Sustainability

Open Source is Easy. Community is Hard.

Get on the Bandwagon with Open Source Communities

Open source is awesome. I’m a card-carrying zealot; a vast digital public commons has been created that seems to fly in the face of basic economics. It’s one of the great achievements of the technology era.

But… 

We’re in the sustainability business here in the international development sector. Despite what I thought coming into this gig, open source is not synonymous with sustainability. If you think about it, any computer software is the antithesis of sustainability. Hardware changes. Bugs are found. Hackers figure out ways to break it, totally ruining your weekend.

Commercial providers solve that problem by paying developers to work on these problems day in, day out. It’s part of the revenue model, of course - pay for subscriptions or buy the new version when it comes out. How does open source do it? A community. (No, not that one.) Anyone has the ability to download and improve the code. “With enough eyes, all bugs are shallow” is hory wisdom from the open source world. Great; totally makes sense. But how many eyes actually do you have? How big is your community? “Putting the code on GitHub” is not a sustainability strategy.

Open source seems like the right approach for international development. Code developed belongs to the world; taxpayers fund it, and it doesn’t create a profit for anyone. Great. But who’s going to sustain it after the initial funding grant ends?

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the field of international development is littered with the wreckage of well-intentioned – and often well-executed – open source projects that have not been maintained after the initial funding ran out. READ MORE »

NDItech's March Towards Resilience - Lessons From Supply Chain Industry

At NDItech, we build innovative software products, consult with the regional teams to solve program needs through mobile and web based solutions, and innovate in the Tech4Dem space with breakthrough ideas and partnerships. In the face of multiple customers, diverse products, and evolving challenges, the NDItech team aims for resilience:  tolerate variability, adapt continuously, and maximize opportunities.

I recently came across a great piece titled “From Risk Management to Resilience” on Sloan Management Review. The article discussed the Supply Chain Resilience Assessment and Management (SCRAM) methodology. SCRAM involves identifying vulnerabilities in an organization and developing and strengthening capabilities to mitigate the vulnerabilities and thus improving resilience.

In this short blog, I attempt to list the key vulnerabilities of the NDItech team and map them to capabilities that we have developed and/or developing to address those vulnerabilities.

Our nine member Scrum team works across the gamut of topics and operates at capacity with very little buffer for additional demands. Our key vulnerabilities are the following; READ MORE »

The Right Message on Digital Security

Is the right message being heard?

Over the last few weeks in Nigeria, I had the opportunity to conduct capacity-building training sessions almost every day. While many of these sessions were enthusiastically received, discussions on digital security fell on deaf ears.

For one of these training sessions, I’m invited to train on “ICT,” and offered no further parameters. To be frank, I feel a bit like I’m Noah being asked to choose animals for his ark: decidedly “ICT” is too broad a category for training. So, I decide to prepare a few different topic areas and let the audience determine where we should focus our time.

The day arrives, I enter the room, and rows of eyes look out at me. I do my typical intro: why I’m here, what I’ve done, what my areas of expertise are, and I ask: READ MORE »

Under the Guidance of Apollo

Apollo

Readers here will be intimately familiar with the Elections Data Management tool, otherwise called Apollo, a name that I have realized will come to stay, despite the better messaging strategy pursued by the ICT team. Apollo will keep this name because of its almost mythical appearance in the midst of elections.  The Greek god Apollo was known as the god of light and truth, of prophecy, and healing. Much like the actual Apollo, the elections Apollo is made manifest from the ether to give meaning and direction to an otherwise amorphous and senseless deluge of information during a PVT. Information that is critical to the validation of an election, information with the ability, to stretch a metaphor, to heal, move, and transform societies. Apollo is pulled from the abyss of Github, thrown up on an Amazon server, deployed in the course of an hour, and reconstructed and refit for the needs of a unique observation mission within several days by the near herculean efforts of  NDI’s beloved Python developer, Tim Akinbo of TimbaObjects. However, the product life cycle of this tool may well need heavenly intervention to continue its current course of development. READ MORE »

Testing... one, two, three!

