We are actively engaged in the dialogue and debates of our space: on issues of social justice, global development, and democratic innovation, and on the ethics and methodological evolution of design, mediation, and co-creation practice. More of our writing can be found at Medium.

Introducing Design With: A Reboot Podcast Series

“Put smart, diverse people into a room together and magic will happen.”

This is the great myth of collaboration. And yet as designers, facilitators, and conveners who engage diverse actors to solve complex social issues, we have witnessed many co-creation exercises fall into this trap. So, how do we turn this around? How can we lead collaborative efforts where the “magic” is intentionally designed for, and not just hoped for?

The Design With podcast series was created to help us explore these questions head on. Together with some of the leading dreamers and doers who have inspired our own work, we dive into groundbreaking case studies of thoughtful, transformative collaborations that build connection and shift power. We explore the in’s and out’s of coalition-building, and discuss the theory and practice of how communities, civil society, and institutions can creatively problem-solve together.Read more

Driving Transformative Collaboration: A Reboot Masterclass Series

Now more than ever, governments, civil society, companies, and communities are being called upon to find new ways of working together to tackle the problems facing our world. But the uncertainties and anxieties surrounding COVID-19 have compounded the inherent challenges of cross-sector collaboration.

The difficult work of building trust among new collaborators, defining a shared agenda from diverse perspectives, and coordinating efforts between vastly different types of players—from the hyperlocal, grassroots groups to distributed, international agencies—can seem even more challenging today. And yet, it is also more necessary than ever.

While the urgency of the pandemic might lead us to scramble for quick-fixes and blanket solutions, the real opportunity lies in the balance between responding effectively to the pressing challenges of today, and laying the foundation for more just, equitable societies into the future.

COVID-19 demands that we build diverse coalitions to advance effective response efforts. These efforts must draw on the radical imaginations of our artists, the moral courage of our activists, the innovation of community organizers, the agenda-setting influence of our media, the values of our civil society leaders, the infrastructure of the private sector, and the reach of our public institutions.

To support those working to build and lead transformative collaborations, Reboot is offering a three-part masterclass on:

  • How to identify and engage the right collaborators, and set efforts up for success (Part I)
  • How to align on a common agenda, and manage differing interests and priorities (Part II)
  • How to drive a diverse group towards action, including managing tensions and disagreements (Part III)

Reboot has designed and facilitated radical collaborations in over 40 countries. We have supported diverse communities to stand up new global initiatives to advance participatory democracy, protect human rights defenders, strengthen independent media, and ensure government accountability.

We are excited to share our approaches and practical, time-tested tips on how to create strong, effective coalitions—including actors that may be historical opponents—to tackle urgent problems together.

Join the Conversation

Below we have shared the full recordings and slide decks from each of the Masterclass sessions. We hope you find these to be a useful resource and share with allies and colleagues who are interested in leading effective collaborations and co-creation efforts. Don’t forget to join the conversation online by using the hashtag #RadicalCollab and tagging @theReboot on Twitter!

Designing Collaborations for Urgent, Courageous Change

Session #1 Slide Deck Presentation

Aligning on Priorities When Everything is Important

Session #2 Slide Deck Presentation

Steering Diverse Partners Toward Action

Session #3 Slide Deck Presentation

Get Inspired

Throughout the series we referenced some of the projects and people who have inspired us and informed our own vision for social transformation.

“The Pandemic is a Portal” by Arundhati Roy

Report to the City by Monument Lab

Antionette Carroll of Creative Reaction Lab

Adam Kahane of Reos Partners 

A Call for Radical Transformation

The following is a letter from Executive Director Panthea Lee, shared with the Reboot community this month in response to the COVID-19 crisis around the world. It has been edited and adapted for this blog.

Dear friends,

You don’t need me to tell you that these are extraordinary times. In fact, extraordinary feels like a wholly inadequate word for this moment; “extra-ordinary” is a vast understatement. 

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the deep injustices and failures of our dominant ideologies, systems, and institutions. These failures have driven many of us to feelings of rage, despair, anxiety, overwhelm, and guilt. 

