2013 Lessons and Keywords from TABridge

Members of the TABridge network in Glen Cove, Long Island, 2012

Members of the TABridge network in Glen Cove, Long Island, 2012

The goal of our network is to connect transparency advocates and techies to each other, and to each other’s expertise.

During the past year, longtime colleagues, new friends and a growing community of experts have worked to build bridges not only across gaps of knowledge, but also across the physical distances between New York and London, Lagos and Buenos Aires, and across the persistent divide between digital campaigns and the individuals they seek to reach.

Some of the year’s highlights from TABridge collaborations include a new app, a forthcoming technology manual for NGOs, and a widening conversation about putting users at the center of tech design, and putting real-world goals at the center of tech strategy. Network participants have connected on their own for events from Indonesia to the White House. And we continue to create a library of webinar trainings and leadership discussions on our site and from our partners.

Our extraordinary technology mentors have helped us a define a new standard of thoughtful, adaptive support for NGOs using technology to deepen their impact. Though each mentor worked independently, they consulted regularly to share lessons across projects and bolster each other when one person’s skills could fill a gap in another’s work. These talented “bridgers,” and the support model they developed with us, are a new resource that we expect to see in action again in 2014.

Online tools present a complex set of questions for NGOs, but in all the projects and conversations led by TABridge in 2013, we’ve urged our members to take an approach to tech that is humble, relevant and open:

Being Humble

A humble approach to tech projects asks organizations and techies to put the people who use their tools at the center of the planning process.

We celebrated late this year as our colleagues at Environmental Working Group leapt into the mobile apps arena with the Skin Deep app, which gives health information about thousands of personal care products to shoppers before they make a purchase. EWG created the app with the best possible co-designers: users of the existing Skin Deep website. This “user-centric” process began in partnership with expert mentors from the TABridge community.

The power of listening has driven our work as mentors and the advice at the core of our online materials and events. In our webinar on social media, Matt Fitzgerald of Upwell urged people at small and large NGOs to think of online campaigns as a “cycle” of activities based on listening. Through social media, you can observe what drives your potential supporters, reach out to them where they already are, and listen again to hear how you were received and what you can do even better next time.

Humility also means taking unexpected obstacles, and even failures, in stride. Those difficulties can provide the feedback that fuels future progress. At Open Knowledge Foundation’s annual conference in Geneva, three of our mentors compared stories about gaps in communication, and how they became chances to learn.

Mentor Lucy Chambers said that even simple questions of terminology can spark big breakthroughs in how organizations plan online projects. She described a moment working with Transparent Chennai in India when a discussion about the phrase “the Cloud,” led to just such a shift, and expansion, in the organization’s thinking.

It’s a common experience in the TABridge network to discover that collaborators need to listen better to each other during tech projects, as well as to citizens and future users of our tools. What we think are technology problems, said Lucy, “may be human problems.”

Our mentors deserve more praise than we can give in a blog post, but you can learn more about them here. The full team included Lucy Chambers, Tunji Eleso, Mikel Maron, Gabriela Rodriguez, Sarah Schacht and Dirk Slater.

Being Relevant

Across our network of open government advocates, the Hollywood phrase, “If you build it, they will come” has been repeated so often that even the original moviegets forgotten. Politicians and open source evangelists alike are learning that a web data portal does not equal a more accountable government, nor does a Facebook page equal an active community.

It’s the relevance of information that turns tools into activity. That’s why FixMyStreet and IPaidaBribe remain iconic open data successes—they put the user in the middle of story. Your city’s budgets may be the underlying reason for bad roads, but it’s the potholes on your drive home that would get you to do something.

The TABridge community is helping spread the word across our interconnected networks that innovation has little impact without strong links to people’s daily lives. Blogging about UNICEF’s Ureport crowdsourcing system, Hollie Gilman said that such SMS tools need to offer citizens “the information they need most, in the most accessible way.” Gilman, a co-organizer of TABridge, was most recently a fellow at the White House, where she invited TABridge colleague Sean MacDonald to share his long experience with SMS advocacy at a “Champions of Change” event last August in Washington, D.C.