Repetition is the mother of learning

Editor’s Note: Cross-posted from NDI's guest blog on CiviCRM.org 

For over 15 years, NDItech has been in the business of developing technologies for development. One of our newest pet projects is called DemTools, or the Democracy Toolkit. DemTools is a set of four webapps to solve some of the most common problems our global partners experience: civic organizing, managing constituent relationships, tracking election data and fostering civic debates. Two of them are custom-configured versions of CiviCRM, so we’ve been working closely with the core team throughout our design and development process.

The thinking behind DemTools was simple: to design context appropriate solutions for advocates of political change that were informed by user needs and could enhance existing workflows. However, what we learned from conducting a host of usability tests on our Civi-enabled tools was that making them work was anything but simple. READ MORE »

Meet DemTools: Closing the Geek Gap

DemTools: Open Source for Opening Politics

In the last few years, powerful, cloud-based web apps have revolutionized the way business, civic groups and governments engage with citizens. Online campaign management systems helped empower Barack Obama’s supporters to organize their communities on the way to victory; sophisticated customer relationship management (CRM) systems help businesses effectively push their wares; online communication platforms connect marketers with the populace.

Human rights and democracy advocates in the developing world have been left stranded in this leap to more effective tools. There’s a new form of digital divide that’s emerged: call it the geek gap. There are a lot of sophisticated open source software systems out there, but free software is a bit like a free puppy: the problem ain't the initial price, it’s the care and feeding over years. In low-infrastructure societies, there just aren’t a lot of people with the sophisticated systems administration skills to set up a Linux server, configure Apache, set up MySQL, and install a web application like Drupal. While there are great commercial options, struggling human rights organizations often can’t write the checks to keep those services running.

NDItech has been working on technology for development for over fifteen years, and we’ve seen the same problems manifest repeatedly. Sustainability in development is hard, and when it comes to tech it’s harder. Keeping the lights on - and web sites running - years after a project ends just doesn’t happen very often.

We're attempting to cut that Gordian knot with DemTools: the Democracy Toolkit. We’re launching with a set of four web apps that solve some of the most common problems our global network of partners have experienced. DemTools development was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). READ MORE »

The Test

DemTools Usability Testers

Editor’s Note: this blog post was the first and regrettably last written by Mavhash Taqi, our extraordinary project manager, who is now headed off to do Great Things with our friends at Internews. Before she left she wanted to share these useful thoughts on testing with you all.

Investing the time in proper usability testing to expose shortcomings in software has huge payoffs. Friendly tools are more easily adopted, result in higher user satisfaction, which in turn, cements the product developer’s credibility in delivering high quality, easy-to-use tech solutions. See: iPhone, the.

As usability fanatics here with NDItech, we recently conducted some in-depth user testing to before launching our new line of DemTools webapps (stay tuned!)

Here are some of the guiding principles we’ve followed while designing and conducting usability tests:

Choose test participants wisely
Your test participants are key to informing the investment decisions you will need to make for improving the quality of a product. As such, its imperative that you recruit a healthy cross-section of your audience.

Participants with past experience with a similar system and who will be using the new one are ideal. For our test, we were looking to recruit NDI staff who had worked as field organizers in an election in order for us to understand the challenges in managing an effective campaign and whether if the system we were testing would meet their needs.

Its also important to recruit an balanced set of participants representing the range of different ages and staff levels who will be using the system, as well as ensuring equal gender representation. READ MORE »

Counting All Voices - New Fund Deadline November 8

Making All Voices Count website screenshot.

We talk repeatedly about transparency and civic engagement in our work, and often emphasize that it’s only when governments have the will and capacity to respond to citizen' demands that signficant social change takes place. Improving citizen action and government responsiveness always lies at the nexus of political institutions, local incentives, and power dynamics. Add to this the use of digital technoloy - ubiquitously by citizens, less so by institutions, and you see the need for very smart project design that takes all these factors into consideration. However, projects are often influenced by donors who not always understand how these systems work together. In a positive sign, a new funding mechanism requires strategic design and evidence of government and civil society collaboration up front.

