo to make them qualified researchers?

[These are] girls who are living in communities similar to the one that we want to understand. Over three months periods, we give them a mobile device and bespoke technology that we just designed for her. We capacity-build them to become qualified qualitative and quantitative digital market researchers and interviewers. And they use this technology that has been designed especially for them to enable them to collect reliable and robust data.

We also ask the girls to take videos, photos and audio files. What it enables is for the people that are designing solutions — the program creators sitting in the headquarters of international NGOs — to finally see the faces and hear the voices of the people they need to understand, which we believe not only reduces the chances of them being misinterpreted, or things to be lost in translation, but it creates more powerful emotive connection with the program designer and the community.

What is the end result?

We always collect data in response to a research brief with objectives and questions that the Girl Effect wants answered or the external partner that we are working on behalf of. We are always asking questions that we know there is going to be action based on that insight. One of the things we are really focused on is making sure everything we do increases the propensity to act. From the moment someone asks if they can use TEGA, we want to make sure that the genuine reason for them using TEGA — and the output of the research we create for them — is going to be driven into real world action. Far too often, research is conducted and communities are being intruded upon, and not enough action is taken after that research. We want to make sure if we are going into communities and we are asking them questions, it is for a genuine purpose.

Is there a repository through which other NGOs can access the content that TEGA collects?

We have a content hub called the TEGA content hub, and it houses all of the TEGA data collected. It is highly restricted to protect the identities of the girls. The great thing about the TEGA content hub is the second a girl finishes conducting her interview, it automatically uploads onto the content hub. Now we have a central resource that accumulates an enormous amount of data. In Northern Nigeria, for example, we have been operational for over a year now and we've had 80,000 pieces of data. I think we have more video data on our content hub on Northern Nigerian girls probably than anywhere else in the world.

This content hub is highly secured. We hired professional hackers, or penetration testers, to attempt hacking into the content hub, and the identified vulnerability helped us make it more highly secured. The great thing about the content hub is that we also wanted to find programmatic technology that enabled us to truncate the amount of [uploading] time. All of the data is programmatically summarized. The minute a girl finishes conducting her interview, we can be sitting anywhere in the world viewing the programmatically analyzed findings on the content hub.

What are some of the early challenges you faced in initiating TEGA?

We were very adamant that we wanted to collect video data. We wanted people to see the faces and hear the voices of the community, but we were warned against doing that by everyone because of the difficulty of sending video data across a highly unstable global south infrastructure. For the first two or three months pilot, we were losing data. I think we lost 53 percent of the data.

The tech partner, Maido, spent over 1,000 hours troubleshooting and they managed to smooth out all of the bugs. Instead of trying to send a giant video file all at once, that file is broken into thousands of pieces and sent individually. The beauty of that is if the connection drops, the whole file doesn't drop down to the bottom again and as soon as it resumes, it'll just carry on sending. [This works] from some of the remote parts of the world, including rural Ethiopia, where they couldn't make a phone call, and northeast of Nigeria, which is pretty much a communication blackspot. We receive all of the data to the content hub, including the video data, almost instantly.

How do you monitor the impact of the project on both the girls and the communities where the research is carried out?

When we first created TEGA, the reason was for us to get better access to more authentic insight. Through anecdotal evidence during the three months pilot that we did, we began to understand that we were taking these girls living in poverty and building their capacity to become TEGAs, and we were giving them a qualification. These girls were demonstrating increased confidence. They were saying they had more friends, they had better connections to their community and it was beginning to change their perception of what they could be as they grow. Beyond that, the communities were reporting back to us that it was changing their perception of what the girls could and should be doing.

Through that anecdotal evidence, we now have a very detailed framework that allows us to monitor the impact of TEGA on TEGAs. That is in line with our theory of change, which focuses on value, voice and connections. Every time we launch a brand new TEGA network into a country, we track a girl's value, voice and connection over a three month period. We do that by having them report back to us on video, telling us the impact TEGA has had on their lives. We've got robust evidence. For example, 94 percent of girls value increases in confidence, 81 percent value increases in confidence to speak up among their families and communities.

A girl called Salamatu sent us a video telling us how, as a result of being a TEGA, she had the confidence to create her own CV and apply for a writer's program. She believes it is because she is a TEGA that she got accepted for the program. Another girl called Mastura said through her wages she can contribute to her own school fees and has managed to put herself back into school.

* Update, Feb. 9: This article has been updated to clarify that TEGA was designed in partnership with a team of developers and designers from Maido, a London based technology agency.

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About the author

  • Ehidiamen jennifer

    Jennifer Ehidiamen

    Jennifer Ehidiamen is a Nigerian writer who is passionate about communications and journalism. She has worked as a reporter and communications consultant for different organizations in Nigeria and overseas. She has an undergraduate degree in mass communication from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, and M.A. in business and economics from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York. In 2014, she founded Rural Reporters (www.ruralreporters.com) with the goal of amplifying underreported news and issues affecting rural communities.