FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Tech & Data

Part of our work at The Engine Room includes helping partners and peers with questions they have around tech and data. Since a lot of organisations come to us with similar concerns, we have compiled some of the key questions we get asked in the following FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions).

While we won’t go into deep detail in each answer, we will try and point you in a direction to take next. Check out our Light-Touch Support programme if you have more questions.

Our peers seem to be using more tech/ data in their work. Should we be looking at using more tech/data in our work as well?

Initial explorations: Getting a feel for your tech & data landscape

We define data as information that needs to be processed, organised and structured for the sake of usability. In other words, by data we mean the information that you hold, such as details about the communities you work with, findings from research you have done, results from surveys, email addresses and contact information for supporters, and so on.

We understand technology as the tools, systems, methods and processes that capitalise on the computational power to manage, analyse and communicate information. For this resource, when we talk about technology, we mean digital tools, broadly. Anything from email platforms and messenger apps to website hosts, email newsletter platforms, CRMs, databases, algorithmic processes and more.

The answer here will really depend on context. Tech can support you to organise daily work and operations, enable safer and more secure communication, collect and manage information, and cut costs and free up resources, among other things. But if used ineffectively or non-strategically, tech can also compromise your ability to do your work safely and effectively.

For example, if your organisation is collecting first-hand accounts of human rights violations in areas with low internet/mobile connectivity, adopting a data collection tool that requires an internet connection will make your work difficult and negatively impact your ability to carry out your mission.

Used non-strategically, tech can also expose you, and those you work with, to new vulnerabilities and risks. For instance, if you’re in a context where government surveillance of civil society is common and you’re using tools that don’t adequately protect your communications, that may compromise your work and safety.

To make sure that you use tech strategically and responsibly, take some time to think about how adopting new tech or collecting more data could strengthen or weaken your work. Before adopting any new tools or platform, try to build up your internal capacity, connect with peers or other organisations you respect.


Digital technologies evolve quickly, as do debates and conversations about the potential benefits and harms of using specific tools and platforms. When trying to learn more about tech, we find it’s most useful to focus on two things:

FIRST, work to slowly and incrementally build up staff technical intuition, making it a team-wide priority as much as possible (as opposed to a one-person job).

SECOND, Instead of looking for shiny new tools, try to identify how tech and data could strengthen your core work first.

When it comes to new tools and applications, there is a lot of information online that can be enticing — but it can be hard to identify what is relevant to you, and what isn’t.

To more easily make sense of tech-related information, start with the challenge you’re trying to understand or address first. Additionally, if you can, reach out to like-minded practitioners who might have similar contexts or missions to yours and learn more about what tools they’re using (and what their successes and challenges have been!).

First get a clear overview of what you’re already using! Most organisations are already using at least some tech and data to support their work – from day-to-day tools such as email or instant messaging, to CRM tools and databases. Below, is a short list of questions that can serve as an initial exercise to map the ways you’re using tech and data for your work.

Note: Some of the information you gather as part of this mapping exercise may be sensitive: before you start, make sure your notes are stored in a safe place and only shared with people who need access.

What tools are you currently using for your work?

  • What platforms/tools do you and your team communicate with? These could include email, instant messaging, social media, SMS, and websites, to name a few.
  • How do you store and manage your files and documents? Which platforms do you use? Does everyone on your team use the same platforms?
  • Are you working on public campaigns or a part of collective efforts with other organisations? If yes, what tools do you use for activism, organising and community building?
  • Are you working with any databases or research platforms?

How are you using data?

  • What type of data/information do you collect or generate day-to-day? Think about your individual and collective workflows and list the moments at which you collect or generate data. For example, collecting contact information for people you have interviewed, having discussions over email or Whatsapp, taking interview or meeting notes, or conducting surveys with communities.
  • Where do you store data? Consider the data you currently have and list all the places it lives (make sure to include all your remote locations – emails, shared documents, and so on).
  • When and how do you share data? Think about times when you need to share data: when does it usually happen, who do you share this with and what tools do you use? For example, you might be sending spreadsheets or PDFs over email, sharing documents and meeting minutes via Google Docs, or sharing passwords via a messaging app.

