John Hoffmire: What did you have in mind that made you want to start Outline India?
Prerna Mukharya – Good data leads to robust policy making.
Before starting my journey with Outline India, I was a researcher working on grants with think tanks and universities. I realized that as a country we were receiving so much donor money, (philanthropic contributions and aid money), not to mention private contributions, and CSR (corporate social responsibility) money, but no one really knew whether it was being spent efficiently.
We did not know who the best on ground partners were, even worse – we had no idea if we were achieving impact or affecting the lives of people in a positive and sustainable way.
I thought – we have so many firms working on analytics and making reports, but if the quality of data they were playing with is poor, their work would have a question mark next to it.
I therefore decided to set up Outline India – and data collection, as well as representative, good quality data would be at the heart of our work. Fortunately, the ethos of our work is intact.
John Hoffmire – How long ago did you start the organization?
Prerna Mukharya – We officially started our journey in 2012, it has been an interesting, challenging and very satisfying eight years of struggles and triumphs.
Our tech product, called Track your Metrics, which in essence automates impact metric building/social assessments, or data collection for the social sector, is about a year old.
John Hoffmire – What are your main offerings to the groups that you work with?
Prerna Mukharya – We help our partners answer questions such as:
- Whether their social program will work or not? (For example, to improve learning outcomes in a public school, should we train teachers or provide access to digital education?)
- We answer these types of questions by gathering data on the opinions of local community people and figuring out the feasibility of solutions within the scope of their culture, gender norms, and other behavioural traits.
- How to track progress (whether crop yield, and hence standard of income, has improved for farmers, since they started using modern techniques or growing organic crops)?
- This means that we help our partners define what impact means to them, and then we do research, data collection or what in more technical terms is called monitoring and evaluation of their projects.
- We help our partners figure how to create behavioral change (delay age of marriage, for example), how to improve cognizance around certain causes (child labour for instance)
- We use a myriad of research techniques, including participatory research, game theory, human-centered design, and psychometric tests to really understand what people think, what they remember, and what strategy will have the maximum recall.
- We help them figure which program to scale, which to shut down, what is going well and what is not. For instance, whether a gender-livelihoods program is scalable and replicable in other states, what funding might be needed, should we enter the community via a not for profit or through the village official representatives.
All examples are from real life studies. Our work is cross-sectoral, and no one research assignment is similar to the next. We work across different stakeholders, from women, to kids, to adolescents, to pregnant women, and government officers.
It is an extremely exciting space to work in, and at heart, it makes us extremely happy to know our work and recommendations translate to real life decisions by policymakers, governments, and funders, who can directly affect the superset of people.
John Hoffmire – When you do your best work, what kinds of research designs do you use?
Prerna Mukharya – We are big believers in mixed method, which means we think qualitative research together with quantitative makes the most sense. I think it is essential to understand the stories behind the numbers.
Data has to be wholesome, it has to absorb the surroundings, the thinking, the culture, the constraints of the very people it represents, this can be in the form of audios, videos, maps as made by the local people (giving us a sense of their perceptions), or even aerial maps (as put together using drones).
Since our work is very real life, we are helping think tanks, donors, not for profits, and sustainability teams solve real problems or improve conditions for a tangible mass of people – our solutions too have to be customised. Be it in randomized control trials, or quasi experimental designs, you must always first visit the field, talk to people – it helps quash assumptions you may have as a researcher. It enables you to think of the situation as an insider (to a certain degree), and that’s what we are good at!
John Hoffmire – When you envision an ideal relationship with a client, what does that relationship look like?
Prerna Mukharya – We like to think of our clients as partners. We think this because we need their cooperation as much as they need ours.
While expanding our work across India, Nepal and Bangladesh, we have worked with a huge range of partners including ADB, World Bank, and several wonderful universities in the UK, US, Australia and in east Asia, including University of Oxford, Harvard, Maryland, Chicago, University of Tokyo and Monash. We pride ourselves for contributions to several large scale government policies including, Swacch Bharat (Clean India campaign), Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Teach a girl campaign), and India’s health insurance scheme, among others.
Our more recent collaborations are with social responsibility arms of big corporates and not for profits from across the world.
We stick to the following principles:
- Always pilot (i.e. try out your plan/program/intervention on a small scale, before the social intervention is set up or scaled)
- Set up measures in place for periodic check-ins to ensure smooth execution
- Leave room for course correction, looping in new stakeholders or making edits to the program, if assumptions or other big variables change
- Helping our partners derive and promote a rubric for data quality
- Requesting that our clients allow us to document learnings from the field through what we call “cautionary tales” – results in accountability and consistent feedback (https://www.outlineindia.com/fields#cautionarytales)
John Hoffmire – How big is your organization? Define that in any way you want.
Prerna Mukharya – Since inception we have worked across 26 states in about 10,000+ villages in India, and in Nepal with over 4.5 million stakeholders. We have a huge army of data collectors, across multiple regions who speak the local language, understand the demography and are sector specialists. Our team is also home to over 50 coordinators and supervisors.
To support our data endeavours, we also have local language consultants, numerous transcribers and data entry operators who are often individuals with high school education and/or little or no college education and are hired part-time.
All of the work is led by our research team which is (given the pandemic) spread out over the country. Our researchers are currently in Delhi, Gurgaon, Kolkata, Assam, Mumbai, Near Ranchi, Patna, Bangalore and in a few other places. We will be working remotely for the next months.
Our “Track Your Metrics Team” is lean and is growing, and is based out of Delhi and Bangalore. We do hope to come back to you with some great news on this front by early next year.
With technology, and Track Your Metrics, our goal is to help the millions of on the ground partners to collect data, build metrics, and use these as proof of work to secure funding and scale efforts. On the other hand, we want to help funders find the right partners to fund using data and being able to track, and measure progress regularly and at low cost.
John Hoffmire – Thank you Prerna for doing this interview with me.
Prerna Mukharya – It has been my pleasure.
Prerna Mukharya is the founder of Outline India and Track your metrics (TYM). She is also an alum of the Chevening Research, Science and Innovation Leadership Fellowship (CRISP) program at Oxford University (2018)
John Hoffmire is the Chairman of the Center on Business and Poverty, the Director of Employee Ownership at Teamshares, and Research Associate at the Oxford Centre for Mutual and Co-owned Business