Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dev and tech: balancing and bridging

Posted by Linda Raftree - Senior Advisor, ICT4D
Last week’s conference: “The Power of Information: New Technologies for Philanthropy and Development” hosted by the Indigo Trust, The Institute for Philanthropy and The Omidyar Network was somewhat of a ‘who’s who in ICT4D’. It provided an incredible opportunity to hear and discuss what some of the best minds are up to with regard to technology and innovation in development. (Check the conference videos here for more.)

The purpose of the conference was to bring innovators and donors together. In addition to the panelists, many other leaders in the field of social media, ICT4D and innovation as well as a variety of donors and funders were around to chat with during breaks, lunch, dinner and drinks.

Conference topics included transparency, accountability and democracy; health, finance and rural development, youth empowerment and education; human rights; and fostering innovation and enterprise.

I got a lot out of the conference, but want to focus on two areas of specific interest:

1. Balancing innovation (inspiration) and process (sustainability)
2. Building bridges between new technologies and existing initiatives

Balancing innovation (inspiration) and process (sustainability)

Philip Thigo from SODNET started the day off with an introduction and a great set of questions* to explore around ICTs and development. I found myself nodding and frantically typing and tweeting to catch and share as many of them as I could:

  • Are technologies just tools or are they the engine of transformation?
  • Are they universal? Can we cut and paste them from one context/culture to another?
  • Is it about connecting old and new tech for use by marginalized people and groups? Should we be creating interfaces between new and old tech?
  • What about power hierarchies with relation to access. Will disempowered communities automatically adopt technology and turn its use and information into action?
  • And what about the challenge of laws and limitations on technologies and the selective enforcement of these laws by the state with regard to access, ownership, and control of information and knowledge?
  • What are the accountability, ethics and responsibilities of technology activists and developers? How are we evaluating our actions and decisions and their impact on people lives?
  • Is it worth taking the risk?

Philip emphasized the need to fail fast, learn fast, and move fast when working in this area. “We need to think about people first, not technology first,” he said. “We should strike a balance between supporting innovators (inspiration) while at the same time strengthening process (sustainability).”

I couldn’t agree more.

Though there is a sense (and a couple panelists, including Philip, commented) that anyone can use social media, that people don’t need training, and that ideally you should just hand over the tools and let people get to work, I do think that ‘striking a balance’ is critical, especially when talking about funding and implementing particular initiatives that are seeking specific outcomes related to development. This isn’t to say that we need an over orchestrated process, but I do think it’s important to remember that not everyone can pick up technology as easily as those who are immersed and surrounded by it 24/7.

Yes, technology needs to be ‘demystified’ and tech is getting simpler and simpler, but based on experience working with staff, community leaders, local organizations, youth and teachers in rural Benin, Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Rwanda and Ghana, it’s clear to me that not everyone can just jump in and go. Not everyone speaks English, not everyone knows about coding, not everyone has used technology before, not everyone feels confident even if they are very curious, and some people want additional support to get going.

In addition, tech projects need good overall design, beyond the technology piece. They need a good think-through in terms of sustainability (for programs that are meant to endure), local context, unintended effects, privacy and protection (especially if they are human rights related, work with vulnerable people or could put users in any kind of risk).

As many would agree, the tech is only 10% of it. There is a trend toward developing more detailed user manuals and guidance on what to think about when designing initiatives using new tools like Ushahidi because of demand for this from users. I do think that donors and implementers and innovators need to keep that in mind, and be sure that they are planning for and funding that other 90%. I also think donors should be supporting local building up of skills and capacities and strategic thinking, via funding to innovation and tech hubs and support to universities and other kinds of opportunities for further education, training, and especially experimentation in the area of technology for people in their own countries, and starting from local context and local realities.

Building bridges between new technologies and existing initiatives

Some major transparency initiatives are gaining more and more traction at the moment, for example the recently-launched open government program led by the US and Brazil (and rejected by India) and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). In addition, there are some really interesting locally led transparency initiatives happening all over the place. The panel on Transparency, Accountability and Democracy highlighted a number of tech tools and platforms that are being used to enhance this area of work (including Frontline SMS, My Society, and Huduma) and some broad thinking around the topic by Owen Barder, who highlighted various aspects of aid transparency and the giant disconnect in terms of what the general public, governments receiving aid, and donors want to know about aid.

