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A 3-part review of the first SDGToolkit.com analytical tools for Sustainable Development Goals
Part 1





SDGToolkit.com1 plans to launch a cloud-based agricultural analytical tools library in Q3, 2019, to support agricultural project, programme and policy design. The toolkit aims to improve transparency and quality of actions design to support Agenda 20302 and the Sustainable Development Goals related to agriculture, food security, the nutritional aspects of health, poverty and real incomes inequality.

Tools are arranged in a logical sequence with each tool applying a specific analytical method. This approach helps build up a comprehensive analysis of identified and quantified gaps, needs and constraints. From this baseline project designers can explore solution options that remain within the realms of feasibility, because they are bounded by the identified constraints. As a result, SDGToolkit avoids poor potential investment impacts to development effort by avoiding over- and under-optimistic proposals.

What do the tools do?

SDGTools are all input-output models ranging from simple calculators to more complex multi-factor simulators. The only software required to make use of SDGToolkit is a browser. All tools have an identical structure starting with a user dialogue with guideline and links to more detail, if required, and a form for uses to input the information required. On completion of the input form the tool generates the results of the analysis as a narrative report, data tables, graphs, all of which can be downloaded as report content, datasets and graphic images.

One of the most interesting aspects of the SDGToolkit is that simply by inputting the required data, which is mainly numeric, the tools generate narrative reports in plain language providing a full interpretation of the output results accompanied by illustrative tables and graphs. All of this output can be downloaded to create baseline reports in Word3 or Power Point4 and datasets can be downloaded in Excel5 formats.

Narrative reports

Narrative reports are created by Boolean deductive logic6 that assesses the dataset used as input and the dataset output by the analytical method applied by the tool in question. This generates the linguistic content of the narrative report. The linguistic terminology used is adapted by the context of each tool, thus the term Adaptive Digital Logic (ADL). ADL is a component of artificial intelligence or AI7

Minimising subjective content

ADL is an output of SEEL8 research into methods of avoiding inaccurate interpretations of analytical results. The "lead" given to report content is the data input and the specific analytical method being applied so each report content is a faithful reflection of the analytical findings. Depending upon the user input concerning sizes of desired projections, results can become quite complex, consisting of large data arrays across several factors. This can present output that can easily be misinterpreted. Narrative reports eliminate subjective content and misinterpretation of the significance of analytical and statistical outputs.

All narrative report content can be listened to by highlighting the report in the browser and clicking on Ctrl-C and then activating NCH Verbose8, for example, which will convey the contents in natural speech. The speech-to-text and text-to-speech systems used in such virtual assistant devices such as Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Apple's Siri are simpler versions of ADL that use scripted templates to search standard texts or regularly updated texts, such as weather conditions. ADL is a more advanced technique that is adapted to unscripted questions because the SDGToolkit cannot predict what data will be input so no fixed templates are used, the content therefore needs to vary according to the analytical output in real time supported by adaptive logic.

The tools are grouped according to the purpose of an analysis and the domain. Domains are the analytical topics that support each Sustainable Development Goal. These topics are evident from the objectives of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. However, by necessity some groups extend beyond the topic boundaries to include essential analysis including: population dynamics, income levels, biomass production, agricultural output, resources usage, food security and many others.

According to Hector McNeill, the lead designer of the toolkit, many tools have undergone significant improvements during prototyping based on an improved basis for development introduced in April 2019 leading to the translation of all existing tools into the new language and operation configurations. This helped the SDGToolkit.com team establish a process for constantly improving the effectiveness and utility of all tools.

A test run

SDGToolkit runs an online internal demonstration platform for prototyping and Agriculturalinnovation.org has been provided with access to review the agricultural tools available.

All are particularly easy to use. The onboard guidelines are detailed enough for users to make immediate use of the tools. The required information for completing the input dialog forms is clear. The demonstration site describes the standard functionality of tools, describes the principal constraints facing all SDGs in the form of population dynamics, real income levels and distribution and inflation. An additional section explains the role of economic and financial analysis of projects. The demonstrations consist of a selection of the agricultural domain series.

Economics and finance

In this part of our review series we will look at an initial generic tool developed to assess economic performance and financial outcomes. This is an important topic because the percentage of projects that contain cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analyses has dropped to something like 25% of economic development projects. Of these, surveys by the World Bank Evaluation Group in 2010, found that very few were completed correctly. Work by the Open Quality Standards Initiative (OQSI) point to inadequate project design standards as being a contributing factor to something like 35% of development projects failing to attain objectives. Given the state of affairs of human wellbeing in some low income countries there is an urgent need to improve the quality of economic and financial assessments of the prospects of projects delivering the required impact on indicators at the national level. This is an imperative to avoid a significant loss of scarce development resources.

All tools contribute to a development of a quantitative analysis of gaps, needs, constraints and eventually to the development of solutions within a change strategy.

Measuring global constraints

The initial operational national environment within which projects need to be developed is established by quantifying the global constraints of:
  • Population size, structure and growth rates
  • Income levels and distribution
  • Inflation
Impact audit

A so-called impact audit is used to link project outputs to programme (multiple projects) outputs to the national level at which SDG indicators are determined. This enables a transparent measurement of the contribution of any project or group of projects to the national performance objective. This is of great assistance to policy makers in identifying appropriate legislation, regulations, policy instruments and incentives to support national strategies to improve the attainment of particular SDGs or groups of SDGs.

