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Category Archives: Principles for Digital Development

October 24, 2017

Practicing the Principles of Digital Development in East Africa: Dar es Salaam 2017

By | Blog, Digital development, Launch, Principles for Digital Development, Sustainable Development Goals, Tech innovations

On Oct. 12, 2017, a diverse group of over 100 digital development professionals gathered in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to discuss how to put the Principles for Digital Development into practice within the context of East Africa’s rapid growth. This event was the first event in a three-part series of events organized by the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), focused on sharing innovations directly from implementers and practical guidance on the Digital Principles. In Dar es Salaam, the discussion focused on three of the nine Principles – Be Collaborative, Design with the User and Understand the Ecosystem.

With a variety of representatives from the private sector, NGOs, Tanzanian government and more, participants all brought an array of perspectives and concrete examples of how the Principles for Digital Development—nine “living” guidelines designed to help digital development practitioners integrate established best practices into technology-enabled programs—had impacted their work. As a result, the day was full of thought-provoking presentations, open and honest conversations among peers and workshops with real-world applications.

Below are some of the highlights, and you can also check out the livestream archived on DIAL’s facebook page here.

The morning began with Carolyn Florey, DIAL’s Director of Collective Impact, who provided a brief history and background of the Principles, which grounded conversations among participants throughout the day.

Engineer Clarence Ichwekeleza, the Director of Communications at Ministry of Works, Transport and Communications in Tanzania, delivered the opening keynote and provided additional framing for the day by addressing the local digital ecosystem. She touched on the abundant opportunities in East Africa, the challenges that remain and how the Digital Principles could help technology-enabled development programs be more effective and efficient in Tanzania and beyond.

The momentum continued as a high-level plenary engaged in an open and frank discussion about one of the Digital Principles: Be Collaborative. They highlighted successes and provided examples of common challenges that arise when collaborating across the private and public sectors.

The next Principle featured, Design with the User, was framed around eight insightful lightning talks from implementers who have worked through the inclusive human-centered design process and therefore could share learnings from the experience. Speakers included:

  • Eric Layer, Chief Program Officer at D-Tree International
  • Eliguard Dawson, Tanzania Country Officer at the Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT)
  • Obedy Kamajenzi, Graphics System Designer and ICT Consultant at DataVision International
  • Nisha Ligon, Co-founder and CEO of Ubongo Kids
  • Ivan Gayton, Senior Consultant at HOT Tanzania/Ramani Huria
  • JoyAnne Muthee, Regional Designer for Medic Mobile
  • Ephraim Tonya, Project Manager at Catholic Relief Services (CRS)
  • Alfred Mchau, VillageReach

For the third Principle, Understand the Ecosystem, HDIF Team Leader David McGinty shared real-life examples that highlighted the need to understand the existing ecosystem to inform how digital development programs are designed, implemented and monitored. Participants then moved into a workshop session where groups mapped out their personal ecosystems and shared the results.

Marrying all the conversations and learnings from the day, a panel focused on the impact of the Principles—including stories from implementers and funders in East Africa on why the Digital Principles are important in their work and how they have helped to improve their programs. The all-female plenary was made up of Lea Gimpel from GIZ, Woinde Shisael of Tigo, Hannah Metcalfe of HNI, Edith Turuka of the Ministry of Works, Transport and Communications and was moderated by Iku Lazaro of Shule Direct. A discussion highlight was each speaker sharing their favorite Principle and the one that they find most challenging to implement.

The closing keynote was given by the Better Immunization Data (BID) Initiative Tanzania Director at PATH, Henry Mwanyika, and encapsulated the day’s discussions within the context of the local ecosystem. He discussed the future of digital development in East Africa, particularly Tanzania, as exciting and inspiring, but not without its challenges. By using the Principles, he believed the challenges could be met and resolved, and that progress would continue.

Digitalization is creating more opportunities than ever before. But it requires a mindset change that we need to embrace. – Henry Mwanyika

To cap the day’s activities and productive discussions, the Digital Impact Alliance CEO, Kate Wilson, delivered remarks calling on the participants to stay engaged with the Digital Principles community to tackle together the challenges we face so that strides in digital development benefit all people, everywhere.

Hope you act upon what learned today so the #digitalprinciples turn into action @DIAL_Kate @DIAL_community

The next event will be held in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, December 7, in FHI 360’s Academy Hall. The three principles featured at this event will be Address Privacy and Security, Be Data Driven and Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source and Open Innovation. If your organization is interested in partnering with DIAL to design workshop sessions for this event, please contact the Digital Principles Program Manager, Allana Nelson, at anelson@digitalimpactalliance.org

Join the conversation and engage with your fellow digital development practitioners on the new Digital Principles Forum at http://forum.digitalprinciples.org/




October 12, 2017

Is Open Source Overrated?

