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April 10, 2018

DIAL’s Open Source Center on the Road

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The DIAL Open Source Center (OSC) team has been busy scaling up its services since the beginning of the year. Our mission is to convene a vibrant and inclusive community for builders of free and open source software, promoting knowledge sharing, collaboration and co-investment in technology and human capacity to support positive social change in communities around the world. The program provides financial and technical assistance to open source software projects serving the international development and humanitarian response sectors, and so far we’ve extended services to six different software projects, with more to come.

In the coming weeks you’ll hear more about our partner projects and participation in excellent mentorship programs like Google Summer of Code and Outreachy, where talented newcomers will be matched up with mentors to work on the open source projects we support. We’ve also been able to provide direct financial assistance to many of these projects, which we’ll share at the end of this month.

Photo: Michael Downey

The OSC team has also been on the road sharing the Center’s vision and ideas, as well as listening to software project maintainers to better understand their needs.

In February we were in Brussels, Belgium at FOSDEM, the Free & Open Source Software Developers’ European Meeting. Arguably the largest open source event on the planet, this free-of-charge, volunteer-led event brings people together from around the world to take over the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) campus for a single intense weekend of knowledge sharing. We were honored to feature the OSC in a talk in the main track, where we spent an hour discussing our vision for more mature and impactful open source projects. Audience members were really interested in sharing interesting open source projects that could be used by international development organizations, as well as making connections between groups already involved in the space but working independently. 

In March we participated in the 9th annual FOSSASIA Summit, a similar volunteer-run event that draws thousands of open source supporters. The event was an excellent chance to tap into the incredible network of innovation throughout South and Southeast Asia. This part of the world is also home to many organizations and individuals using open source for projects to help their communities improve their quality of life, such as Bahmni, a hospital information management system that we’ve supported over the past year. The event was an exciting opportunity to meet with potential partners and interested collaborators closest to those who will benefit from the tools being built and share our ideas to help turbocharge open source software projects. 

Michael Downey speaking at FOSDEM

Looking ahead, we’ll be attending the ICT4D Conference 8-10 May in Lusaka, Zambia. As a co-sponsor of this event, DIAL is excited to bring together all types of people who depend on technology for their international development work. The OSC team is planning an interactive workshop with these key stakeholders to learn more about their success stories, challenges and frustrations. Most importantly, we want to do all we can to improve the communication loop between the builders and the users of open source software. Creating more meaningful, easy-to-use and effective tools is a major key to being better stewards of the resources our world gathers to help everyone become active members of the digital world.

Finally, we’re hiring! The OSC is focused on long-term sustainability for the technology creators, consumers, and funders that we serve. As a result, we’re looking to add an expert to our team to think full-time about important topics like financial models, sustainability of our member projects and the program, and to help share best practices about running effective open source software projects that endure. If this sounds like something you’re passionate about, come join us!

March 29, 2018

Guest Blog: Evaluating ICT4D projects against the Digital Principles

By | Blog

By Laura Walker McDonald

As I have written about elsewhere, we need more evidence of what works and what doesn’t in the ICT4D and tech for social change spaces – and we need to hold ourselves to account more thoroughly and share what we know so that all of our work improves. We should be examining how well a particular channel, tool or platform works in a given scenario or domain; how it contributes to development goals in combination with other channels and tools; how the team selected and deployed it; whether it is a better choice than not using technology or using a different sort of technology; and whether or not it is sustainable.

At SIMLab, we developed our Framework for Monitoring and Evaluation of Technology in Social Change projects to help implementers to better measure the impact of their work. It offers resources towards a minimum standard of best practice which implementers can use or work toward, including on how to design and conduct evaluations. With the support of the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), the resource is now finalized and we have added new evaluation criteria based on the Principles for Digital Development.

Last week at MERL Tech London, DIAL was able to formally launch this product by sharing a 2-page summary available at the event and engaging attendees in a conversation about how it could be used. At the event, we joined over 100 organizations to discuss Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning related to technology used for social good.

Why evaluate?

Evaluations provide snapshots of the ongoing activity and the progress of a project at a specific point in time, based on systematic and objective review against certain criteria. They may inform future funding and program design; adjust current program design; or to gather evidence to establish whether a particular approach is useful. They can be used to examine how, and how far, technology contributes to wider programmatic goals. If set up well, your program should already have evaluation criteria and research questions defined, well before it’s time to commission the evaluation.