In recent conversations with Reboot’s allies near and far, many of us are asking ourselves: What could we have done differently? What is our role now? How do we build a more just and resilient future? And I’ve noticed that most of us aren’t satisfied working solely on immediate response and recovery. We want moral and structural transformation at scale. 

For this, we need to marry the radical imaginations of our poets and artists, the principled courage of our bravest activists, the innovation and generosity of our community organizers, the agenda-setting influence of our media and civil society, the infrastructure and tools of our digital age, and the reach and durability of our public institutions. 

Our team has found immense hope as we work alongside our community toward this future we know is possible. We’ve benefited deeply from your insights. So today I write to share back some offerings to support your thinking and work—and to extend an invitation. 

Thank you for all that you do.

In solidarity,

Panthea and the Reboot team

Resources & Reflections

How we can rise to do the work this crisis demands of us.


  1. A New Masterclass on Cross-Sector Collaboration: We’re offering a free three-part series with  practical guidance on how to drive transformative cross-sector collaborations, drawing on Reboot’s decade of global experience. Runs Wednesdays April 22 – May 6.
  2. Reflections on Our Collective Work Ahead: This crisis has pushed me hard into organizer, ethnographer, and designer mode. What I’ve learned has convinced me that we urgently need radical collaborations to respond to COVID-19—institutional reservations be damned
  3. Tips for Running Virtual Co-Creation Processes: As we take our work online, master designer Corey Chao shares the benefits of taking co-creation out of physical space and into virtual gatherings. As great as the “hallway track” is, you can make so much more progress without it.

Nourishment & Provocations 

Nuggets of wisdom and inspiration that have informed our thinking.


  1. Movement Building in the Time of Coronavirus” from Rising Majority: A teach-in with Angela Davis, Naomi Klein, and US progressive movement leaders that is honestly hard to summarize, but absolutely worth one hour of your time.
  2. “The Pandemic is a Portal”, by Arundhati Roy: “We can choose to walk through it dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred…Or we can walk through lightly, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
  3. “Not Fit for this Future”, by Aarathi Krishnan: The humanitarian futurist on why international agencies must challenge assumptions about their own accountability if they are to fulfill their stated mandates, both now and after the pandemic. 

An Invitation

It’s undeniable: We need to reimagine a radically better future. To do this, we need a space for courageous co-creation between unlikely allies. Many of you agree, and we’re ready to build this new space together.

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Image: Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash

How to Respond to a Pandemic When Our Institutions Can’t

“I’d like some food, please,” says the soft voice on the other end of the line.

“Yes, of course. What would you like?” I ask.

“Food.” Pause. “Any food. We eat everything,” she says. I hear a twinge of a Caribbean accent.

“Yes, we’d be happy to deliver food! What do you like to eat? We want to make sure to get things you enjoy.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Rice, cans, pasta… really, any food.”

“What about some fresh vegetables?” I offer. “Or some protein—maybe some meat?”.

There’s a long pause on the line. For a minute, I thought I had lost the connection.

“Fresh vegetables?” comes the voice. “Meat? You… you can do that?” Each word is quiet, slow, cautious.

My eyes well up. “We would absolutely love to.”

10 minutes later, I had taken down Geraldine’s information (not her real name). She was 72, and lived about six blocks from me, in a public housing complex, with her husband who was recovering from a recent stroke. I explained to her that her grocery list—which we’d filled with chicken thighs, broccoli, collard greens, apples, bananas, eggs, and honeybuns, in addition to pantry staples—would be delivered the following day by a young volunteer, also a fellow neighbor.

Geraldine couldn’t believe that I wasn’t with any organization or government. Or that she wouldn’t have to pay for her groceries.

Honestly, I could hardly believe it either.

mural 2

Image Credit: William Newton

We Are #BedStuyStrong

I’m just one of 2,600 members of Bed-Stuy Strong, a 3.5 week old mutual aid group serving the central Brooklyn neighborhood made famous by Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. Home to tree-lined streets, beautiful brownstones, and many locally-owned shops, Bed-Stuy residents include a mix of families that have lived here for decades and recent gentrifiers such as myself. Before COVID-19, about 1 in 4 residents lived in poverty, and about 1 in 8 were unemployed.

