Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning (MEL) – Transforming Everyday Data Management

February 28, 2020
Published by
ICARDA Communication Team
ICARDA Scientists
[PHOTO] ICARDA: Clockwise from top-left, Dr. Sawsan Hassan, Dr. Jacques Wery, Dr. Chandrashekhar Biradar, Dr. Mira Haddad.

Let's Celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Open Data Day with MEL!  


Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning (MEL) is an award winning, online platform for research for development (R4D) and knowledge management (KM) of projects and activities. It supports multi-stakeholder collaboration by improving planning, management, monitoring, evaluation, reporting, and data sharing, across multiple program and project activities. Through pooling and organizing data in one place, it allows for faster and more informed decision-making across and within partner organizations.

MEL was launched in 2016 as a collaborative system infrastructure between ICARDA and CIP through institutional efforts in the framework of CGIAR Research Programs, RTB and former DS - present GLDC. Through implementation by ICARDA and partners, MEL revealed its potential for synergy between researchers and organizations, and is now utilised by five CGIAR Centers and three Research Programs (acknowledgements below) in addition to hundreds of other users and partners, bridging data to inform decision-making and optimizing resources for KM.

MEL Open Access – Open Data policy has gained it a F.A.I.R. reputation, with authoritative indexes, metadata, ontologies, web services, identifiers and repositories, all integrated to achieve the best data quality and full interoperability, promoting best practices in data management. As its data repository grows and partners apply it to more operations, MEL constantly evolves and scales up, with over 900 projects, 1.000 activities, and 12.000 products already mapped, and an international team providing technical support and quality control 24/7 globally.

MEL was born out of necessity for innovation in data management approaches. Previously available software only allowed for data management without a solid evaluation dimension, lacking a comprehensive overview of data and the actions required to fully achieve its potential. A platform able to process automatically datasets to provide scalable evaluation and learning information through indicators, graphics and networks visuals was subsequently conceived and built with the daily data needs of its users at its core, and interoperability inspiring its system architecture.

It is the professional experience of the MEL users, their stories of success that guide the future development of the platform, a snapshot of expertise living through the ever-developing landscape of scientific data management. Here are some of them, from ICARDA scientists Dr. Mira Haddad, Senior Research Assistant, Spatial Analysis and Database Management, Dr. Jacques Wery, ICARDA Deputy Director General, Dr. Chandrashekhar Biradar, Head of the Geoinformatics Unit “GeoAgro”, Dr. Sawsan Hassan, Research Associate Coordinator of Forage Systems.


How was data managed without MEL?


Mira: “One of my tasks is to manage the WLEP program databases. I used to send regular emails and notification to scientists to track information, but not all of the project data were promptly reported back. It really depended on project managers’ time capacity along with other various reasons.”

Jacques: “Before coming to ICARDA, I worked as a research group manager, with one database that was used merely for data storage and another system for publication. It was a complicated workflow that demotivated the researchers to upload their data.”


How has implementing MEL changed your data management and impacted your work?


Mira:Since MEL was implemented, my role of following up and collecting datasets has significantly decreased. The challenging task of tracking program data and achievements has become much easier. MEL makes data collection uniform across multiple projects down to the single metadata needed, something not achievable before. For example, collected field datasets are now machine readable and curated for interoperability in Dataverse format and other systems.”

Chandra: “MEL has provided me with a unique and comprehensive platform to manage research databases, allowing us to analyse data in ways that were unavailable before. I regard it as an immensely important tool for research data management.”


Did MEL resources and integrated services support best practices?


Mira: “The services significantly ease the process of data management. MEL provides a systematic method of reporting and uploading the data from different activities and sources, through a planning-and-reporting system based on project deliverables and donors’ requirements. The online webpage generated by MEL also provides a simple, transparent and informative way of sharing research results.”

Sawsan:I have strong experience in data management, yet through MEL I learned how to better report and archive data methodically and systematically, for future analysis. As I started working with MEL colleagues on data management, we shared knowledge and best practices. They were very helpful and supportive, and the MEL resources are very easy to understand.”


How has MEL influenced the way you work, exchange and achieve as a team and link with donors and partners?


Jacques: “The multitude of data systems available presents a challenge of communication between the applications themselves and the people using them, a gap made of separate tools and terms that did not facilitate activities across teams and units. MEL is bridging this gap, allowing teams, partners and donors to better collaborate. We need to continue to develop in this direction.”

Sawsan:MEL helps me manage my day-to-day data quickly and efficiently, avoiding the end-of-the-year pressure, and I can easily share data with colleagues and donors for teamwork and recognition. I found MEL an amazing tool that eases our life as data managers. I am grateful to MEL because it is the best way to show my achievements during any kind of evaluation, including performance appraisal.”


Did MEL contribute to shaping your vision of the future of data?


Chandra: “Yes it made it much simpler to understand the essential steps of research data management cycle, setting up a good framework for the project data management, plus taking care of standards and protocols.  It also helped me connect to a wider network, linking to ORCiD for example, expanding my outreach. It will become very popular.”

Sawsan:Yes indeed! It helped me change the way I look at my data, seeing its value with renewed clarity and allowing me to plan ahead to tap the data potential to the fullest. I already started selecting new parameters for my data to grow its long-term value.”


MEL is the result of the synergic efforts by CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (GLDC), CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-food Systems (FISH), International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), International Potato Center (CIP), WorldFish, World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), ICARDA GeoAgro and is powered by CodeObia, iMMAPDSpace and Amazon Web Services (AWS).