Nina McMurry was in South Sudan, working to improve governance in the war-torn nation in the wake of independence, when she realized she needed more skills and knowledge for the task.

“I really wanted to better understand the problems we were trying to solve and gain skills I could use to do rigorous research on the issues that we were working on there,” McMurry says.

Attracted to MIT by the new Governance Lab’s hands-on approach to research, she joined the PhD program in MIT’s Department of Political Science, where she studies political accountability in weak states. “MIT really focuses on research to solve problems in the world, in addition to contributing to theoretical knowledge,” she says.

At GOV/LAB, McMurry is working with a nongovernmental agency (NGO) to improve the delivery of health-care services in rural, indigenous areas of Guatemala. The NGO has been employing a text messaging service to connect community leaders to the government officials responsible for resolving such issues as staff shortages, equipment failures, and lack of supplies. “These villages are very remote, so it’s hard for them to communicate their needs,” she says.

Such projects are becoming increasingly popular, McMurry says, but it is unclear whether they produce results. Her research, which she is conducting with fellow PhD student Benjamin Morse, addresses such questions as, “What happens when you introduce this technology in a place where people are illiterate or have no access to technology? Who uses it? Are they the more advantaged?” By looking at the broader social and political context of interventions, McMurry says GOV/LAB fills a key research gap. “It’s important to look at which of these initiatives is likely to be effective,” she says. “I think Governance Lab is a step in the right direction.”

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