Later than usual, I’ve revisited the notes I made when I attended the Open Up! conference and captured them in a blog post.

The reason I was late pulling my thoughts together and deciphering my notes, was that I’ve been working with colleagues to draft DFID’s first digital strategy.
This was mandated in the overarching Government digital strategy, published by the Cabinet Office last month, and our own strategy was mentioned in the speech given by Secretary of State Justine Greening at the Open Up! event.

So, all the digital stars seem to be aligning for DFID at the moment, and the challenge now is to build on the momentum and enthusiasm I sense among many colleagues across the department. I look forward to working through plans to help people to make the most of opportunities the whole range of digital and internet/mobile technologies offer for us to communicate better about our work, engage with existing and new audiences, explore new ways of getting feedback, and also, most excitingly, to investigate ways in which digital solutions can support delivery of actual programmes in developing countries.

While preparing the strategy, we looked for case studies to illustrate the ideas and points we were making, and it was fascinating to find out about what is already going on. Lots of pockets of expertise and experience – the challenge now is to make this more systematic and more the norm across the whole organisation. For us, digital success will be achieved when digital solutions
mean we can help even more people to lift themselves out of poverty.

Which brings me back to the Open Up! conference. As part of the introductions, we saw a short film from the Prime Minister, in which he talked about how technology and digital solutions can support what he calls the golden thread of development: supporting property rights, the rule of law and strong democracies, while giving people a voice so they can take control of their own future.

The first speaker was Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, and while her examples were all about North America, the concepts behind what her organisation does are extremely relevant: transparency, efficiency and participation. CfA takes volunteers who take a year off their (often extremely well paid) work and are assigned to work with government on projects.

The main ideas behind projects are that the outcomes should be “simple, beautiful and easy to use” – which sounds very familiar to anyone aware of the work of the Government Digital Service. She cited two end results of the process – both perhaps surprising. You might expect that when you put government data out there, people will complain and be angry, but often the opposite happens, and two sides can be brought together. Also, what made an even bigger impact, was the people inside government, who found working with the CfA fellows ended up energised and enthused.

Next speaker was Rakesh Rajani, head of Twaweza (which means “we can make it happen” in swahili).  He talked about what can happen when you sprinkle the “magic dust of mobile phones” on a project – not only the good that happens when it works, but also some of the examples when it doesn’t. He described the value people place on connections – they may give up food to be able to make a call and the desire for connectivity drives all sorts of ingenuity. He has seen old tube lights being used to make antennae. He was honest enough to say that if you are looking for examples of projects which have delivered on a grand scale, there are not too many out there yet, but there are some noteworthy successes.

He also talked about failure – in particular the Daraja project Maji Matone (which was also showcased in the lunchtime show and tell sessions.)  This was an idea which centred around citizens holding their government to account using their mobile phones. The idea was that at any one time, almost half the waterpoints in rural Tanzania are not working, so people were encouraged to report broken pumps via SMS. Simple idea, but at the end of the first phase, only 53 SMS had been received (their target was 3,000). They stopped the project immediately, and did thorough evaluation, which brought up a number of reasons, including the cultural one that people didn’t really expect that reporting the problem would have any effect, and the issue that the majority of mobiles are owned by men, and water collection is a women’s issue.

A panel discussion followed, where Juliana Rotich (ushahidi) and Anne Jellema (World Wide Web foundation)  were joined by Dr Nii Quaynor from Ghana.

Juliana talked about how technology is changing the way information flows. In particular the example of ushahidi which has evolved from something that took 3 days to set up, and now takes 3 hours, meaning it can be extremely effective in supporting an immediate response to disasters. She warned of the dangers of technophilia – it is not a magic bullet, but it is a vital part of the solution. Finally she referenced the power of crowds – using technology not just in crisis situations, but to respond to all sorts of issues they care about.

Anne is the CEO of the World Wide Web foundation. She too talked about how people have to be part of the solution in order for things to change. She highlighted situations for example where people are scared they will be punished if they complain about faults of problems with services, and referenced some Africa polling results which stated 85-90% of people had never contacted a member of parliament or official to report something (although they had dealt with local community or faith leaders.)

Nii gave us a fascinating overview of progress in Ghana, in particular around transparency. He too talked about the importance of building communities – in this case around particular datasets – and this would help keep up the pressure for more to be released.

Many questions followed, including some which came via twitter. Panelists were asked about role models (My Society and ushahidi mentioned, plus a range of country specific examples were shared). What about projects involving young people? Besides Shujaaz, people mentioned Makutano Junction and the Map Kibera project (about which more later). When asked about incentives for openness, the answer was clear – this is not one for donors, but people and organisations, in particular civil society, who need to put on the pressure, publicise evidence and celebrate success. Questions about ethical issues got the response that solutions have to be flexible – protect those who report problems but also protect those who might be wrongly accused. The importance of mixed solutions was also clear – think through which technology is appropriate for the people you are trying to reach – voice may be better than SMS in areas of low literacy and traditional forms of knowledge shouldn’t be forgotten in favour of formal (eg given was of land registration – where one country allows for oral history records to be included). Open source and open standards were applauded, and the question of balancing experimentation with the need for immediate results stimulated broad discussion.

An extremely stimulating session, which has turned this post into a bit of an epic – so I’ll close part one and continue in part two.

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