Since launching, Bed-Stuy Strong has bought and delivered critical groceries and household supplies to over 1,000 neighbors. We’ve sourced and made over 600 masks for healthcare workers. We’ve made more than 400 phone calls to check in with vulnerable members of our community. Almost everyone I’ve served has been elderly, immunocompromised, or fearful—and usually all three.

The group was started by concerned residents in the neighborhood who knew that COVID-19 was hitting Bed-Stuy hard and wanted to help alleviate human suffering. Within days, volunteers (most of whom were strangers to each other) had posted flyers all over the neighborhood to offer support, set up a Google Voice line to take incoming requests, and begun supporting our neighbors in need.

To date, we’ve raised over $40,000 for our Community Fund from nearly 800 individuals, collected through a Venmo account. We coordinate via a Slack workspace which, in addition to coordinating food deliveries, also helps neighbors connect to legal aid, rally around struggling local businesses, and feel less despondent through cooking classes and photos of each other’s pets. We process all the requests for help (over 2,000 and counting) via Zoom volunteer trainings, Google Doc scripts, Airtable case management systems, and a fleet of kindred spirits volunteering by foot, bike, and car to help our neighbors. There was never a plan, people just started jumping in to do what they can, where they can. We’re figuring it out day by day.

The Myth of Professional vs “Amateur” Changemakers

As someone who’s worked largely globally over the last 15 years, the last 15 days—with Bed-Stuy Strong, and other grassroots efforts—have been hugely instructive for me. It reminds me of the work of anthropologist David Mosse on international development practitioners. He’s observed that these “professional changemakers” are an interesting lot. Most are diligent in keeping up with the latest conceptual frameworks for How Change Happens, and have an uncanny ability to put together long strings of obscure airport codes for optimizing travel. Most are motivated by Doing The Most Good, but as our careers progress, how we do so becomes more and more abstract. And the seductiveness of Change At Scale means many increasingly disengage from their local communities.

In coordinating with “professional changemakers” in the US and beyond on responses to COVID-19—non-profits, governments, researchers, advocacy groups, foundations, tech companies, and international agencies—I’ve found our conversations thoughtful, full of good ideas, but often inconclusive. They usually end with an agreement to follow-up the coming week, once we “get a better understanding of the situation.”

As time progresses and the pandemic continues to unfold, this has become increasingly less satisfying. I’ve felt growing anxiety, anger, and even shame—the dynamics of these emotions are so eloquently captured by Aarathi Krishnan. And I can’t help comparing my daytime experience at work to my nights-and-weekends experience with Bed-Stuy Strong. As an ethnographer with a foot in both worlds, I’ve tried to make sense of the different orientations and norms in each:


I know the two sides come from very different perspectives, and friends and colleagues in institutions want to move faster and work with new partners whose skills are needed for effective response—but there are very real constraints they face in doing so. Institutions have policies and norms in place to coordinate with other players with overlapping mandates; to ensure equity and sustainability in their responses; and to prevent waste, fraud, abuse, and outright corruption. They have to think through how to make that work and that takes more time than a neighbor-to-neighbor response. I get that.

And yet, as each day passes, I can’t help but feel that many of us professional changemakers are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

What Institutions Can Learn from Communities

I’m increasingly convinced that the professionals need to learn from the “amateurs”—though, in all honesty, this crisis is revealing those distinctions as false. Some lessons we’d do well to take away:

1. Adopt a bias towards action.

As social change strategist Dave Algoso has noted, we are in the Chaos quadrant of the Cynefin framework, a framework that combines systems theory and complexity theory to articulate how we might take decisions under different circumstances. Per the framework, in times of Chaos, we need to i) act quickly to establish order; ii) sense where stability is emerging (and where it is missing) and what responses have worked; then iii) respond based on the sensing work. Doing reams of analysis to try and get to the right answer won’t help—because there is no right answer.

This is what I’ve seen with my mutual aid group. The organizers started fast and small (with flyers, phone calls), then built more infrastructure based on what was needed—including an impressive case management system that rivals some national-level social implementations I’ve seen. Now that we have an impressive community and protocols in place, we’re figuring out how to strengthen and sustain our operations.

