The New Look Before You Leap: Think Before You Tech

Authors: Antoine Heuty and Jed Miller 

In December last year the Revenue Watch Institute, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative and Harvard’s Transparency Policy Project organized a Bridging Session linking natural resource transparency experts with tech experts. One of the most valuable conversational themes, though, was not enthusiasm, but realism.

The program mixed  demonstrations of digital tools to show advocacy groups new technology possibilities with storytelling by advocates to help techies understand questions of oil, minerals and economic justice.

Most importantly, we designed an event that emphasized honest conversations about technology, advocacy and the operational realities of combining the two. As groups heard first-hand about each other’s work, we found there was as much to learn from the challenges to success as there was in the intriguing new possibilities.

Here are some of the most important challenges we noticed over the three days:

  • Simple or sophisticated, any tech project needs a clear goal. Technology is not a substitute for a complete strategy and can’t compensate for the lack of a well-defined project.

The first question all technology groups asked us during the ‘hacking sessions’ was: What do you want to achieve? Participants from Global Witness had worked for years to follow the oil and mining money that is too often hoarded by corrupt leaders. In an intensive discussion and “hacking” session, the Global Witness (GW) team found sources of expertise that complemented their own, and a chance for deeper web planning than usual. Andrea Pattison of GW said: “It was quite a revelation to sit with people who have answers for making that information useful in formats more people can use.” Technologists including Mikel Maron began experimenting with ways to display and disseminate the financial data, quizzing Andrea and others policy experts as they continued to describe the policy and advocacy issues that underlie Global Witness’s work. This tandem process allowed each aspect of the work to inform the other in real time.

  • Similarly, a new online tool or tech-enabled project needs a well-defined audience, to ensure uptake and impact. Is your project meant to empower organizations? To inform or educate the media or? To directly influence policymakers? One interesting and unexpected point made by technology groups with advocacy experience was that web tools don’t always need massive user traffic to have an impact.

In Nigeria, for instance, a compelling detail about oil money can make its way from a newspaper to a high-level policy-maker without “spreading” widely into grassroots communities. Even prior to January’s upheaval over the removal of a public fuel subsidy, YourBudgIT.com was working in Lagos to  show non-experts the specifics and the scale of how oil money is managed in Nigeria.

With a focus on design, simplification and data presentation, YourBudgIT helps turn information into simple visual narratives on a pressing public issue, the uses of oil money. As Femi Longesson of Nigeria’s Co-Creation Hub explained, the visuals created by YourBudgIT have appeared in newspapers and helped to inform debates at the decision-maker level, in addition to helping to teach journalists and readers.

  • Tools for presenting data only work if data is available, and they convey little unless accompanied by sound analysis. New technologies make it far easier to analyze and disseminate data, but tools alone don’t make data available, comprehensible—or, for that matter, reliable. This “non-tech” tech question is especially important for the natural resource governance field, where national economic and social policy debates often turn on the credibility and comprehensibility of data to the non-expert public.

Participants Global Integrity publish an annual report that measures governance and anti-corruption efforts. In addition to conducting intensive research, Global Integrity goes to lengths to disseminate their findings in a highly digestible format, using simple illustrative visuals and, as importantly, key explanations in lay-friendly prose. At Revenue Watch, we are supporting our analyses of oil and mining reports by EITI countries with streamlined presentation of our results and short summaries that guide the reader in how to understand the results we’ve presented. We also had a demonstration of the Exxon Secrets project from Greenpeace, which turns the complicated system of corporate ownership into simple (and fun) interactive charts.

  • Advocacy achieves deeper impact and greater “scale” when groups coordinate online and offline tactics, rather than ignoring the “wired” or the “un-wired” audience, or operating in siloed campaigns where policy advocacy and online advocacy proceed uncoordinated on parallel paths. When combined thoughtfully with offline tactics, online tools can support impact in low-tech settings. SMS tools and cameraphones offer ways to mobilizing citizens locally and gather stories and pictures for use online.  But as groups pursue the ability to do more with online maps or citizen monitoring, they need to consider which tools fit with their real-world users.

Harvard’s Transparency Policy Project note this challenge in their 2010 paper assessing impacts of technology efforts in middle income and developing countries: “Several of the interventions aimed initially to have individuals as primary users, but then later discovered that individuals lacked the capacity to utilize the platform,” wrote Archon Fung and co-authors in that report. Participant Michael Silberman, a veteran of the Howard Dean U.S. presidential campaign, wrote in 2009 about the success of Barack Obama’s campaign in combining the best of online and offline organizing.

These are just a few of the lessons and topics explored over the three days. Others ranged from a highly practical clinic in electronic security from Jonathan Eyler-Werve to examples from OpenStreetMap of high-in-the-air mapping using balloons.

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