GuideStar International's Blog

November 17, 2010

IT in the NGO sector: Still not making IT count

Filed under: Access to information,civil society,ICT for Development — guidestarinternational @ 09:28
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By Bernard Nikaj

This post is cross-posted from the NetSquared Community Blog – you can read the original post and any comments here

Following my initial post, this time I will try to bring to you what I have found out in the last couple of weeks about information technology usage and support patterns by the non-governmental organizations in Kosovo. I started off by picking a sample of NGOs from the TechSoup and RBF technology donations beneficiaries list. Most of these organizations are leaders in their field of work and have been around for a considerable amount of time. As such I expected that they would be quite proficient, if not innovative, in the use of information technology. Nevertheless, I found a rather diverse picture.

Most of the organizations I met are at the very infancy of information technology usage. They all have computers and are connected to the Internet, but very few of them have the knowledge to use IT as a driver for reaching their objectives. Most organizations use basic office packages (MS Word and Excel) and e-mail. They all have websites, which are mostly used to publish reports and other publications and in rare occasions to communicate with their audience.

The situation is more balanced when it comes to the usage of social media tools, especially Facebook. All of the organizations I met indicated, enthusiastically I must say, that they are using Facebook heavily both to promote their work and to stay in touch with their audience. Usage of blogs and Twitter is much more limited. While some organizations have indicated that they have had attempts in the past to operationalize blogs as part of their efforts to enable greater scale of transparency and participation, other are in the initial phases of planning to implement blogging solutions in the future.

There are, however, notable exceptions that prove the rule. I have met with organizations that can be a case study of strategic use of information technology. In these cases technology is the real enabler of their operations. They use it to power their internal operations, to communicate and promote their work, but also to crowd source a part of their information gathering. I was really impressed by some of these people.

This brings me to the second issue I want to talk about, the issue of what drives the development (or not) of the information technology in these organizations?

A common denominator in all of these organizations is that most of the technological change is driven by internal forces. There are limited cases when a website or a specific thing has been driven by a donor funded initiative, but in majority of cases it’s the individuals within the organizations that serve as IT help desk, computer programmers, website developers and so on. Very few of these organizations have established support or consultancy links to the IT industry. The reasons for these are various. Lack of information on the side of the NGO or the high price of the services provided by mainstream IT providers are among the top reasons. Even with website development, when not done in house, most of the NGOs deal with small boutique web design companies. As such the information technology usage in these organizations is highly vulnerable to turnover in staff. Furthermore, any further development is conditional on the knowledge and information possessed by internal staff members and cannot benefit from wider expertise in the field.

One finding that was surprising to me is the fact that there is very little communication and experience sharing between NGOs themselves. It is expected that most of these organizations, over time, would form the so-called communities of practice and would share experiences and good practices not only in using IT, but also in other areas of their work. It looks like there is still a lot to be achieved in this direction.

To summarize:

  • IT usage by NGOs is still in its infancy. “We have computers”- as one of my interviewees put it.
  • Social media is picking up as the main driver of technological change.
  • Use and development of IT highly dependent on internal capacities.
  • Knowledge and experience sharing, internally and externally, could prove beneficial.

Finally, I would like to close by noting that NGOs form just one part of the puzzle. The other part is the IT sector in Kosovo, about which I will write in my next post.

This post is part of a series exploring social innovation in Central and Eastern Europe. We hope you’ll follow the series, ask questions, and share your experiences! To view all posts in the series, follow the tag cee-innovation

October 7, 2010

PDF Conference discusses Open Data and Social Media in Europe

Filed under: Access to information,Accountability,ICT for Development,Transparency — guidestarinternational @ 12:20
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By Caroline Neligan, Director Partnerships and Development, GuideStar International, TechSoup Global

The Personal Democracy Forum came to Europe on 4-5 October 2010 to learn more about Open Data and Social Media activities in the region and to bring together activists in the space to meet and exchange ideas. Some overarching questions asked in this conference were:

  • Is there a transparency movement?
  • Are there common threads?
  • Is it changing people’s lives?

My answer would be yes, yes, not yet – or at least, not fundamentally.

As you would expect from such an event, there was a rich conversation with lots of perspectives and so I won’t attempt here to distil this into a short report. But I think it is worth providing some overview and reactions to the key themes of open data and social media and the potential that exists to fundamentally change the way that citizens and government engage with one another.

In essence, people need to see that participation in e-government/governance makes a difference to their lives. But, there seemed to be more discussion of ‘impact’ in terms of how many people ‘like’ a ‘cause’ or made up a network.  But is this really impact? What was largely lacking was evidence of how social media platforms actually enable policy or legislative change.