2. Identify concrete problems in your field, and get to it.

Many of us are overwhelmed. The headlines dominate our consciousness. We’re grappling with collective grief as we try to organize and act. Most of us are not epidemiologists or economists—and even if we were, it’s an open question if expert guidance would be heeded now. And so we feel powerless: if we can’t tackle the biggest problems, then what can we do?

But COVID-19 is disrupting every aspect of society, and there is tons to do. We all have a role to play—and we must think beyond the headlines. We are professional re-imaginers, fighters, designers, and organizers and there is a lot of reimagining, fighting, designing, and organizing to do right now.

We need to take space to process and we need to act—particularly for more vulnerable populations and regions that don’t have the privilege of processing and grieving. My team has started an issues tracker to help us track challenges emerging in the wake of COVID-19—from hate crimes to authoritarian overreach to digital surveillance—and for each conversation with partners despondent about the headlines, we remind them that our collective work is as urgent as ever. Responses will only center equity, justice, and accountability if we rally to make it so.

3. Harness civil society and “amateur” energy to respond in the present—and to reimagine the future.

Many professional changemakers are trying to work out how to do things on their own—and then going outside to ask for help. But this assumes that institutions know what the answer is, and that folks outside are simply there to help execute. This is wrong.

The volunteers in my mutual aid group alone are incredible writers, producers, civic leaders, technologists, and researchers. My WhatsApp is blowing up with self-organizing networks of well-respected, well-networked individuals (generally with backgrounds in data science, design, technology, organizing, civic innovation) looking for ways to collaborate with worthy institutional efforts. Tapping into these can be transformative for response efforts, since these networks can mobilize top-tier talent and resources—but they won’t do so unless there are clear, scalable paths for their efforts to deliver impact.

Institutions must reach out and ask for help—problem-solving together will be messy, but it will be worth it.

4. Set up infrastructure for community support.

As ethnographer and organizer Tricia Wang has noted, hyperlocal community support groups were critical for the success of China’s response to COVID-19. While Western media has focused on the country’s top-down model of slowing infections, her research found “totally invisible, yet highly sophisticated networks of localized cooperation” via emergent, hyperlocal groups that contributed to a successful recovery. (For those interested in setting up groups, she has step-by-step instructions here.)

This model needs to be replicated and scaled, and doing so is especially urgent for developing countries and other regions where public health infrastructure is poor or already strained, and/or where digital infrastructure or access is limited.

We’re talking with tech partners to determine how this can inform contributions to mitigation and response especially in low-bandwidth environments. But we need to move rapidly to share the tools, templates, resources, and lessons, because the support needed to get each other through this will be beyond the scale of what governments, non-profits, and community organizations can do.

5. Do what’s right, right now—even without a sustainability plan.

As someone who helps develop long-term strategies, this one is hard for me to say, but: we need to act now, and figure out the sustainability plan later. The world is changing dramatically day-by-day, and we don’t know what the coming months will hold. We must do what is right, and we must do it right now.

I get that many of us are trying to balance short- and long-term work, and are waiting to see how things shake out. And while I hope I’m proven wrong on this, I don’t believe there will be a point where The Thing To Do becomes clear.

With Bed-Stuy Strong, I’ve been asking neighbors if they want vegetables, fruit, and even dessert—because a hit of joy via cupcakes now feels essential, “value for money” be damned. I’ve resisted overthinking (for now) what it means for a mutual aid group with majority white volunteers to be working in a neighborhood where 49% of residents are black, as are nearly 100% of those I’ve been able to support; there will be time to analyze this later.

We need to stop thinking ourselves into circles, remember what we’re best at, and get moving. If we meet critical needs, the sustainability will come.

All Hands On Deck. Doers to the Front!

Big institutions must learn from community efforts, but they will never be as nimble and agile as neighbor-to-neighbor efforts—and that’s not what I’m suggesting. Conversely, mutual aid efforts can’t deliver the sustainability of programs and funding that institutions can—nor are they as well-equipped to implement measures to ensure efforts are as inclusive, equitable, and efficient as they could be (though we sure do try!). Neither can do what the other can do, and both play vital roles in the response ecosystem.