The new 45-million Making All Voices Count fund is supported by USAID, DFID, SIDA, OSF and Omidyar and is implemented by Hivos, IDS and Ushahidi. The first round of proposals are due by November 8, 2013. READ MORE »

Sustainability (in ICT4D) is Overrated

Women trained on computing fundamentals at iLab Liberia.

I started my day yesterday (deplorably early) at a (very engaging) discussion on the role of technology hubs in international development. It was the most recent Tech Salon sponsored by Inveneo.

I’m a big fanboi of these tech hubs (as you already know) so was happy to join the conversation. While the discussion had a habit of wandering away into a thicket of mobile apps monetization challenges, it did clarify some thinking on my part.

Namely, ICT4D (tech for development for the uninitiated) sustainability can be a red herring.

Of course in the development biz I believe successful projects are the ones that continue on through lo the many years. However, if one is too doctrinaire on this point, incredibly valuable ideas may never see the light of day. iHub Nairobi came into being on the back of a bunch of Ushahidi money, and served very usefully as a home for projects dedicated to social good without being able to cover their costs for years.

The perfect example is iLab Liberia. That organization has the second fastest internet connection in Monrovia (number 1: NDI field office) and they have to pay through the nose for it, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars a month. The need to cover those costs - let alone staff, computers, space, electricity - would condemn the project to failure. It’s completely unimaginable that profits from developed applications or user fees could cover those costs for years. They do a good job bringing in additional money via consulting (NDI’s a satisfied customer) but that can only go so far. READ MORE »

Maps, Texts, and Video, Oh My! Following the road to crisis response and good governance through technology

TechChange

As technology closes the time between when events happen and when they are shared with the world, understanding what approaches and tools are the best solutions to implement in crisis response and good governance programs is increasingly important. During the “Technology for Crisis Response and Good Governance” course, which I took earlier this month offered by TechChange at GW, our class was able to simulate different scenarios of how such tools can be used effectively.

The first simulation we did was on how to use FrontlineSMS and Crowdmap to track and respond to incidents in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Each team was responsible for managing FrontlineSMS, mapping incidents and other information on Crowdmap, and going into the field to get more information and verify reports. Management of the incoming data at this point becomes the highest priority. Designating specific responsibilities to different individuals, and determining how to categorize data (reports to be mapped, questions to be answered by other officials, overly panicked individuals, etc.) helps to more efficiently handle processing a large amount of information during a short timeframe. READ MORE »

iLove iLab

iLab Liberia

Liberia has one of the least-developed communication infrastructures in the world. Literacy is at roughly 60%.  The nation is still recovering from one of the most brutal civil wars in recent history. All in all, not perhaps where one would expect to find a burgeoning group of tech innovators and wanna-be geeks. However, walk in the door of iLab Liberia and you'll find just that.

Kate Cummings, iLab's executive director, came to NDI last week to share some of her experiences working in Liberia. iLab is one of the tech hubs that have sprung up across Africa following on the model from granddaddy iHub Nairobi, epicenter of Kenya's digital development. One of the most exciting concepts I've seen in the world of development in recent years, these tech hubs provide a supportive environment for the experienced to teach the novice, for ideas to percolate, for business ideas to bloom, and for new tools to be shared. iHub, however, has an unfair advantage - they have an in-space coffee shop with amazing Kenyan coffee. READ MORE »

The best-laid IT modernization plans o' mice an' men...

Low-tech, high-impact bill tracking at the Liberian Legislature

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley

Someone will have to get back to me on what an agley is, but I'm pretty sure the basic idea holds true for development.

I've returned to Monrovia to pick up the threads of a technology modernization plan for the Legislature of Liberia. I spent two months there last year doing an assessment and creating a workplan for how the organization could leapfrog into the 21st century. At the time we went through the standard best practices in quality developmental program design to arrive at a plan that was a joint vision of NDI and the legislative leadership, and launched initial implementation. The basic framwork was a new joint legislative technology center staffed with crack geeks; cabling the building for network access; a wide-ranging training program; a legislative website; and introduction of open-source software. Plan in place, I headed back to the US and turned to other programs.

Then something happened to the program. Er, more accurately, nothing happened with the program. READ MORE »

Lessons from #PDF12: leaving the republic of Nerdistan

What my after-school coordinator tweets might have looked like.

