Fads and Trends: How NGOs Can Know What Tech Trends to Ignore

Global Integrity
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(This blog post was crossposted over at the Transparency and Accountability Technology Project.)

More than once have I walked into a ‘telecenter’ in an Indian village only to discover that it was not much more than a nearly empty room, with one or more computers that might or might not be functional. It didn’t matter if it was intended to be a space where farmers or fishermen could access market prices or where youth could access e-learning modules. Many times the space just didn’t work for anyone, full stop.

As a tool in the development toolkit, telecenters are old news to many in the industry. They might also be a red herring not worth pursuing in many contexts. For every broken telecenter I’ve seen, there’s a telecenter proponent arguing that we shouldn’t avoid telecenters altogether, but to do them right. Thus is born the ‘Kiosk’ or ‘Common Service Center.’ Do they work any better than the broken telecenter? Who knows. But the idea is sticky, and people keep making attempts to get telecenters right.

Given the limited resources available to transparency and accountability practitioners, making smart choices about which tech trends (Mobile, Mapping, Social Media, Video etc.) to follow and which to ignore is more important than ever. Doing that may not be as hard as you think. Below is some common sense advice for vetting whether the newest shiniest thing on the tech block might (or might not) be appropriate to transparency and accountability initiatives.

TIPS FOR VETTING

TIP #1: ASSESS USER NEEDS (INCLUDING YOUR OWN!)

Not every Delhite would benefit from a social media application to report an overflowing neighborhood dumpster. On the other hand, a Londoner might find tweeting about a pothole on his street the easiest and quickest way to get it fixed. Similarly, a Thai villager living in a remote hill area might benefit from a local telecenter for filing requisite health paperwork, while a Bankokian would prefer to file their health forms online from their office. Understand the barriers facing your target users and only then will you be able to determine which tech trend to follow.

TIP #2: CONTEXT MATTERS

Ishki is a web platform designed to crowdsource citizen complaints about public service providers in Jordan. Jordanians were able to log complaints via an easy-to-use website. Ishki was developed on top of the now-famous Usahidi crisis reporting platform, arguably the flashiest, shiniest “new new” tech toy to hit the T&A world in the past few years. We’ve seen big-name open government practitioners put up Powerpoint slides touting Ishki as an example of how good open source tech (Ushahidi) can travel fast.

The problem? Dig a little deeper (as we and Global Voices did in this research project) and you’ll discover that Ishki only has a few users to-date because of Jordanian Internet users’ fears that authorities will track their IP addresses. Not all tech travels well, it turns out.

TIP #3: CONSIDER COST

Tech trends are changing so rapidly that the “hot” solution one day may be obsolete the next. We have watched it happen time and time again. How’s your mySpace page doing?

If nothing else, transparency and accountability practitioners need to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of adopting the “new new” thing. If the cost of adoption is steep and potentially locks the organization into a platform from which it will be difficult to migrate, taking a pass may be the wisest decision.

– Nicole Anand

— Image from Brajeshwar Oinam on Flickr

Global Integrity
Global Integrity

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