The question now is how they might work together to drive compassionate, urgent responses that are nimble and sustainable, creative and holistic.

It won’t be easy. Each side is skeptical of the other. I’ve heard smart, effective institutional leaders—who are understandably stressed and overwhelmed—dismiss grassroots efforts as ”amateur hour” and “techno-solutionism”. Among my activist and mutual aid circles, most seem to more or less agree with Ronald Reagan’s assertion that “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

I understand the skepticism. I’ve been burned too, on both sides. But I also believe that we need to push through it. We can’t do this alone.

Co-Design, Online: Tips for Adapting to Our New, Virtual Reality

As offices shift to remote work, organizations around the world are getting a crash course in virtual collaboration. This adaptation hasn’t been seamless, but it has happened quickly and out of necessity. And as these habits become refined, there is another process that will be critical to take online: co-design. Creating policies, programs, and services directly with those who will deliver or use them is as important now as ever—and in many ways, doing it online can make it better. So, beyond ensuring strong internet connection and keeping your video turned on, here are a few important (but far less discussed) co-design principles to make the most of the medium.

1. Plan Beyond a Single Touchpoint

Co-design is commonly attempted over a single, multi-day workshop. But this is not a great way to design together: networking can overshadow the main objectives; time pressures push participants to think quickly rather than deeply; and the emphasis on in-person ideation leaves the less-glamorous work of testing and refining solutions underfunded. Lucky for us, a three-day-long Zoom workshop is out of the question, and there is no choice but to plan beyond a single convening. Here are a few ideas for how to do that:

Spread the process out over time.

Divide your co-design process into a dozen one- or two-hour meetings, and spread those out over time. Decide on pacing at the beginning, and don’t default to a weekly format. There are advantages to meeting more frequently (which maintains the momentum and enthusiasm of building something together) and meeting less frequently (which gives facilitators more room to synthesize in between sessions and attendees time to manage their competing responsibilities), so the pace should change over the course of a project. Meeting every day or two at the start helps participants quickly align on challenges and opportunities to define initial solutions together. Once everyone is on the same page, organize less frequent gatherings with more time in the interim for independent homework.

Use the time in between.

This new rhythm requires more attention—albeit at a slower pace—from the facilitator, who must synthesize emerging ideas and assign participants follow-up tasks every meeting to make the most of the next touchpoint. Convening virtually means that attendees will have more opportunities to test ideas or assumptions with colleagues in the natural flow of their work days. Getting participants to do a bit of research against the Open Questions Wall Doc saves time in-session for them to share back the progress they’ve made. Keep this concise by giving participants a formula they can fill in ahead of meetings.

Embrace an ambiguous end-point.

Distributed in this way, the “end” of co-design becomes as much about momentum as milestones. Let ideation conversations grow into planning for prototyping or implementation. This bridge is one of the most difficult to make at in-person convenings, but one of the most important for maintaining the intention of co-design.

2. Lean into the Medium

Digital and in-person gatherings have different limits, possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages. If you try to follow the same rulebook online as you would for in-person co-design, you’re risking a loss of connection with your collaborators and missing an opportunity to do what isn’t possible in person. For example, half-hour presentations may work well in a room together, where there are fewer things competing for attention, but online, non-interactive presentations can lose people quickly. People are less prepared to actively participate, and with online distractions a click away there is ample opportunity to zone out. Instead of simply converting your agenda to its virtual version, change it up and lean into the strengths of the medium.

Pick a platform—or platforms—that let you do more than talk.

One way to hold engaging sessions is to look for tools to make discussions more interactive. This might mean training up on how to host Zoom breakout groups, or investing in a more dynamic video hosting platform like Maestro or QiQo. Still, the video interface is only half the cocktail: be intentional about how participants can share their opinions asynchronously and nonverbally. Use an online program that lets people upvote, propose ideas, or organize data together. We repurpose Google Sheets and Docs all the time—for everything from ice-breakers to collaborative implementation planning. Simple tools like Tricider are not expensive and easy to use; complex software like Mural lets you do more but takes time to set-up. There are many great options out there, and more every day (for a detailed list of engagement tech ideas, check out this compilation from Civic Hall). Prioritize something that matches your technical comfort and is easy for attendees to use.

