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Elena Perra

 

I am studying for a Master’s in Development Economics at the University of Florence, Italy. I decided to apply for an internship, because I strongly believe in the importance of gaining practical experience in my field, in order to have a first taste of the real world ‘out there’. Besides, I was excited to test my theoretical knowledge and its applicability in the everyday operations of a survey, data or international development organisation.

Why EDI?

I chose to pursue this placement at EDI, because I think that nowadays if you are really interested in development issues, learning how to manage data is a basic prerequisite and a fundamental skill for your own stock of knowledge. Moreover, the first time I visited EDI’s website I was impressed by the ethical principles on which EDI is founded. So, I questioned: “Why shouldn’t I try to apply for a traineeship there?”

Honestly, I have to admit that I also pondered whether to be more realistic. In the end, what I was reading was the company’s website, which I thought to be akin to a form of advertising. So, I told myself to lower my expectations, thinking that a private company is only motivated by profit.

After these first eight weeks at EDI I have grown to realise that EDI is different.  Financial success is a fact of life for a private company but the way to achieve it is a choice.

I was surprised to discover a relatively small company in High Wycombe, UK (only half an hour from Central London), whose positive environment, familiar vibe and strong collaborative atmosphere makes me feel part of it. The young, but well-qualified research team have been especially incredible with me, helping and involving me in all the everyday operations. Their effort and their dedication are helping me to understand the functions and the aim of the company.

What is EDI’s goal?

EDI’s aim is to provide data of the highest possible quality to its clients. The company draws on its extensive experience and does its best to achieve such high data quality by giving advice, insight, energy, and expertise to discuss all the issues with an open mind and a long-run perspective. Sometimes its work extends outside of what it was required, motivated by the strive for precision and accuracy.

Why data quality?

I was impressed to see my colleagues work hard all day in front of a computer (sometimes even more!), screening and cleaning data. To me it did not sound like the most exciting job, especially starting from the prospect of working for a development agency. However, I came to a realisation: data is not defined by its intrinsic nature. Data is not just numbers and codes, but rather reflects real lives. Data tells the stories of different people and communities all over the world. Data is powerful.

I discovered that managing data is a sort of journalistic operation, not biased by personal views. Knowing the real facts that you are analysing is fundamental in order to reach the right insights and the right conclusions in the decision-making process. Accordingly, data is knowledge. It is paramount to reach the highest possible level of quality in data collection, cleaning and processing, as data is a concrete snapshot of an underlying situation. Besides, lack of accurate data prevents development agencies and governments from dispersing both financial and non-financial resources.

Why is EDI different?

One of the main ways that EDI is unique is the fact that it works in symbiosis with its African branches, located in Bukoba and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania plus operations in Kampala, Uganda. EDI’s African staff are predominantly permanent, full-time team of experts, who deeply know local realities and provide a fundamental contribution in the field. The continuous process of monitoring and communication between all the members of staff is impressive, also because there needs to be a strong synergy between the field team and the High Wycombe team. This is really challenging, because it involves the cooperation of multiple people and teams whilst still having the necessity to take care of all possible problems and requests. Given the fact that EDI needs to coordinate teams located in different continents, many problems could arise that would impact upon project delivery. To give an idea, a simple Skype meeting could become a source of frustration and mis-communication, just because of the internet connection.  EDI’s established teams and protocols, centred on excellence, seem to influence decision making at the most appropriate local level and not from a higher, more remote actor in the project structure.

Despite EDI’s modest size it does not limit the operational aspiration and capacity; the losses in dimension are more than compensated by gains in flexibility and rapidity in doing operations; this is much valued by clients and I suspect is a significant reason for the high level of repeat client business that EDI enjoys. An important ethical tenet of the company is transparency. Given its familial nature, EDI needs to preserve its deserved reputation for excellence, in order to  further strengthen the long-term relationships with its clients. Furthermore, EDI was one of the first organisations to pioneer the transition from PAPI to CAPI, meaning the migration from paper to digital surveys. This conversion has allowed the improvement of the quality of data collected from surveys. More importantly, EDI created surveybe, a very sophisticated software for data design, collection and management. The overriding ethos of surveybe is in its design.  It is created by researchers for, researchers and characterised by continuous evolution through close, daily collaboration between the software development team and the research team.

EDI is always trying to remain on the technological frontier and surveybe features include bar code scanners, multi-media options, GPS tools and an innovative range of advanced features that generate metadata – something I hadn’t thought much about previously but ultimately of supreme importance if we are to assess project data in its truest context.

This holistic nature of EDI, tackling and providing solutions throughout the data cycle is the propellent towards seeking the “happy path” to success. EDI is like a living organism, which adapts, learns and evolves, following the stimuli of its components. This progressive philosophy, which permeates EDI’s culture, allows its employees to develop their skills. For instance, during my time at EDI, I have already enjoyed training in Geographical Information Systems (QGIS), along with the research team colleagues by participating in a course given by one of their own members Henry Cust.

One defining note that really caught my attention is the passion which EDI’s staff members put in to their job. The majority of the senior management have lived in Africa, or other developing nations for many years, experiencing the realities and the communities in which they operate.  Perhaps this is why EDI appear to be motivated as much by quality outcomes and impact as by financial gain?

What does EDI give me?

Discovering the complex systems behind the creation of surveys has been surprising. When I studied such topics for my impact evaluation exam at university, I didn’t question whether the data that I was using was correct or not, or how it had been collected and whether it reached an acceptable level of quality.

I have been exposed to the practical application of the work and the single biggest learning point is that nothing operates in isolation.  Just as lives are complex and multi-faceted so is the data that afford glimpses into them – we deserve to get the best ‘view’ in order to deliver the best outcomes for those we engage with.  Focussing on quality and being the ‘best’ is commendable.

With this in mind, I hope that this experience will make me a more nuanced researcher, with a deeper knowledge of issues connected with data and being better equipped to solving them! The opportunity to work with different people with different backgrounds is really stimulating and enriching. I feel that I am already learning a lot just by confronting my opinions with those of the research team and of my supervisors. This internship has been an invaluable journey so far and I am curious and keen to progress it even further.