Our May 14th webinar reviewed research that examined the impact of technology projects on transparency and accountability work and examples of use of technology in achieving goals. We also examined the steps necessary in developing an integrated technology strategy. You can play or download an archive recording of this event here or see the full schedule of upcoming #TABridge webinars.
To frame our thinking about technology in the transparency and accountability field, we introduced the findings from research that helped launch the TABridge mission, our “Impact case studies …” report published in 2010. The top lesson from the study was the importance of context in how NGOs use technology in their work.
Organisations had significantly more impact if they put the greatest amount of their effort towards understanding the context of which the application of the technology is to be applied. They need to ask questions like:
▪ What are the needs and interests of the stakeholders?
▪ What capacity do stakeholders have to receive and be engaged by your information and then act?
▪ What would influence key groups to act?
▪ If your project has the intended effect, how will those results be publically or socially valuable?
The other two things that are critical to the equation is having a strong organisational strategy and selecting tech tools that will support that work. It’s important to point out that while organisations can control the strategy and the tools and tactics they use to get the job done, they cannot control the context.
The research identified three types of technology interventions in transparency and accountability work.
The first category consists of ‘Homerun’ interventions where technology produced dramatic increases in accountability. Widely known online examples of ‘homeruns’ are Wikipedia, Google or Facebook, where the technology effort all by itself enables a large impact and an immediate adoption. Impacts such as these are what most people expect technology projects to bring, however, through our study we found that this level of impact is exceedingly rare. Lessons from these projects might not be the most relevant to the majority of transparency and accountability projects.
The second category involves interventions that complement traditional media efforts, such as investigative journalists. They often aggregate and analyse information about public officials and public monies that can be accessed and used by the public in general. They rely on expert intermediaries (infomediaries) to work with unlocked data. Successful impacts as a result of these kinds of interventions are more common than ‘home-runs.’
The third category category consists of technology interventions that are designed to support and complement tactics that are part of an organisational or campaign strategy. These types of interventions rely on the ability of organisations to understand their own capabilities, the audiences they are trying to reach, their role in making change possible and the environment in which they will operate. We feel these interventions have the most potential on impacting accountability.
Our Guest Speakers
Our first panelist, Eva Vozárová (@evavoz) manages IT projects at Fair-Play Alliance. the leading anti-corruption watchdog in Slovakia. She said that even before the Open Data movement was a movement, before apps or APIs, Fair-Play was using data from the Slovakian government to fight corruption. Their core goals include influencing government action through data, promoting accountability and providing citizens with the information and know-how to advocate on their own behalf.
All these activities are naturally enhanced by digital advocacy, she said, but the power of technology to support individual activists has been especially important to their vision. Eva also noted that Fair-Play may have been too swayed by internet optimism in earlier online projects, expecting that, once they posted their data, “magical, mythical hackers” would show up to turn the data into tools or apps or powerful stories. They’ve had plenty of good feedback from people using their data, she said, but not the huge numbers or “instant victories” that many still assume online campaigns can deliver.
Fair-Play’s recent technology projects have therefore been tied more closely to their overall advocacy. They’ve also made it a priority to consult with the potential users early in the tech planning process. (For more background on Fair-Play Alliance and their online work, see this post from Summer 2013.)
Panelist Rosie McGee is research and evidence coordinator with Making All Voices Count (MAVC), an international initiative promoting “open, effective and participatory governance,” driven by local campaigns and “bottom-up” reforms. Part of what makes the project unique, she said, is that it combines activist approaches with a “big, chunky” research program. She also noted that many of MAVC’s aims and some of their funders, overlap with our own at Transparency and Accountability Initiative.
Rosie cited 2010 research conducted by the Institute for Development Studies, where she is a fellow, on the impact of transparency and accountability programs. She said the the research team encountered a “sobering” lack of evidence on the impact of transparency projects, and wide differences in methodologies for measurement. She reminded the group that measurement approaches for transparency projects pre-date the digital era. For better or worse, some of the models and assumptions developed for earlier transparency initiatives have been passed down to how we measure newer transparency technologies.
Drawing on the 2010 report (which was funded by the T/AI) and her current work, Rosie said tech projects in the transparency field must be grounded in a theory of change that reaches beyond boundaries of a single program and undergirds an organization’s approach to advocacy. She also warned against allowing any technology to define project impacts or letting the tool you have become “a solution in search of a problem.”
Making All Voices Count is a new project led by Hivos, Ushahidi and IDS and funded by DFID, Sida, USAID, the Omidyar Network and the Open Society Foundation. It aims to build on past research efforts and support future research on various elements of improving transparency and accountability, including the use of technology. They are hoping to embed research directly into implementation of transparency and accountability projects. Check their website out for more information on these initiatives.
A summary of the research mentioned during the webinar, and more detailed information about creating a tech strategy that will support an organizational strategy can be found in our upcoming guide: Fundamentals for Using Technology in Transparency and Accountability Organizations.
Dirk Slater (@fabrider) has two decades of experience working with grassroots activists and advocates to harness the power of information by gathering, packaging, distributing and protecting it. You can learn more about him and his work via his consultancy, FabRiders.
Jessica Steimer (@JSteim) Jessica is the training and support manager at Aspiration, where she trains and supports community organizations around nonprofit technology best practices, specializing in business processes for
nonprofit communications and technology sustainability.