Evaluation criteria provide a useful frame for an evaluation, bringing in an external logic that might go beyond the questions that implementers and their management have about the project (such as ‘did our partnerships on the ground work effectively?’ or ‘how did this specific event in the host country affect operations?’) to incorporate policy and best practice questions about, for example, protection of target populations, risk management, and sustainability. The criteria for an evaluation could be any set of questions that draw on an organization’s mission, values, principles for action; industry standards or other best practice guidance; or other thoughtful ideas of what ‘good’ looks like for that project or organization. Efforts like the Principles for Digital Development can set useful standards for good practice, and could be used as evaluation criteria.

Evaluating our work, and sharing learning, is radical – and critically important

While the potential for technology to improve the lives of vulnerable people around the world is clear, it is also evident that these improvements are not keeping pace with the advances in the sector. Understanding why requires looking critically at our work and holding ourselves to account. There is still insufficient evidence of the contribution technology makes to social change work. What evidence there is often is not shared or the analysis doesn’t get to the core issues. Even more important, the learnings from what has not worked and why have not been documented and absorbed.

Technology-enabled interventions succeed or fail based on their sustainability, business models, data practices, choice of communications channel and technology platform; organizational change, risk models, and user support – among many other factors. We need to build and examine evidence that considers these issues and that tells us what has been successful, what has failed, and why. Holding ourselves to account against standards like the Principles is a great way to improve our practice, and honor our commitment to the people we seek to help through our work.

Using the Digital Principles as evaluation criteria

The Principles for Digital Development are a set of living guidance intended to help practitioners succeed in applying technology to development programs. They were developed, based on some pre-existing frameworks, by a working group of practitioners and are now hosted by the Digital Impact Alliance.

These nine principles could also form a useful set of evaluation criteria, not unlike OECD evaluation criteria, or Sphere standards. Principles overlap, so data can be used to examine more than one criterion, and ot every evaluation would need to consider all of the Digital Principles.

Below are some examples of Digital Principles and sample questions that could initiate, or contribute to, an evaluation.

Design with the User: Great projects are designed with input from the stakeholders and users who are central to the intended change. How far did the team design the project with its users, based on their current tools, workflows, needs and habits, and work from clear theories of change and adaptive processes?

Understand the Existing Ecosystem: Great projects and programs are built, managed, and owned with consideration given to the local ecosystem. How far did the project work to understand the local, technology and broader global ecosystem in which the project is situated? Did it build on existing projects and platforms rather than duplicating effort? Did the project work sensitively within its ecosystem, being conscious of its potential influence and sharing information and learning?

Build for Sustainability: Great projects factor in the physical, human, and financial resources that will be necessary for long-term sustainability. How far did the project: 1) think through the business model, ensuring that the value for money and incentives are in place not only during the funded period but afterwards, and 2) ensure that long-term financial investments in critical elements like system maintenance and support, capacity building, and monitoring and evaluation are in place? Did the team consider whether there was an appropriate local partner to work through, hand over to, or support the development of, such as a local business or government department?

Be Data Driven: Great projects fully leverage data, where appropriate, to support project planning and decision-making. How far did the project use real-time data to make decisions, use open data standards wherever possible, and collect and use data responsibly according to international norms and standards?

Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source, and Open Innovation: Great projects make appropriate choices, based on the circumstances and the sensitivity of their project and its data, about how far to use open standards, open the project’s data, use open source tools and share new innovations openly. How far did the project: 1) take an informed and thoughtful approach to openness, thinking it through in the context of the theory of change and considering risk and reward, 2) communicate about what being open means for the project, and 3) use and manage data responsibly according to international norms and standards?

For a more complete set of guidance, see the complete Framework for Monitoring and Evaluating Technology, and the more nuanced and in-depth guidance on the Principles, available on the Digital Principles website.

Laura Walker McDonald has over a decade of non-profit experience at the forefront of social change. She specializes in inclusive technology, starting her career at the British Red Cross working on humanitarian policy, accountability and learning. In 2010, she joined FrontlineSMS where she helped turn an open-source platform into a non-profit business and took the software from 25,000  to 250,000 downloads in just two years. She then worked as the CEO of SIMlab working with clients and partners to choose better technology tools and improve their impact. Laura is currently consulting for the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL).  She holds a Master of Law degree in International Development Law & Human rights from the University of Warwick, UK. 

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