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Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL)

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April 25, 2017

Can Open Source Deliver the Dream of Digital Development?

By | Blog, Digital development, Global development, Principles for Digital Development, Tech innovations, Technology

Next year will mark 20 years since the term “open source software” was officially coined, and the “free software” movement has been around even longer. But in the international development field, open source has only been a key consideration for the last decade or so. Today, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL)’s Platform and Services team is introducing a new strategy to turbocharge open source innovations that help solve digital development challenges across the globe.

The international development field is increasingly incorporating digital innovation into its programmatic work. While leveraging open source technology should be a prioritized strategy, many open source projects come with their own set of challenges. In fact, few endure and mature. When successful, open source projects enable improved and sustained access to information and services previously out of reach for marginalized populations. Open source is the key to bring the “dream” of digital development to life for millions of people around the globe.

The most common project outcome is the word nobody wants to talk about — failure. Often, open source digital development projects fail because they neglect common-sense strategies: user- and ecosystem-centered design, planning for scale and sustainability, as well as collaboration with other projects and standards. Or what we like to call – the Principles for Digital Development.

And importantly, project funding in the development sector isn’t typically structured to deliver quality open source products. Rather than co-funding a single robust product solving the needs of many implementation projects around the world, we instead find a large number of smaller products with overlapping features which frequently don’t fully address their funders’ needs.

To address these challenges, DIAL has assembled a team of experts with a breadth of experience in open source digital development and that also have a deep understanding of these challenges and how to best help organizations maximize the benefit of open source. We’ve learned a lot about the challenges projects have faced, and we’re ready to help. Adapting knowledge from the professional practice of community management and product development, we now understand key areas in which organizations must invest time and energy to become a more mature, inclusive, participatory community. Strategy, leadership, culture, community management, product management, policies and governance, tools, as well as metrics and measurement all play a role as an idea starts from a small project moving toward an emergent collaborative community, then builds to a fully-functional community effort, and finally grows to a large-scale networked initiative:

community maturity model

With these factors in mind, and with the Principles for Digital Development guiding the design of the software projects to be built, DIAL’s Platforms and Services team is planning specific ways to improve the open source experience in digital development:

  • Sharing foundational services: It can be difficult to establish and maintain core services as projects grow. The DevOps support, community coordination and event organizing to help further scale and energize projects require expertise, energy and funding that is often not available. Because these activities seldom require full-time investment, we believe sharing resources between similar projects increases effectiveness of overall investments in these areas.
  • Establishing and leveraging best practices: While many projects are often started by one or two people, the number of contributors grows as people discover and use the service or product. Decision-making and work processes must also mature with the project. We’ve seen consistent demand for establishing best practices on how to operate open source digital development projects in reliable, effective ways, through efforts like the Principles for Digital Development. Along with other strategies, first-hand knowledge in implementing these principles can be shared throughout the digital development community.
  • Coordinating sustainable funding opportunities: A recurring theme is frustration from constantly chasing funding opportunities to develop and enhance specific features, which detracts from project maintainers’ time and energy. Most of these projects are continually looking for new partnerships with implementing organizations, working to match their product roadmaps with implementers’ demand. DIAL’s vision for this ecosystem is an evolved marketplace where funding opportunities are centrally curated, where different programmatic sectors can collaborate and share innovation and where peers work together to help each other succeed.

Over the next few months, you’ll be hearing more about DIAL’s plans to bring together open source projects in the humanitarian and international development fields. We’re already studying many successful case studies, and many more less-than-successful failures. And we want to learn from more of them. If you’ve got ideas about challenges to overcome that can lead to more sustainable, impactful open source digital development, get in touch with us.


David McCann serves as Director of Technology for the T4D Open Source Software Incubator & Accelerator at the Digital Impact Alliance. He brings 10 years of experience building and managing small teams to achieve greenfield goals in both the non-profit and private sectors.

Michael Downey is the Director of Community for the Digital Impact Alliance’s Open Source Software Incubator & Accelerator. Michael’s career in IT and open source spans nearly two decades both in the healthcare and financial services industries, as well as the nonprofit world. As a long-time participant in the T4D community, he is excited about DIAL’s unique opportunity to help build a digital society that serves everyone.



April 20, 2017

The Potential of Data for Development

By | Blog, Digital development, Sustainable Development Goals, Tech innovations, Technology

The rise in the use of digital technologies – particularly mobile phones – has led to an exponential rise in digital data. A lot of new data is being generated by people in communities that have previously not been represented, thanks to cheaper, more accessible phones and service plans.

Data for development
The Benefits of Leveraging Digital Data

Historically, the traditional source of data to support development efforts has come from surveys and official statistics. Without discounting their importance, these sources tend to come with high costs and long timeframes to collect, which ultimately results in outdated indicators. At the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) we believe that new digital data sources, such as mobile call detail records (CDRs) and satellite imagery, can complement traditional development indicators to turn big data into actionable insights for development programs to be used in decision-making and project delivery. These new digital data sources can also reduce time, money and knowledge gaps.

From academic studies, to telecommunications (telco) driven pioneering experiments and ad hoc responses to crises – the immense potential of using mobile data for development has been demonstrated. While the potential of using data for development is known, limited traction has been achieved across the development sector due to various issues such as unclear costs/benefits, regulation issues, difficulty in scaling/sustaining/replicating, capacity issues and privacy risks. What’s needed is better scalability and sustainability, and a clearer alignment with the market reality of data holders and key ecosystem participants.

DIAL is taking a multi-pronged investment approach partnering with data holders, leveraging existing projects, and working with policy and regulatory actors to develop a shared value proposition that addresses common barriers across actors. DIAL’s Data for Development (D4D) team is exploring three to five investments this year that illustrate how network data can help address specific development challenges. These holistic but targeted use cases will allow DIAL to develop the insights needed to scale and build out a broader and more efficient D4D ecosystem. This includes, but is not limited to, the broader integration of data (within and beyond telco data) and the acceleration of the development of an ecosystem of applications.

One example DIAL is tackling is how to better predict food crises through the use of big data. Research suggests that there is a strong correlation between mobile phone top-ups and calorie consumption. If a consumer is recharging their SIM cards less frequently, they are also consuming less calories. By combining this mobile data with satellite remote sensing of food security variables (such as crop condition, growth and yield), we can better forecast potential food crises.

Another example that our partner Data2x examined in their report Big Data and the Well-Being of Women and Girls (April 2017) is the use of satellite imagery to improve the spatial resolution of existing data on women and girls obtained from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS). They found that certain social and health indicators such as child stunting, literacy and access to modern contraception are correlated with geospatial phenomena. By testing various models in five different counties they demonstrated how limited and unevenly distributed survey data points across a country can be transformed into a continuous landscape of information.

DIAL will continue to explore these use cases and more to identify the best learnings to improve the D4D ecosystem. We are uniquely positioned to achieve this because of our constant focus on the roadblocks to scale, our neutrality towards location and sector and our team of experts that understand both public and private sector motivations.

As we explore how to best use data for development, we will be sharing our learnings and best practices on leveraging the power of data for development. If you’re interested in partnering with us to explore this work, contact me.

Danielle Dhillon joined the Digital Impact Alliance in March 2017 as Senior Program Analyst, Data for Development. In this role, she works to demonstrate the value of a viable Data for Development (D4D) ecosystem for driving effective learning and decision-making across development programs, the public sector and the private sector.



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