In May 2010 the Ushahidi blog posted an awesome post from Chris Blow which was highlighting the importance of working through a Ushahidi project by thinking that the tool is only 10% of your project.
I loved that blog post and still think it is a very actual problem not only with Ushahidi deployments around the world, but in general with the increasing use of technology for development or human rights.
Working as New Media consultant for several project in information management based on the use of FOSS I have been encountering this problem several times, and I think that there are several misconception tat lead to the fact that we can see and increasing use in technology but not always this leads to an increase in the efficacy of those projects.
I will highlight here some of those misconceptions:
1. If it is free it is easy. There is an incredible growing development of free open source software that is free and available for everyone in the net, like FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, Freedom Fone etc. The fact that those tools are free makes organizations and individual that wants to use them think that they are easy to use. On one side this is true, but on the other side the fact that the tools is free doesn’t mean that the use of the tool is free, or that the project design based on this tool will be free. You can use volunteer as much as you want, but a project to work needs to be based on professional work and professional approaches. The tools is free, the professionalism behind the project is not.
2. Tech is difficult, non tech is easy. If you are not a tech person everything that is tech seems very obscure and difficult. I myself cannot get around a Ushahidi installation without swearing a lot, calling friends to help me, getting 100 errors and finally get it done after 8 hours of work. A good developer gets it done in not more than 20 minutes. For this reason I was the first one thinking that the tech part of any technology based project is the most important one. Ones I started working on this I realized that this is really not the case. I don’t want to take out any merit to the awesome job that web developers and programmers do, but their job still is and will be 10% of any project if not less.
An example of this is the Ushahidi platforms done in Egypt for the Parliamentary elections: 5 platforms were set up to monitor the elections. The only one of them that was a huge success in terms of report gathered, quality of information, verification process and structure was the U-Shahid one. Why? I would love to say that this is because I worked on it (conflict of interest?) but the true is that in that project the tech part was really only the 10%: the project was a 5 months projects, with massive trainings, a month of project design, evaluation and monitoring system set up, sustainability study on the systems already present in the country.
The project was a success because of everything that you cannot see in the platform and that was the real difference in bw that projects and the others: the massive investment in terms of time, money and human resources that the project deployed. Tech is not easy but either is the non -tech part of the project.
3. The use of technology is an end in itself. Lots of people are getting increasingly excited with the use of technology. And with reasons: developing and poor countries as well as repressive regime are witnessing the emergence of new phenomenon of digital activism that are changing the political and social landscape and even if the debate on their efficacy or not is still going on, there is no doubt that those technologies are having an effect. But there is also a decreasing number, in my opinion of understanding of what is success in a technology based project: I am witnessing more and more a quantitative approach to the use of technology and less and less a qualitative approach.
The Ushahidi platform in this is a good example: people mostly look at the number of reports in a platform, or how many time has been used or viewed at, but not at what the reports are saying, who is following up on the reports, what the effect of the use of the platform is. Technology is still most of the time an end in itself and not just a way to develop a project. This can be very problematic because technology is not a panacea, and it cannot be the goal: sometimes thing are better without the use of technology or sometimes it is just not the right tool for that problem.
Not everything will be solved with the use of technology. But if you know when and how to use it, how to integrate with local systems, how to make it meaningful in the context of operations: if you know what your goal is and the technology is only one of the means to achieve it, and you are not afraid to sacrifice the toll for the goal, than you may succeed.
4. If the technology works the project works. Doing a project based on the use of technology sometimes leads to the fact that ones the tech part is done and the technology is working people think that this will solve all the issues related to that project. In November I was at an Oxfam conference and doing my presentation on the only tech panel of the conference a guy did an intervention highlighting the fact that he couldn’t see how the use of technology for human right monitoring could have prevented or helped during the Sri Lankan conflict, and how technology is not helping in solving political issues. His intervention was the result of the fact that he was expecting technology to be the ultimate solution: if you use digital technology you may achieve more information, more accurate information, you may spread the world and make things more visible, but you will not solve all the problems.
Lets’ take the example of Sudan Sentinel: everyone is really excited about that project, and I think it is a great idea. On the other side, it is really going to change anything? I mean, do we really need that to know that there are mass atrocities happening in Sudan? Don’t the UN Security Council receive monthly reports from the UN mission there on the situation? Don’t all the NGOs and agencies working there spread the voice about what is going on? Didn’t the ICC already issue an arrest order on Bashir because of the mass atrocities? So why the hell to spend 750.000 dollars for a website that will tell us what we already know???The reason is that the technology may be working perfectly, but what will make this project successful is if the use of this technology will lead to more awareness of the situation, to more people pushing their governments in doing something, to more visibility on the issue in terms of public opinion and the impossibility to say: I didn’t know. Will this be achieved? We will see, but we need to consider the fact that even if the technology is working, the project may be a complete waste of money and time. And also, we want also to consider that fact that maybe those 750.000 dollars would have achieved more if used to sustain local actors and local driven peace-building projects, but those are speculations of course….
As Chris said “Systems like Ushahidi have turned enormous communication barriers into a trivial installation and training process. But there is a whole other 90% of real work”. If you think that hiring and paying lot of money for a developer to install a platform and customize it will make your project works, you are wrong. It will make the technology works, meaning you still have to work on the other 90%.