Allow for offline work, but ask participants to share updates digitally.

Making the most of the digital format means getting explicitly clear about what should happen offline, before and after a meeting. Give participants homework, and let them know it’s coming ahead of time. Provide a template for participants to succinctly capture new ideas or questions they might have in between sessions into a format that is easy for others to review. This could be as simple as asking participants to write three sentences of reflection in a shared document; or it could be more dynamic—asking people to film a walking tour or record an audio segment, for example. If you can, make room to do some of this work entirely offline, and give people a little time to recover from inevitable screentime fatigue.

3. Participant Experience Matters (Even More than Usual)

Despite the power of technology to bring together voices from around the world, our lives are not in lock-step: participants are dialing in from different time-zones, from different moments in their days, different hours since their last meal. This misalignment can seem peripheral, but being attuned to participant experience can make or break a successful collaboration.

Use your own experience as a starting point.

We all know the experience of interacting with others through a screen is dramatically different than the experience in-person, in ways both obvious and subtle. Be attuned to these realities and design for them. Use your own experience as a starting point: what is the longest you can stay engaged and productive in a virtual meeting? How many participants yield the greatest level of participation? How do you share agendas? Notes? Action items? What sorts of recurring technical issues will you need to troubleshoot?

Incorporate participant experience into logistical decisions.

One of the best ways to improve participant experience is—I’ll say it again!—planning for shorter, more frequent sessions. Getting creative with full plenary sessions, small group breakouts, and partner conversations is even more important over digital platforms. Consider how to divide teams by topic, but also by logistics: Who is in the same time-zone? Which participants are more tech-savvy? Who seems more comfortable speaking on-camera and who needs more space to formulate their thoughts? Planning for interpersonal realities like these is a basic rule of good facilitation, whether in-person or online.

Set expectations from the beginning.

Facilitators are constantly reacting to emerging group dynamics, shifting agendas and encouraging participation in different ways. Online, they lack the same ability to read the room. Set ground rules as a group upfront to enable good facilitation—agreeing to keep cameras on and mute microphones unless speaking is a good start—and set expectations about participation and prep-time to help attendees plan their work and come prepared. Acknowledge the new dynamics a virtual platform introduces, be clear about how you want people to engage in-session, and ask for feedback so you can adapt.

In these times of uncertainty, people are doing the hard work that needs to get done, remaining inventive in the face of uncommon constraints. This is an opportunity for organizations to invest in deeper, more thoughtful co-design processes, not to defer them until the world recovers. In our virtual co-design series, we share from our experience—as co-design organizers, and as an agile, distributed team—general principles for doing this work, and a model for how you might structure a virtual co-design process in the shadow of quarantine.

Image: Adapted illustration from Pablo Stanley. Used with a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Co-Design, Online: How Quarantine Can Lead Us to a Better Collaborative Process

With the rapid spread of COVID-19, we are in a period where virtual convenings are necessary. In the past week, we’ve been collecting guides for taking all kinds of important social labor totally online: from working better with a distributed team, to doing social research, to making use of the right digital engagement tools. Co-design—the process of creating policies, programs, and services directly with those that will deliver or use them—must also make that transition. And while we aren’t excited about this (done well, there is no substitute for people coming together!), there is a silver lining: virtual co-design can actually lead to better solutions.

There is a frequent misperception about co-design that can crush its potential: that smart, sustainable ideas can emerge and mature during a single, in-person workshop. But that frequently doesn’t work. At in-person workshops, the networking “hallway track” often overshadows the main objectives; the time pressures don’t give people enough room to do their best work; and waiting to ideate in-person becomes an excuse to not do the prior work to ensure that time is well-used. And there’s often too-little invested in driving forward the solutions generated—partly because ideation crowds out concrete workplanning, and partly because conveners aren’t sure what they can commit to, with ideas coming and going so rapidly.

