Do you think that local organisations should be the main drivers of designing tech projects meant to serve their work?
Do you want to use data and tech solutions that already work but might be tailored to new contexts? Frustrated that technology sometimes becomes an end in itself in the social change sector? Then read on.
We at The Engine Room developed the idea of replication sprints to reuse technology in the service of our new partners, while also helping with the design of strategies based on their unique needs.
Today we’re sharing some of the lessons learned from our first replication sprint, and why we think this approach can be successful across sectors and regions.
Replication sprints are based on two premises: 1) no copy and paste of standards or code can replace tailored technology and data support, and that 2) reusing technology and data tactics can dramatically reduce costs.
Both sound fairly obvious, right?
But these two oftentimes contradict each other. The harder you try to develop a bespoke tool that fits your own needs, the more likely you are to waste money and time building things that other organisations have built before. On the other hand, the harder you try to reuse existing code designed by (and for) others, the more likely you’ll face serious frustrations when you try and customise it for your needs.
The Engine Room’s replication sprints are designed to tackle that contradiction. With this new approach we try to support partners so that they can create strategies for technology projects that are focused on real-world impact, while also building a concise process that makes technical development accessible for more organisations working on the frontline of issues.
How it works
The idea behind the replication sprint is to take a past Matchbox partnership or other potentially successful ‘civic tech’ project, identify organisations facing similar challenges, clean and document the reusable elements, deploy a custom-tailored project for these other groups on an accelerated timeline, and develop a clear strategy for advocacy and data collection.
The source project for our first replication sprint was Transparent Oil, a platform we developed with Namibian Matchbox partner the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), to help the group track how oil and gas exploration licences have been allocated among Namibian companies.
The Transparent Oil platform had many reusable elements, like parts of the design, the underlying data model, the digitisation and data entry process, and some of the data scraping and data collection.
As a first step, we announced an open call for applications and invited two groups to the sprint: Citizens for Justice and Oxfam from Malawi (in cohort), and the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA). Both groups were seeking help to ensure that natural resources in Malawi and Zimbabwe are managed in a transparent and accountable way, and they were looking for new ways to monitor that the industry is contributing to the national socio-economic development of their countries.
In the run-up to the event, we helped our partners to collect and clean the data we would need to power the platforms.
The Engine Room’s first replication sprint happened in Cape Town this August, bringing together the two project teams, designers, developers, policy and data experts for a week of intense work.
Besides data cleaning and platform development, the replication sprint also included sessions around extractive industry transparency strategies.
One of our goals was for our partners, Citizens for Justice, Oxfam, and ZELA, to be able to develop strong campaigning and advocacy strategies based on the data liberated, and we tried to explore the investigative potential of these new platforms.
We looked at each organisation’s larger goals to identify the best ways to integrate tech and data planning into their core work, and together we tried to answer what type of data these groups should collect and how they can manage all the information. We even talked about ways to protect team members and prevent data loss.
As a result of the sprint, we now have:
- two new structured databases for our partners in Malawi and Zimbabwe, that can serve as the foundation for future work to collect, organise and analyse additional information about extractive governance,
- a new set of liberated data on extractive industry licences and basic company information in these two countries, and a clear plan to collect more data on companies and their management structures,
- a refined set of documentation for the complex data models powering these platforms (to be published later),
- and most importantly, two organisations better equipped to lead reform, where the real impact happens.
For us, the approach has been eye-opening in several ways.
- We have become even more committed to putting national-level organisations at the centre of project design and development. Frontline organisations too often struggle to find funding for their work, despite the resources made available to international support organisations like The Engine Room, and other international groups who play the important role of aggregators and standards’ designers for sectors.
- Data preparation and strategy development are more challenging and more important than the technical work that takes place during a sprint. This underscores the importance of the point above. Frontline organisations are experts in their own context, and that expertise is harder to find, cultivate, and support than expertise in hard skills like web development..
- Language matters. Learning terms about technology, data, and the web development process can open up opportunities, fuel creative thinking, and build confidence. It can also be incredibly powerful for organisations who have historically been “talked down to” by techies or international organisations.
- Technical concepts and strategies can be useful for other areas of a project. For instance: user personas and human-centred design thinking are very helpful when considering advocacy strategies. The same empathy and process used to design a website that is intuitive for visitors, can inform how to make a campaign accessible to its target audience. Minimum viable product and agile methods are helpful for thinking about theories of change and organisational management.
- Support communities that are strong on tech and data, might often be lacking the expertise to help their partners with strategic planning; and vice versa. We will continue to develop our support methods and partnerships to bridge those two critical components – as both are key to real-world impact.