I spent more time tweeting during my 48 hours at PDF12 than I had in the past six months. This is not an exaggeration; I ran the numbers. (And you can too, if you follow me, @hillaryeason. Ahem.) Part of this, of course, was due to the fact that I was at a conference that was About Technology; not only was this kind of tech widely used, it also acted as a signaling mechanism, establishing the Tweeter as someone who was engaged and tech-savvy. In that respect, at least, the demands of this job differ substantially from my last gig.

But as I was thinking about the ways in which I, as an NDI employee, actually use Twitter, I realized that I certainly could have used this kind of technology the last time I worked in this city. I ran an after-school program in a high-crime, low-income neighborhood that served 200 kids and employed 20 staff. I had next to no resources, was constantly trying to communicate information to overworked teachers who were never in the same place at the same time, and had to somehow funnel info on all of these challenges to my bosses at the public school district in order to make any kind of change. Isn't that what Twitter is for? READ MORE »

Training Training Day

A Particularly Gifted Teacher

One of the most common tropes in the world of development is the Training of Trainers, or ToT. Training is expensive; if you run the math it can seem terribly costly to give 12 people a grounding in, say, principles of party platform development. However, if instead it's Training of Trainers then hey presto! You're not just training 12 people; you're indirectly training perhaps 120, and they'll train 1200, and before you know it your aunt from Albuquerque will be eagerly calling you to share the basics of party platforms.

Suffice it to say that is easier said than done. Nonetheless, that's what I was attempting last week with a group of citizen journalists on the topic of digital security; here's a few thoughts.

Teaching is hard, as those of you who have done it before know. I've learned from the best and the worst (yes, I'm looking at you, Professor Goldfeather).  In my case, last week it was doubly challenging to keep everyone engaged: if your audience has built their career on social media they're not going to enjoy entirely unplugging for you.

Training trainers is a twofold challenge:

  1. They need to truly understand the skills.
  2. They need the ability to pass them on.

To achieve the first we spent half our time focused on the content and hard skills. In this case, the topic was tools and techniques to keep yourself safe online (thanks, Tactical Tech Security-in-a-Box!). READ MORE »

En esta capacitación vamos ... I mean in this training we will

Capacity Building

Capacity Building - this term often appears in development project proposals and reports.  It encompasses how partners learn and develop abilities and how their capacities grow throughout the life of the projects.  This aspect of development projects is important because we want to ensure that the partners we work with are able to continue their efforts even after the project comes to an end on our side -- making this component of the project key. 

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to participate in a website management training for one of our partners.  Our team had built this website last year and our partner was now ready to take over its management.  This process encompasses a series of conversations to ensure the website was sustainable and built in a manner such that this hand off was possible.  This included ensuring that the web management platform used was easy for others to learn in the future, among other topics.  It also included in-country trainings to ensure that our partners had the necessary skills to manage the website.  READ MORE »

Free and Easy Election Data Entry the Google Way

Teaching about Election Monitoring Forms

On Tuesday, August 23, 2011 Liberians headed to the polls for the first national referendum in 25 years.

The referendum asked citizens to cast their votes on four constitutional amendments.  As Liberians voted on these propositions under the watchful eye of the ECC, NDI’s partner observer group, the NDItech team rolled out a free, easy new way of gathering monitor reports: Google Forms.

One of our goals is always to find technology that’s sustainable. While that word is an overused bit of development jargon, the concept is key - the people with whom you’re working should be able to manage the systems you create in case your whole organization gets eaten by sharktopi or, more likely, your program comes to an end. The big components of this are cost (can the users afford to keep it running?) and capability (do they understand how to fix, tweak, and administer it?) Google is great on both counts. READ MORE »

Technology and Economic Development: What's the Relationship?

Map: Latin America and the Caribbean

Earlier this week I escaped the office for a couple of hours to attend an event at the Council of the Americas, "Is Technology the Key to Development?" The event focused on a new study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) that explores whether investment in ICT in Latin America has an impact on economic development. The findings: ICT alone is not the answer to economic development.