These are initial exploratory questions. For a complete version of this mapping exercise, see Becoming RAD! (published in 2021), or reach out to our team.

Finally, adopting new tools takes time and resources. Make sure to give yourself and your team dedicated spaces to learn unfamiliar tools, practice behaviours and get up to speed with new data being used.

Related resources:

In our work supporting civil society organisations, we are often faced with assumptions that digital means better, and that any tech solution will lead to increased efficiency, effectiveness and impact.

But this isn’t always the case. When we’re working with a partner more intensively, we often start with an assessment of how their tech and data use currently maps on to their work and context.  This can help us figure out how, or even if, the way they’re using tech is strengthening their work.

After mapping out what tools the organisation is using and what data is collected, stored and shared, we go through a second layer of questions: How useful is all of this (or how useful could it be ) in the context of your work:

  • What is the core social or political problem you are working on?  
  • Is your use of tech and data supporting you in addressing that problem? If yes, how? If not, why do you think that could be happening?
  • Is your day-to-day use of tech and data helping you connect with individuals or organisations important to your work?
  • Is the way you use tech and data impacting your workload? Is it making your work easier or is it creating unsustainable amounts of work for the team? Do you enjoy using your organisational tools?


If you are interested in assessing your digital infrastructure, reach out to our team and we can talk about ways we can support you.

Making decisions – making sure the data & tech you use matches your values and mission

There’s a lot to think about when selecting a tool, and there are many options out there – including many that you may not know about yet. So how do you start narrowing down (or expanding) your options?

In 2017, based on research we did on tool selection in civil society organisations, we created an interactive tool-selection guide called Alidade, which takes organisations through questions that can help them decide what kind of technology tool would fit with their project or organisational needs. We recommend trying it out!.

In general, when organisations are looking for new tech tools, we have found the following guidelines to be beneficial:

  1. Research the people, the problem, and then the technology. Look into the overall problem where you think a technology tool could help. Think about your intended audience. Do research and look at different options for what technology options are available.
  2. Think twice before you build. Look for existing tools that can do what you need. Building a completely new tool can be complex and risky.
  3. Get a second opinion. Someone else has probably tried a similar approach before you. Find them, and ask for advice.
  4. Always take it for a test drive. Try out at least two tools, with the people you want to use it, before choosing. Trialling highlights problems at the start. It also raises questions you never knew you had.
  5. Plan for failure. You will not get it right the first time. Budget and plan to make regular adjustments to the tool throughout the project.
  6. Reflect on what you’re doing. Keep thinking about what is and isn’t working. Apply what you learn to your organisation’s work, and share with other organisations.

Make sure that the tools you choose also fit your security needs. When evaluating a tool’s security, consider the following:

  • What is the tool’s data privacy policy? What kind of data does the tool collect and who is that data shared with? Who has access to any data stored within the tool?
  • Is the tool’s approach to privacy and security well-documented? What can you find out about the tool’s privacy and security record?

Document and discuss your findings with your colleagues before making a final decision on a tool.


If you are familiar with our work, you probably know we often advocate for adapting existing tools for your own needs where possible (we call this ‘tool re-use’). 

Our research in this area over the last few years has shown that re-using and adapting existing tools can have a number of advantages, like more efficient use of financial resources and increasing access to support in implementation and maintenance.

Building a tool from scratch, on the other hand, can be a resource-consuming, lengthy process that can lead to disappointment: We’ve seen how tools can end up being ineffective or under-used, be unexpectedly costly, or demand intensive resources to be maintained or updated.

But if the functionality your organisation is looking for just can’t be found, and you are considering building a new tool, here are a few questions to reflect on:

  • Is there a real, identifiable need for this tool? Will this get you closer to your long-term goals? Would building a tool respond to a strong need that has come up in your work, or has the idea come about in other ways?
  • Do you have the resources needed to build the tool, maintain it over the long term and provide continued support to those who will be using it?
  • What is your vision for the tool over the long term? Could the needs or problems that the tool is being built to address potentially evolve over time?


