Writing this while sleepless on a plane back from Kampala, Uganda where I was working with NDI's field office and the civic organization group, the Citizen's Election Observers Network (CEON). This was an assessment and planning trip, so I thought I'd walk you, dear readers, through what that type of effort looks like.
NDI has been working with civil society and the parliament in Uganda for about 15 years. Along with our CEPPS partners IRI and IFES, we will be supporting a range of groups as they monitor the process of next year's election in Uganda. While NDI defined at a high level WHAT was to be done in the initial plan, there's a lot of HOW that is left to be determined. The goal of a planning trip like this is to produce a detailed plan to meet program objectives and a shared vision between key stakeholders - including the DC office, the partners, the field office team, and other collaborators - on how to make it all happen. We also need to be able to make sure that the partner's priorities and needs are matched to the appropriate tools.
Typically, on an assessment trip I attempt to analyze a range of factors that determines what is possible for a program and define the most impactful approach. Below are key considerations for an early technical assessment:
Country tech infrastructure
Who has access to internet and what is the quality (upload/download speed, reliability, reach) of that internet? ? Who are the local mobile providers and how much of the market do they control? Are mobile payments popular? What are the top social networks and what groups use which? Are there new media sites that are particular hubs for political conversations?
Local technology vendors
With whom can we contract to execute on various parts of the project? Are there sophisticated database developers in country? Who's going to provide a shortcode?
Other country context
How are literacy levels in the countryside? What are the linguistic divides? What cultural considerations are relevant? What does one need to take into account to be gender inclusive in the country?
Civic innovation groups
Regular readers will have noticed that I am a bit obsessed with tech hubs. These collectives of (often) young (often) civically engaged (often) open-source and data-focused people are ideal partners to provide local context, connect us with top vendors, identify emerging trends, and fill skills gaps with our core partners. Are there any? What do they focus on?
Core partner staff and infrastructure
The lion’s share of the work will be done by our partner organization - in Uganda, CEON. Getting a sense of their strengths and weaknesses with regard to technology shapes what type of technical assistance we will need to provide and how we should approach capacity building and training..
We will also evaluate the hardware and software partners are using. What kind of Internet access do they have? Are they using licensed copies of Windows? Do they have enough computers and are they powerful enough to achieve what they need? Do they have any sophisticated software like GIS or Photoshop?
The security threat environment
What are the dangers to the communications or data our partners may face? Is there a history of censorship or surveillance? Is there frequent hacking or theft of physical computers?
You also spend a lot of time talking about the politics of the country which, as a political animal, I particularly relish. That usually includes conversations around formal conference tables as well as late-night local beers with partners, donors, and teammates. Getting a comprehensive, 360 degree view of the local context can dramatically alter ideas that seemed good from a DC vantage point.
I have a bias to experiment with new approaches that we or our partners come up with. Part of the point of an assessment trip is to ground-truth some high-flying ideas and grapple with the hard realities of limited time, money, and specific talents; often during an assessment we'll come up with a half dozen new initiatives that could be impactful in the local context, but we will have to limit to the top two or three. For an election observation program, the sine qua non is getting reliable information on the election processes so our partners - CEON in Uganda - can make data-driven statements on the credibility of the elections. However, with a solid path to achieve that, programs can expand to other areas to help provide Ugandans with a more holistic view of the election process. After talking with partners, political experts and techies over the last week, I think we've got some exciting new ideas coming.
Stay tuned for stories of the innovations we are cooking up for Uganda over the next months.