Before focusing on the implication of the findings, let’s first look at some background on the landscape and methodology of the research. Latin American and the Caribbean have seen large investments in ICT in the past decade. This investment bought with it hopes of development and growth, yet until this study very little was known on the impact ICT was having on development in the region. In order to address this gap, the IDB team conducted a this survey. The study conducted randomized controlled trials across a number of sectors (labor, education, institutions, health, finance, environment) and studied nearly 50 projects. After studying this wide variety of programs they found that in 39% of the projects the impact in ICT was strong - but in 61% of projects it was much less so. From this data and their analysis, the researchers concluded that ICT alone doesn’t work, but rather it needs to be coupled with human capital, infrastructure, and regulations in order to have a positive impact. READ MORE »

The Iron Law of Complexity

A complex iron bridge with a balloon animal.

You can't wish complexity away. The challenges we undertake in tech and development are, well, challenging. They might involve a lot of people, a lot of documents, a lot of votes, a lot of citizen reports, etc, etc: in any case, a lot of information. Working in development one can - and should - simplify problems as much as possible and focus on what's truly essential, but even the bare-bones solution can still be a lot to handle.

Managing that flow of data is at the heart of many NDItech projects, and we've learned that there's an iron law for using IT in development: call it conservation of complexity. It's a bit like squeezing a balloon animal - you can move the air around, but it can't go away.

Take an election monitoring mission like Nigeria. (please!) 8,000 monitors sent 5 sets of data into a national center to enable the civil society organization's leadership to make authoritative statements on what had transpired during the day of voting.

So, you've got to collect accurate information from your thousands of observers and you can't go in front of the cameras for the big press conference until you've got it. How to make it happen? READ MORE »

iHeart iHub

Today I visited Nairobi's iHub. To my mind it's the poster-child for everything encouraging about tech for development in the global South.

You've got:

  • Savvy local developers, some novices and some with loads of experience.
  • International techies with a development background and comparative experience around the world.
  • A welcoming, open space that encourages collaboration.
  • Events that pull together the tech community with development groups and venture capitalists.
  • WiFi.
  • A coffee shop.
  • With delicious, delicious Kenyan coffee.

Seriously, what else do you need?

iHub is only about a year old; it's the brainchild of a group of local technologists including Erik Hersman. I was shown around by Tosh Juma, iHub's extremely welcoming community manager. The initial impetus for the creation of the space came from the Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS projects; both needed space to work and came up with this great way to do so with a funding lift from the forward-looking Omidyar Network. READ MORE »

Are "Sustainable" TechDev Approaches Actually Hindering Development Partners? A Mini NDI Case Study

Macedonia Office

My visit to Macedonia last week for the eDemocracy conference presented an opportunity to check in on a long term project that our NDItech team has been involved with since 2005 - a little Access database for tracking MP casework in more than 40 constituent offices across the country. I wanted to assess this project because the approach we used in providing ICT support wasn't in line with our general sustainability guidelines - we provided software built by our team in Washington instead of coaching a Macedonian consultant or tech firm to build the software - as our sustainability strategy would have preferred.

The thinking here is that locally grown solutions will be more appropriate to the conditions in that country, better supported, and that investments in local IT capacity and firms is good for economic and business development. READ MORE »

The Challenges of High Tech, e.g. Bikes

Bike mechanics. From whiteafrican's Flickr photostream.

Nicholas Kristoff wrote a good story in the Grey Lady on the power of bikes to transform lives in Africa.

It's a nice Kristoff-style human interest piece. What really intrigued me was his comment on the bikes they chose and the methods of maintaining them:

[The donor's] plan was to ship used bicycles from the United States, but after visits to the field he decided that they would break down. ... After consulting with local people and looking at the spare parts available in remote areas, Mr. Day’s engineering staff designed a 55-pound one-speed bicycle that needed little pampering. One notorious problem with aid groups is that they introduce new technologies that can’t always be sustained; the developing world is full of expensive wells that don’t work because the pumps have broken and there is no one to repair them.

So World Bicycle Relief trains one mechanic — equipped with basic spare parts and tools — for every 50 bicycles distributed, thus nurturing small businesses as well.

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