If you are struggling with intermittent internet access, consider adopting tools that allow you to work both online and offline. In Google Docs, for example, you can enable offline access to documents. This will allow you to continue with your work offline, and then sync documents once connectivity is restored. Some data collection and management tools, such as Kobo ToolBox, also allow you to collect data on devices when you have no connectivity and then upload data to the server once the network is available. For online meetings in low connectivity settings, Mumble is a free, open source and lightweight option for audio-only calls.

If your organisation’s budget allows for it, we also recommend investing in a backup connection: for example, a mobile network connection to connect your devices to when your broadband connection is not available.

There are two ways to do this:  Use a mobile internet modem, or use a dedicated smartphone to create a mobile hotspot where other devices can connect and share the mobile connectivity. Here is a brief tutorial on how to create a mobile hotspot on an Android smartphone. You can limit the amount of data used by sharing the access password with only critical devices or users.

In cases when the internet connection and/or electricity are intermittent and you are working online, make sure to save your work as frequently as possible, to minimise the risk of losing work.

If you experience electricity shortages often, acquiring a backup generator can be a useful option, as long as you have organisational resources to do so.

There are many different types of external experts you can work with. Common types of external consultants/experts who interact with technology or data include:

  • User experience (UX) designer: Works with both clients (in this case, that’s you!) and users to design a product that satisfies multiple needs and is easy to understand and operate.
  • Visual or Graphic Designer: Oversees the graphic elements that a website, tool, app or publication will use, and is responsible for designing the visual identity (or branding). They often work with the UX designer to make sure that the visual identity works well for users, too.
  • Illustrator: Creates illustrations, icons, infographics and more, which will live within the larger structure that the Visual Designer and UX Designer have created.
  • Frontend Developer: Implements the design on a website, tool or app. In particular, is able to code the aspects that users will see and interact with.
  • Backend Developer: Develops and connects a database to the frontend (the parts of the website, app or tool that a user can see) and does all the non-visible tasks that will fill the frontend with dynamic content.
  • Data Analyst/Scientist: Extracts patterns from large volumes of data. They may also be equipped with the tools and knowledge to create visualisations of data in order to communicate important patterns.
  • Sysadmin/DevOps: Maintains the servers where the website, tool or app lives. They’re often responsible for coordinating the troubleshooting necessary if users encounter bugs or errors.

Sometimes roles can overlap: for example, you could hire a consultant who leads the design and development of a website, or a developer who is capable of working on both the frontend and backend.

Before hiring external developers and technologists, it’s helpful to: 

  • Be clear about why you want to build or adopt new tools.
  • Identify the resources you have and those you will need.
  • Remember to plan for long-term maintenance.

At the beginning of your work together, it’s important to establish common ground and a shared terminology about needs and expectations. We recommend developing a ToR (Terms of Reference) in order to document and share project needs and requirements. The ToR should cover at minimum:

  •  The available project budget
  •  The necessary timeline
  •  Your goals
  •  Your expectations for the external partner
  • Any additional information

You should also agree on tools, channels for communication, and roles and responsibilities.

All of this can greatly contribute to project success early on. Some “do’s” when working with consultants once the work is underway are:

  • Focus on clarity of organisational goals, big processes and milestones in order to better support the team/project.
  • Provide relevant and timely feedback.
  • Provide space and respect for the consultant’s expertise.
  • Try to be responsive with communications.


We know first hand that when it comes to collaborating online, finding the right way to communicate is essential – both to working smoothly and to overall well-being.

Ideally, your team will have a selection of tools or channels to use (for example, a mix of secure chat apps, email and project management tools), but it’s important that each of these has a clear role.

