Revenue Watch and Harvard’s Transparency Policy Project teamed up in Washington, D.C. in April to present lessons from our work “bridging” technology and advocacy to participants in Sunlight Foundation’s Transparency Camp, a dynamic two-day meeting for programmers, activists and political professionals interested in digital tools for open government.
Co-presenter Hollie Russon Gilman and I knew our session, “Is Code from Mars? Is Policy from Venus,” had struck a chord with the group, because each day’s agenda was based largely on audience voting in the week before the event. We presented about 40 attendees with the premise of our bridging work—that tech experts and NGO teams are missing chances to learn from each other, and collaborate more successfully. Then we asked our audience to describe their own experiences, frustrations and successes using online tools in advocacy and policy work.
The group, divided three to two between NGO professionals and technologists, had stories from Pakistan, Lebanon, Slovakia, Argentina, Mexico, Afghanistan and the U.S., among other places.
For some, the challenges were process challenges. A coder from the UK said differences in expertise often leave NGO teams unable to envision or articulate how tech tools can help them. Web projects drift off the mark early on because the gap between project needs and tools knowledge never quite closes—or, as he put it, “No one really knows what they want.” He added that the problem reaches well beyond the non-profit world, companies and governments can also be eager, but unready, to plan tech well.
In the spirit of equal time, a participant from a U.S. non-profit complained that coders sometimes assume technology can solve everything. Communication needs to go both ways, or developers will deploy tools without learning enough about the issue or the context of a project.
A policy expert from Trinidad shared a good example of why technology is not always enough. After a coding competition produced a data tool to help fisherman locate fish and check prices, the sponsor NGO learned that the actual available data was not current enough to make the tool useful.
Donors who support innovation may also need to evolve their thinking. An international development worker described a project where thoughtful planning fell second to the 12-month timeline attached to the project’s funding. Donors require results to justify their investments, she said, but greater familiarity with web and mobile tools would help donors adjust their expectations, rethink project timelines and fund smarter.
Participants were unanimous that the gap between expectations and successful projects is a knowledge gap. A good technology plan is like a blueprint for a house. An architect conceived it and a work crew will build it, but architects and workers usually need a contractor as a go-between, a person with the skills to translate vision into structure by understanding the demands of both.
To conclude the session, participants contributed their ideas for tools that can help close this knowledge gap. The top suggestions included:
- Promote a “user-centric” approach to tech strategy, that puts audiences first and tools second. Participant Chris Berendes explained a project approach called POST, which stands for People, Objectives, Strategy and Technology (and in that order).
- Give policy and advocacy people some basic training in writing code—enough to help them understand and manage technology projects more easily.
- Collect donor stories. Ask funders to reflect on their interest in technology projects, their aspirations and challenges.
- Tackle language differences head-on. Create a glossary to help activists and policy experts translate terms like “widget,” “API” and “scrape,” and help web developers know what policy groups mean by “development,” “impact” or “community.”
- Create a catalogue of tools, to help NGOs and non-profits match open data and digital tools to their needs. For one example of a tools FAQ, see Jonathan Eyler-Werve’s post on computer security, written after the #TABridge launch event in December 2011.
- Link projects for shared learning. Too many pilot projects happen without the chance to communicate or compare notes. Offer some “air traffic control” to keep these pilots aware of each other.
- Build the capacity of groups that can train and develop tools for NGOs and non-profits, like Tactical Tech and Aspiration.