Following the panel, a great question came up from Martin Tisne from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI). He said that the transparency and accountability field has been around and funded for many years but it is atomized. He wondered how the different initiatives represented on the panel all fit into the broader picture. Owen agreed that atomization is a very serious concern. “The answer to it is open standards that enable people to take information from all these sources and mash it up and make it available to people. This is ‘unsexy’ and doesn’t photograph well but it’s potentially revolutionary in the way that the web has revolutionized our lives.” Owen emphasized the need for donors to invest in areas that maybe don’t seem so innovative and exciting, but that are critical to moving the field forward. (This goes back to the first point – the need to balance innovation and process).

Stephan King from the Omidyar Network continued during the donor panel to talk about transparency and accountability. He added that “tech tools are not a panacea,” and asked how technology can supplement and complement the work that many organizations are already doing. “Many charities and non-profits don’t know how to use technology,” Stephan said, commenting that there is a role for Omidyar and others to help organizations realize the benefits and utilities of technology to help reach scale, innovative solutions, and to provide feedback loops. “Technology is important in the area of transparency and accountability because it can engage citizens,” he said. “It allows people to access information in a way like never before.”

Martin (from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative) followed, saying that TAI is a collaborative of major funders who are looking at the whole field of transparency and accountability. The field as a whole is about 20-25 yrs old, he said, and is currently very atomized. “We need, as funders overall, to ensure that this growing and exciting community of practice [technology in transparency and accountability] isn’t just another atom within the overall transparency and accountability movement,” he said. “How can technology feed and nurture this overall community of practice? Technology has potential to do something really exciting in our field, to solve problems we’re really poor at, such as scale.” He also talked about the potential for tech to help engage citizens. “This field is and has been monopolized by policy wonks in the cities, in the capitals, but we have an opportunity to reach citizens and that’s really exciting.”

“The vast majority of technology and accountability groups — 95% — however, don’t harness the potential of mobile technologies really strategically, and the potential is exciting if they did.” Martin asked how we can link organizations with fantastic grassroots networks and/or that really know how to use media with those that are using technology. “If we can crack this complex bridging issue of how to bring the transparency world and the tech world together we will have achieved a huge amount.” It’s not enough to bring government groups and tech groups to the table and think it will happen overnight, he said. “What we are trying to do is to focus on people, on entrepreneurs, on individuals who really understand the problems and the solutions that tech can provide as well as focus on organizations. We find a lot of program officers who know what tech can do or a CEO who has a vision of what tech can do but it doesn’t percolate throughout the organization.” TIA wants to bring together the people who understand the problems together with those who may have the technology solutions. Martin’s idea to bring technology folks together with transparency and accountability folks together to make “tech babies” was a big hit….

This point also resonated strongly with me as someone working in a large development organization that is looking at how to integrate new technologies into our work, and being one of few people within the organization with the specific responsibility of bridging programs and new technologies. It’s simultaneously comforting and frustrating to know that organizations typically struggle with this, and also good to know that some donors are aware of this challenge and willing to support it to be overcome.

Philanthropy and social media

In closing this too-long post, I just want to mention that as background material, Indigo Trust and the Institute for Philanthropy produced an impressive paper called Philanthropy and Social Media, which gives an overview of social media, how it’s being used for communication and social impact, why social media is important (with separate sections on communication messages, knowledge sharing and reporting, overcoming barriers to inclusion, connecting people, improving service delivery, scaling fast, fundraising, transparency and accountability). The paper also summarizes some conversations with investors in social media. Two charts I find extremely on target are the “tips and advice on investing in social media” and the “roadmap for engaging with social media.” They are both simple and well laid out, and would be useful not only for donors but for anyone who is engaging with social media in development work.

Many thanks to Will and Fran at Indigo Trust for the invitation to participate in the conference!

*See also Charlie Beckett’s great overview of the conference and the key questions he pulled out from the day.

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