The nature of Agenda 2030 makes this type of analytical quantitative detail an essential for any government wishing to raise the performance of indicators. This changes the normal "Goal" i.e. the broader project goal at the national or sector level from, for example, "Country-wide reduction in infant mortality rates" which typically is found in proposal Log Frames, to a more specific quantitative estimate. This is important because the SDGToolkit also enables aggregation of projects into programmes together with quantitative estimates of resource inputs and budgets associated with their projected national impacts. Although this is a natural output from the SDGToolkit approach it appears to be a more coherent and transparent approach when compared to other approaches.

Managing cash flow projections

The first tool dealing with basic financial calculation is entitled, "Compound and discount values for project analysis". This tool integrates twelve separate types of output based on inputs of just three inputs as the number of periods, growth rate and a principal value. Anyone who has experience trying to apply the World Bank Economic Development Institute's volume of some 150 standard discount and compound factor tables, will appreciate just how efficient this SDGToolkit tool is. It eliminates the need for users to make multiple error-prone cross-references that are necessary when using these tables.

The screen shot below shows the basic input dialogue for this tool. Within the guidelines there are links to an online manual that appears in a floating window. This contains worked examples covering the following:
  1. Project reserve fund
  2. Potable water installations
  3. Sustainable energy
  4. Purchasing power ability to purchase required food
  5. Rental-based fund
  6. Sustainable growth fund for food security infrastructure
  7. Comparison of current with projected net income from the sale of manioc
  8. Irrigation water supply contract
  9. Cooperative threshing machine for rice repayment
This manual can also be downloaded as a pdf document. This package is an excellent training/teaching resource.






The input form that appears below the guidelines is shown below with some data entered.






The output from this data entry is shown below first as a narrative, followed by a table of results:














Other tools in the economic and financial analysis library

The other members of the economic and financial analysis library include integrated cost-benefit analysis and cost-effectiveness tools. However, a characteristics of the SDGToolkit is the close integration between economic and financial analysis with the physical and sustainability considerations.

Hector McNeill, chief designer of the toolkit explains that,


Hector McNeill
©2019-1st IWSAT,
Alexandria

"The objective in all tools is to maximise the integration of functions into a single tool so as to only require one set of inputs. This avoids cross-referencing and the attendant errors that arise from the use of multiple tools and the need to transcribe different results to other tools to achieve a specific final result. Our approach is based on experience gained through our involvement in application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) design where major reductions in calculation errors, time and energy were achieved as a result of the integration of more mathematical logical functions into single ASICs. We apply the same approach to all SDGToolkit tools. For example covering required food production projections and ability of target groups to purchase food based on projections of their disposable incomes. All of the key economic factors are calculated alongside the physical aspects of inputs and outputs so as to remove the need for additional calculations."

"Because our team is largely made up of agricultural project specialists with over 50 years hands-on experience in project design, management, assessment and monitoring and evaluation, we understand the need for users to be able to relate the very practical requirements facing them to the information used as rational inputs to enable tools to generate outputs that fall within the realms of feasibility. This establishes a need to ensure that data input is carefully prepared. The sequence of analyses the tools follow is designed to build up realistic estimates of data values with an emphasis on established benchmarks developed from existing practice."

"Our experience has involved work carried out for the main international development agencies, NGOs, private companies and donors. The majority of our work has been conducted in middle or low income countries. As a result of this experience we appreciate the need to create a transparent and coherent relationship between a due diligence design procedure, to ensure that all critical factors are taken into account, and to facilitate the access of project proposal assessors to source data. It is also imperative that monitoring and evaluation personnel are able to gain access to project data and design decision justifications."


Design principles

McNeill provide us with sight of an internal design principles brief which SEEL adheres to in the development of the SDGToolkit project. We will report on this in a forthcoming article

Part 2 of this review

In the next part of this review we will look at the agricultural series to examine how the integration of physical and economic/financial factors help improve the quality of project design.



References:

1  SDGToolkit is a public services division of The George Boole Foundation Limited a non-profit company limited by guarantee dedicated to the development of useful digital systems.
2  Agenda 2030 was launched by United Nations2  Agenda 2030 was launched by United Nations in 2015 based on the establishment of 17 Sustainable Development Goals linked to over 230 indicators. References: Document: "The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development", UN 2015; Website: "Transforming our World", UN.
sup>3  Word is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation;
4  Power Point is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation
5  Excel is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation;
6  Boolean Logic: All of the mathematical logic applied in digital systems, including integrated circuits, telecommunications, the Internet, computer programs, scripts, search, deductive systems, expert systems and artificial intelligence are all based on the mathematical logic devised by George Boole;
7  AI is an acronym for artificial intelligence and refers to the emulation of human though processes based on Boolean Logic. 8  SEEL-Systems Engineering Economics Lab is the research unit of The George Boole Foundation Limited;
9  Verbose is a product of the NCH Software, Inc.;
Photo credit: Copyright First International Workshop on Analytical Tools, Alexandria, VA, USA, August 2019.

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