Often, our partners are using so many different tools that they feel overwhelmed any time they need to share a document, idea or message. If this is the case for your organisation, take some time to quickly write down all the different tools people communicate through – it could include apps like Signal and Whatsapp, messaging platforms like Slack and Mattermost, online CRMs like Salesforce, VOIP tools like Skype, Zoom or Jitsi Meet, and collaboration tools like Trello, Airtable, Asana and others. Perhaps you also use SMS messages and phone calls.

Once you have this list, we suggest getting together with your colleagues, or the people you collaborate with most often, to agree to trying to use fewer tools. Assign each tool with a specific purpose: for example, perhaps email is for longer messages that aren’t time sensitive, or for sharing documents, whereas messaging programmes are only for urgent questions or friendly conversation.

Once you’ve identified a few things that work, document it! Documentation will make sure that everyone is on the same page and will be a great reference for anyone new joining the team or for just remaining aware of processes/projects.


Centering safety and care

Even when we’re excited about a new tech tool or process for using data, actually adopting new ways of working is difficult. At the same time, making sure that we’re using the agreed-on tools (and their relevant safety or security protocols) is an important way in which we can practise care towards one another in organisations.

One step to take to help each other adopt a new way of working is to make sure the new tool or protocol responds to a concrete need and that everyone knows what that need is. This means everyone knows that by putting in the work to learn the new tool, they will be closer to a solution to an issue they’ve been facing.

At the same time, it’s important to manage expectations – changes might be felt little-by-little, over time, as more people use a tool or protocol and get familiar with it. That’s part of the process.

And, because it’s a process, it’s good to leave space and time for learning, adaptation and discussion when a new tool is rolled out. Depending on what else is going on, capacities for learning something new can vary across teams, and giving space can be the best way to recognise this.

Finally, listening to the experiences of those using the new tool can help you spot ways you might want to tweak the tool itself if you can, or tweak how it’s being applied.


Many of the people we speak with are curious about how to incorporate safety and care in all the work they do – especially when it comes to new tech and data initiatives. As we see things like data leaks and hacked tools in the news, in our communities, and in our own experiences, safely adopting tools or tech processes can feel daunting.

One approach that can help provide grounding is that of Responsible Data (RD): the idea that we share a “collective duty to account for unintended consequences of working with data.”

Some areas to explore that fall under the RD umbrella are:

  • Practices like data minimisation (only collecting the data you need).
  • Concepts like consent (ensuring that people are able to agree to how their data will be used in a freely-given, specific, informed and revocable way).
  • Related spaces like organisational security (a rich area of practice around setting protocols that can help build data/information security and physical well-being and security).

If you’re not familiar with these kinds of practices, there are resources that can help – from online guides to practitioner support.

Selecting tools that prioritise your security can be another step to take. Often, these tools aren’t as widely used as their less-secure counterparts, so this could be an opportunity to consult with like-minded peers, or to contact an external technologist who you trust. Some of these tools could include:

  • Password managers: Creating strong, unique passwords is a fundamental part of using technology more safely. Password managers can both keep track of your passwords and help you create good passwords.  Learn more here.
  • Safer communications tools: Many messages that we send digitally are not encrypted, meaning that if someone were to intercept them, they could read the contents. Safer communications tools offer encryption, making it harder for people to read the contents of your messages. You can learn more here, or reach out to us for support on adopting new tools.
  • Virtual private networks: A VPN (virtual private network) is a tool that can help protect your web activity from surveillance on the internet network you’re using. Picking the right VPN – and knowing its limitations – is crucial, and depends on the context you’re within (what country you’re in, what VPN you choose, etc.). At the same time, choosing the right VPN for your situation can be complex, so gather some information here and don’t hesitate to reach out to us for support.

Always keep in mind that security is a mix of both tools and practices. It’s important to have the right tools, but it’s just as important to use these tools in the right way, and to build strong internal practices around security in general, taking into account physical and psychological safety as well.

Related resources:

This FAQ was put together by Barbara Paes, Helen Kilbey, Laura Guzman and Lesedi Bewlay, and made possible by support from the Sigrid Rausing Trust.

Photo by Manuel Venturini on Unsplash