How-to

Posted 28 October, 2021 by Barbara Paes, Helen Kilbey and Lesedi Bewlay

Building digital tools in social justice organisations: what to consider before getting started

At The Engine Room, we connect with many social justice organisations who have questions about using data and technology in their projects. As part of our Light-Touch Support (LiTS) programme, we offer pro-bono support to organisations working in a wide range of focus areas. 

Organisations often come to us with questions and ideas around using tech to support their projects – this could be, for example, an app to help with monitoring human rights abuses in a specific context, a platform for facilitating greater transparency in local government spending, or a tool that allows the organisation to easily publish data visualisations for advocacy purposes. 

Again and again, we find that organisations tend to consider building new tools from scratch as their first option. 

Sometimes, they are just not aware that there are other options. Through our research and direct support work, we have also found that many civil society organisations can feel pressure from peers and funders to create new tools for their projects, as a way of staying relevant or keeping up with ever-changing trends in the sector

When it comes to integrating tech in an organisation’s work there are, in fact, many potential paths to take. Which path is the right one will depend on many factors, as each context is different and each organisation is different (and has different resources). 

As such, we generally encourage organisations to look carefully at their individual situations, contexts and goals, as well as to fully explore the tech options available to them, and make decisions with these complexities in mind.

The case for tool re-use

If you are familiar with our work, you probably know we often advocate for tool re-use. This could mean using the code of an already-built tool or system for a new project in a new context, or adapting existing code to respond to a new set of needs. 

Our research into tool re-use over the last few years shows that re-using and adapting existing tools can have a number of advantages (relevant research includes Tool re-use in open contracting, Digital tool re-use among UK charities, and Choosing tools in South African and Kenyan transparency and accountability initiatives). 

These advantages can include: 

  • less wasting of resources,
  • connection with pre-existing support communities, 
  • access to support in implementation and maintenance from others familiar with the tool,
  • quick testing and learning, and
  • shifting attitudes towards digital tools.

Because of all this – and because building new tools can be unexpectedly complex and resource-intensive, particularly over the long term – when we talk to organisations who are considering new tech tools, we encourage them to conduct a thorough exploration of existing tools first.  

If a tool can’t be found: should it be built? 

If the functionality an organisation is looking for – taking into account their specific context and resources – just can’t be found, they might then consider building a new tool. 

In theory, building a tool from scratch can also offer certain advantages. For example, it might allow an organisation to: 

  • ensure the tool is suited to the needs of their specific context,
  • develop the tool in a preferred programming language – perhaps one that is more commonly used in their own region or among their networks,
  • make sure that the tool conforms to specific legal parameters, or
  • have a full overview of the project and code from beginning to end.

But building a tool can also turn out to be a resource-consuming, lengthy process that can lead to disappointment: tools can often end up being ineffective or under-used, or be unexpectedly costly. And even if the tool itself initially works well and is used as hoped for, organisations might not have the resources to maintain or update it over the longer term. 

As such, we advise organisations to give any potential tool-building project careful consideration before deciding to go forward with it. We have found that the following questions can help organisations to work through their decisions. 

  • Is there a real, identifiable need for this tool? 
    • Is building a tool the most strategic move to get your organisation closer to your long-term goals, or are there other, potentially more effective, ways to get there? 
    • Is your organisation interested in building a tool because it responds to a strong need that has come up in your work, or has the idea come about as a result of peer-pressure, funder-pressure, or pressure to create appealing project-deliverables? 
  • Do you have the resources needed not just to build the tool, but also to maintain it over the longer term and provide continued support to those who will be using it? It’s not uncommon to see organisations get funding for building a new tool, but end up not having the funding and resources to maintain it. As such, it’s important to ask:  
    • Would building a tool be a sustainable option for your organisation? 
    • What resources would be required to keep the tool functioning and updated? 
    • Do you have the necessary expertise on your team? If not, can you hire people who have this expertise? 
    • Do you have the resources to write thorough documentation for the tool? Documentation requires a lot of effort, but is key both at a technical and user level, as it facilitates knowledge transfer and could reduce reliance on the small number of experts who developed the tool.
  • What is your vision for the tool over the longer term? 
    • Could the needs or problems that the tool is being built to address potentially evolve over time? 
    • Would the tool be shareable and open within peer-communities to allow for further contributions? If so, how would that work?   

Ideally, after working through these and similar questions, an organisation might have a clearer idea about whether building a new tool is in fact the best way forward for them.  

If you’re in the process of tool selection (or tool design) for your social justice work and would like our support, feel free to reach out to us via our Light Touch Support (LiTS) programme. 

For more resources around tool selection and tool building, have a look at:

Image by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash.

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