Posted 3 July, 2018 by Laura Guzman

Don’t reinvent the wheel, refine it

At The Engine Room, we believe in collaboration and sharing resources to build technology. Reusing existing tools is a great way to develop solutions that are tailored and affordable, immediately useful and sustainable.

Recently, our Matchbox partner Japiqay, an organisation confronting corruption in Peru, needed a document management platform. Rather than build one from scratch, they worked with HURIDOCS to implement their document management platform, Uwazi. This collaboration required mapping needs to existing solutions and building strong relationships between partners. The Engine Room worked as facilitators, both making sure that Japiqay and HURIDOCS had what they needed to work well together and staying out of the way so that they could make the project happen!

Matching needs to existing solutions

In the initial phase of research and design, the Engine Room team worked with Japiqay to understand what needs they had around technology tools. At the core of their work on corruption was their Memoria y Ciudadanía platform, which would make a huge number of diverse documents more accessible to researchers and reporters. Japiqay were already deeply knowledgeable on Peruvian politics, regional webs of corruption and the documentation that could be used to shed further light on these webs. By exploring their expertise and listening to their challenges, we learned that their top needs were:

  • A need for technical support in creating a knowledge management platform, or identifying an existing one that fits well with their needs.
  • Support on systematically organizing, cleaning and categorizing the hundreds of data pieces and information they had gathered.
  • Support in migrating their data into a knowledge management system, and using this system to continue systematically collecting information.

Based on these needs, we researched what tools were already out there that could be used to build the Memoria y Ciudadanía platform. (Alidade is a tool that can help you do this, too.) In our exploring, we came across Uwazi, an activist-friendly open-source tool for organising, analysing and publishing documents, from our friends at HURIDOCS. (Note: the Uwazi team was led by Kristin Antin, a former Engine Roomer herself.)

Ultimately, the decision to go with the Uwazi platform was a win-win for both Japiqay and HURIDOCS. Japiqay benefited from the fact that they would be using a tool already in development, and HURIDOCS had a group of dedicated, real-world users and testers, who eventually helped the Uwazi team build an even stronger platform.

The biggest take away from this phase was, before embarking on developing a new tool, do your research.

Research the people, the problem and the tech tool. There might be tools out there that you don’t know about, but that directly address your problem. Resist the temptation to build new things primarily because it seems like the “thing to do” or because it seems like it may position you better to receive funding. And, funders, make sure your projects and incentive structures don’t favor re-inventing the wheel, and build ones that encourage collaboration and reutilisation instead.

Building strong relationships

Using an existing platform – Uwazi – on a new use case –Japiqay’s Memoria y Ciudadania – was not just a technical project, but one that depended on strong person-to-person collaboration.

One key to creating an atmosphere of collaboration was for us to take a step back. For organisations who sit at the intersection of multiple teams, as The Engine Room often does, the key role to play is as facilitator and translator, not as a go-between who creates a bottleneck. In the case of Japiqay, that meant we were a co-explorer (e.g. to identify needs and understand their context) and supporter (e.g. as a place where Japiqay could come with questions, technical or otherwise). Otherwise, it was important for us to get out of the way, allowing Japiqay and Uwazi to work together directly and organically.

Diversity of teams was also key. Between the Uwazi and the Japiqay teams, we had a group of very experienced CSO folks with skills in civic tech. Uwazi had a number of Spanish-speaking developers who not only knew the language, but the context of Latin America as a region. Their diversity meant that the Japiqay team – all of whom predominantly speak Spanish – could communicate directly with the Uwazi team.

Of the collaboration, Lourdes Chávez from Japiqay shared:

It was great to find in HURIDOCS extraordinary people willing to share their knowledge, as well as listen to our needs and adapt their tools to help us solve them.  Even living in so many different countries, communication was always good and fluid.

Another part of what made this collaboration successful was assembling a team specifically tailored to supporting Japiqay and, in turn, Uwazi. Two external collaborators of this team were David Losada, whose contributions about data models inspired a new way to realise relationships in Uwazi, and Catalina Margozzini, who brought the Memoria y Ciudadania platform to life through UX and design. On the power of collaboration, Kristin Antin from HURIDOCS noted, “Being able to assemble a dream team like this is what is particularly helpful about Matchbox!”

So, when collaborating on technical projects, remember it’s a human project as much as it is a technical one.

Take note of diversity – or lack thereof – on your teams, and take care to cultivate it. As a facilitator and a connector, recognise when your partners can benefit from your support or knowledge, and when it’s your job to take a step back.

What comes next?

The collaboration doesn’t stop here. HURIDOCS just relaunched a new and improved version of Uwazi. Check it out here and see if your organisation could benefit from using it. Japiqay launched their Memoria y Ciudadania platform, and are actively testing out the tool with fellow Peruvian journalists, researchers, and civil society organizations.

At The Engine Room, we continue to put these ideas into practice through replication sprints, which take a previously successful civic tech project and see how it can be used by an organisation facing similar challenges. Also, our current round of Matchbox partnerships are coming to a close, and we are reflecting on the successes and challenges of our processes in order to further improve the support we give. In a few months, we’ll be launching another open call for applications to partner with the Matchbox team in both Latin America and Sub Saharan Africa. Follow us on Twitter to be kept up-to-date.

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