By | Digital development, Principles for Digital Development, Uncategorized


This was my one-word stance on the question when I was invited to participate in a session about open source at this year’s MERLTech Conference. As the discussion proceeded it became clear that there was nearly a consensus view—despite a diversity of perspectives—about problems with the way the “Big Aid system” (a combination of restricted funding flows and perverse incentives) has implemented technology-driven development projects, and the bad connotations that the term “open source” has picked up along the way. But implementing a successful technology-driven project requires understanding the nuance of combining what we’ve learned from the Principles for Digital Development of “Open Source” (but also open standards, open data, which are not mere footnotes to this principle) and “Build for Sustainability.”

First, I’ll share my take on the problems expressed in the panel, from the two broad categories of experience represented in the panelists and attendees.

Panel Summary

The biggest problems for developers are centered around funding. For many T4D project implementations, the top fallacies are that:

  1. Open source is free.
  2. If one has to pay, it should only be for the next features needed for a project.
  3. Once the code is written, there are no recurring costs for the lifetime of the project.

David McCann (second right) speaks with fellow panelists at the MERL Tech Conference 2017

The problems for practitioners tend to be related to misconceptions of open source, as well as concerns of quality:

  1. Open source is about more than just licensed code in a public repository, it’s also about sustained communities.
  2. Open source doesn’t mean free, there is a cost to ownership but also a benefit to reusing existing open-source products (or someone else being able to reuse your investment); and
  3. Vendor lock-in and code quality can be a problem, even when the code is open-sourced, if the “community” supporting it is all paid by a single vendor.

My take on the state of the T4D ecosystem is that we got here by combining hype and the corresponding surge in funding within a flawed system. The flaws start with a procurement model that ties funds to specific projects. The side-effect at the programmatic level is constrained time and funding, pressuring practitioners to often source one-off technology work to achieve their programmatic goals rather than consider sustainability or re-use. The side-effect of these practices is that software development companies and contractors certainly are not incentivized to quote higher and develop slower, simply to give something free and reusable back to the broader community and undercutting their own business in the process.

The Big Aid system embraced open source with expectations shaped by the fallacies mentioned above. Lacking the software dev experience, funders and practitioners didn’t understand that while helpful, open source alone is not sufficient to achieve the supposed benefits. They become part of a larger structure involved in software product development, without having the necessary experience to understand the implications.

Private companies and individual contractors emerged that could perform the necessary work, and there was enough funding at play to create a pseudo-marketplace with for-profit software product development exclusively for international development as an end user. Unfortunately, market incentives weren’t aligned with good product development, but rather with unadapted models used by the bureaucracies of international development organizations, originally intended for physical goods and constructions. Funding was awarded for good proposal-writing, and continued work would only be granted to those that could continue to prove their necessity as old projects waned and new projects waxed. Traditional corporate sustainability in a project-oriented funding environment offers disincentives to open-sourcing, or even writing re-usable, turnkey products.

To be clear, the root cause is within blame rests squarely on the Big Aid system, not the for-profit organizations. Inside Big Aid, terms like “turnkey” and “enterprise-level” are only just now slowly making their way into the vocabulary, while phrases like “my custom SMS project for rural farmers in Malawi” are taking too long to make their way out. Private companies respond most easily to the market incentives being offered. The result is a market where few products have endured, none of which are realizing their full potential; a graveyard full of failed pilot products (or products where the principal funder lost interest) abound; and an unacceptable number of frustrated practitioners and developers.

Is there a better model?

At the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), we believe that an ecosystem with mature open source products, co-funded by multiple organizations, and contributed to by multiple software developer organizations is the key to delivering both the “sustainable” and “open source” Principles and addressing the challenges of both practitioners and engineers alike.

This approach isn’t a proven solution in the T4D sector yet. But it also hasn’t been tested.

We need opinionated engineers that don’t succumb to analysis paralysis or kicking-the-can design techniques—creating complicated customizability and modularity, rather than picking one simple and cohesive product vision. We need to avoid over-applying the lessons learned from “by devs, for devs” open source products such as Apache HTTP Server, Django, PostgreSQL, etc. In such products, the vision of contributors and users is strongly coupled because both roles are often the same people. We must also find ways to reconcile the traditional “single product owner” role with a multi-stakeholder environment, and exploring new ways to bring users to the center of an ongoing conversation and collaboration with a product’s contributors.

This is also a chicken and egg problem. It’s hard to have a robust many-to-many relationship between funders and contributors without enough mature open source products around which to build these communities. We hope to help solve this at DIAL, and we’ll be making some exciting announcements next week about our new DIAL Open Source Center, its vision of how to effect change, and how you fit in. We’ll also be continuing this conversation in public over the coming months to improve the open source T4D ecosystem. Stay tuned!

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

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