Of course, practitioners are people too, and this year’s TABridge mentors all agree that tailoring tech plans to the needs and culture of organizations is as important as matching your tools to your outside audiences. See video clips from three mentors to hear accounts in their own words, and listen to a recap of lessons from our webinar archives (Flash required).

Strategy is the foundation on which any good use of technology is built. Our forthcoming guide, “Fundamentals of Using Technology,” written and compiled by Dirk Slater, will help organizations design a tech strategy best suited to their goals and capabilities. This handbook is certainly a “How-To” for tech projects, but we think what makes it unique is that it’s also a “Why-To,” “Where-To,” “Who-To” and even “Whether-To” use a particular technology. These are the hard questions of relevance that, if asked early and often, can help organizations succeed sooner, or “fail faster” so they can try again armed with new knowledge.

Opening Up

Our network grew during 2013 to nearly 100 groups contributing to and joining in #TABridge activities through webinars and mentorships, and on Twitter andFacebook.

Inclusive, community-driven conversations define our approach. The event design of our in-person bridging sessions, guided by co-organizers Aspiration Tech, relied on participants to set the discussion agenda collaboratively. We asked experts in tech and experts in transparency to look past their different backgrounds and learn from each other. This year we also brought this bridging model to Indonesia, where the Southeast Asia Transparency and Technology Initiative (SEATTI) held a “brokering event” to connect regional budget transparency groups and tech experts.

Our community opened up further this year in connections with each other. In a collaboration initiated through TABridge, mobile experts Frontline SMS traveled to Ecuador to help Grupo Faro plan citizen-powered environmental monitoring. Network members Open Knowledge Foundation and the International Budget Partnership created a new web tool to unlock the data in the Open Budget Survey. Since the 2012 Bridging Session, Global Witness has launched a full digital strategy overhaul, working with myself, expert designers, and a highly inclusive number of their staff.

Openness in tech projects also means finding the tools and tactics to communicate complex issues for the greatest number of viewers.

Sometimes this can be as simple as drawing a vivid picture, as our members have seen demonstrated by fellow TABridge participant work YourBudgIt, who createbudget visualizations in Nigeria. Sometimes you can teach by gathering knowledge all in one place, for others to see, compare, and use—the spirit behind theOpenGovGuide.com, which presents a myriad of recommendations on technology, advocacy and collaboration for countries in the Open Government Partnership. A number of TABridge members contributed to the Guide, and our network grew further during the fall OGP summit and panel events.

Among our partners, we’re especially proud to single out the NGOs who completed mentoring projects with our team: Check My School in the Philippines, Directorio Legislativo in Argentina, Environmental Working Group in the U.S., Fairplay Alliance in Slovakia, INESC in Brazil, Ndifuna Ukwazi in South Africa, and Transparent Chennai in India.

To increase our impact through openness, we act as conveners, as information publishers, and as advocates for conversations that are based on trust. “I’ve always found hierarchical relationships problematic,” Dirk Slater wrote while reflecting on this year’s mentoring projects. “Where the mentorships excelled was when the mentor and mentee learned from each other.”

While technologists may focus on links between databases, and policy groups must push for links between laws and communities, our work as “bridgers” emphasizes links between people. And the best medium for these links is conversation itself.  Our network fulfills its purpose if our conversations galvanize a “community of curious, competent, confident data users among NGOs and citizens.”

This year was a banner year for transparency as a rallying principle, from the debate over government surveillance to the new disclosure commitments from nationaland international leaders. Together with the older and newer members of our network, we believe a transparency community equipped with the proper tools can “enable millions to have their voices heard,” as former T/AI leader Martin Tisné wrote earlier this year.

However, as much as we welcome connections for community’s sake, our ultimate goal remains change in societies, not only in tech programs or practitioner groups. As our director Vanessa Herringshaw said during the OGP summit, the purpose of our collaborative momentum is to have “enough weight to push for change.”

The more people who share their knowledge and seek good conversations about technology for transparency, the greater our effect can be. We hope you’ll explore all the knowledge resources from TABridge and our network here on the site, and sign up to follow us through emailTwitter and Facebook.

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