However, this gap is not stressed with the intention of diminishing the event – the event was full of motivated, passionate people doing exciting work, rather that we are at the beginning of the journey that has lots of potential to be game changing but that is still in its early days.

I wasn’t aware of a delegates list (a pity) but of the 100 or so people in attendance, it seemed the majority were European activists with a policy/technology bent. There was some government representation; the UK Foreign Office, a representative for the German Christian Democrats, Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic MP as well as some participation from the European Union (although I’m not sure in what capacity).

Here is a link to the full agenda and speakers. I attended break out groups on Open Data/Open Government, Crisis Response and Transparency and Open Information in the US and Western Europe.

As is always the case in a regional gathering such as this, the differences between countries were as striking as the similarities. Marko Rakar from Croatia was one of the most powerful speakers of the event; his campaign for government transparency has left him a marked man by the government. He spoke with a mix of humility, humour and conviction that makes our complaints about government attitudes to transparency in other countries pale in comparison.

In this mix of contexts where government attitudes to open data range from inept, to inadequate, to obstructive and threatening (threatened?), Hakon Wium Lie observed that open data is in its infancy but he was emphatic that the laws that our countries are built upon is fundamental and that access to government data – that as tax payers we have already paid for – is a democratic and legal right. People need to be able to be able to access, understand and translate the data that is made available to make it useful to particular constituencies.

Building on this theme, Paul Johnston from Cisco stressed that we need to change the ‘black box’ of policy making and focus first and foremost on transparency before trying to secure participation. He also suggested that we shouldn’t expect large social platforms that are successful in generating large crowds to necessarily translate that success into policy or legislative change. Rather we need tools that enable experts, or people close to an issue, to suggest research, best practice or to discuss options for policy making.

This doesn’t mean that the general public will be locked out of the debate, rather we need to get ‘more mature about mass participation’.  It is up to those in and outside the government (and I think you can extend this to any institution which wields power or controls resources) to ensure people are engaging at a suitable level to ensure their input has maximum value.

He gave the example of the You Choose website, which engages citizens in the budgeting process and, because they provide a range of options and spending priorities, it encourages deliberation and an understanding of the trade-offs involved, therefore taking citizens beyond a single issue area.

In one of the final presentations of the day, Hakon Wium Lie compared the Web to the printing press in terms of its transformative effect on society and predicted that it will be around in 500 years time. But, he asked, who else will be around? Facebook? Twitter? Probably not. So he stressed the need for open data standards and transparency as a priority for activists in this area. This instead of putting pressure on politicians and other leaders to be present on today’s hot social platforms because if they go down, they will take a lot of data with them.

June 25, 2010

#Foundation Week Summary from a Netizen’s Perspective

Filed under: Uncategorized — guidestarinternational @ 14:14
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Have a look at this post on the TechSoup Blog by Layal Rabat who gives an overview her perception of events as they unfolded during EFC Foundation Week.  It helps to illustrate how the internet has made it much easier to follow events through social media such as Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook. Read more on the TechSoup Blog …

June 7, 2010

Unintended consequences

Filed under: ICT for Development,Philanthropy — guidestarinternational @ 09:10
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This post comes from Daniel Ben-Horin (Founder and Co-CEO, TechSoup Global). Originally published on the Alliance Magazine Blog.

Daniel Ben-Horin (Founder, Co-CEO, TechSoup Global)

What a rich conference this has been. I had a lot of fun organizing my “punch at your own weight” thoughts on social media and philanthropy for a Wednesday panel and was immensely gratified at the response received. I’ll be writing up my remarks and offering a link to them.

For now, though, I would like to point you all at http://blog.guidestarinternational.org where I think you will find an intriguing example of how social media is not a tool but a dynamic process with all kinds of unintended and often wonderful consequences. This link takes you to the blog of Guidestar International with whom my own organization, TechSoup Global, has very recently combined.

The content I am pointing you at is our various combined staff’s summaries of many great sessions from the week (with more to come, so watch that space.) We asked our reporters to talk about the session and also to add their thoughts about implications for our combined organization.

So the first point I’d make is that “content is (still) king”. I mean: you can use every widget and tool imaginable but if what you have to say is rubbish, it doesn’t matter. And  we did get some great and very new ideas about what we should do as an organization.So please enjoy. Comment. Be in conversation with us.

And speaking of unintended consequences, a big shoutout to Anna Piotrovskaya E.D. Of The Dmitry Zimin <<Dynasty>> Foundation who has promised to introduce me to one of my literary idols, Boris Akunin, if I can get myself to Moscow, which I will. I mention this because this is the kind of accidental conversation you only have when you meet someone in person, preferably with a glass of wine in your hand, which reminds me that we should never get so infatuated with online tools that we don’t take the trouble to meet each other face to face.

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