We’ve seen these dynamics play out in our ten years of facilitating collaborations around messy social problems. We’ve led many large-scale, intensive co-design gatherings—like, 200+ people exercises— to develop bold new solutions. We know what it takes to push a group to connect deeply, to dream big, and to organize for change—and the amazing things we can accomplish when that happens. We’ve done this for highly distributed movements and organizations, from open knowledge enthusiasts (hey, Wikimedia!) to human rights defenders around the world. And our work has been most successful when organizers invest in the longer, less flashy steps following a gathering.

A big part of pulling off a successful virtual gathering is acknowledging the things the format does well, and what is more difficult. For example, we know building community virtually will be tough, especially without the happy hours or opportunities to break bread together. It’s not impossible, but it takes more time and inventiveness (more small group FaceTime? Digital Potlucks? Virtual Dance Parties?). Running lots of breakouts to share information on different topics will also be harder to do, as will giving people organic opportunities to share about their work. Yet, designing together—the underlying purpose of many of our gatherings—may actually be more successful for four reasons:

  1. You aren’t pressured to do everything in a single, compressed meeting.
  1. Participants can take time to process and reflect over multiple days, compare notes with colleagues, and answer open questions with more space in-between meetings.
  1. Ideation can transition into concrete action.
  1. You can reinvest budget for travel and logistics into testing or piloting some of the resulting, co-designed proposals.

As a small, highly-distributed team, much of our work has always been collaborative and remote. We organize daily across our two hubs in Brooklyn and Abuja—but with our many remote staff, consultants, and clients and our frequent team travel, we’ve become experts in remote collaboration. And not just in the daily tasks: we recently completed a three-month process to co-design our new organizational strategy, honing new virtual techniques that have worked remarkably well for us.

In our virtual co-design series, we share from our experience—as co-design organizers, and as an agile, distributed team—general principles for doing this work, and a model for how you might structure a virtual co-design process in the shadow of quarantine.

Image: Adapted illustration from Pablo Stanley. Used with a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Rebuilding a Compassionate Social Contract in the Face of COVID-19

Last night, I spent 2 hours on a call with over 160 activists, organizers, and concerned citizens from across the US coordinating responses around COVID-19. I signed off filled with both hope and anger.

Hope because the discussions reaffirmed that in times of crisis, people will come together to help each other. Anger because in such a wealthy nation, the questions being asked—all some version of: how do we protect the most vulnerable among us?—shouldn’t be worries for ordinary people.

Some folks had just lost their jobs and were still on a 9pm call finding ways to help those even worse off. They wanted to ensure justice for immigrants, support the mentally ill, and protect trans rights. Others wanted to organize their neighbors, farmers, or spiritual leaders.

I was there to coordinate mutual aid in Brooklyn, where I live, and to connect with fellow organizers around larger policy demands. But given the nature of my day job (which of late includes talks with major institutions on how to support response efforts), I suggested we find ways to get our concerns to public and global agencies to inform their work. This was met with hesitation.

Because people know that their governments are broken—and this past week watching the US federal response certainly drove this point home. We don’t trust our institutions to do the right thing. We don’t believe they will ensure protections for the most vulnerable. And so outside of the things we can’t control, such as the strength of our healthcare systems and the stability of our economies, many of us have no choice but to organize the responses we feel are necessary and just, instead of waiting for the government to deliver too little and far too late.

This logic, which drives so many people to act, is both understandable and unacceptable.

A broken social contract

Over the last two weeks, my partner has put up with a lot of my late nights working—and my ranting over 11pm dinners after. We’ve been comparing our experience here in the US with that of Denmark, where he’s from. Danes are acting similarly to New Yorkers right now: lots of anxiety about the future of the world, lots of extreme social distancing. Yet the mood there is very different: there is simply not the same level of stress over everyone’s individual well-being.

There are many reasons for this. But key is that conceptions of the social contract between citizen and state are drastically different between the two countries. There are very different understandings of the contributions that all Danes (whether as private citizens, employees, or business owners) make to the state, and of the assurances that the government then provides in return.

Denmark is consistently ranked among the top 3 happiest countries in the world. The average person pays 45% in taxes—and 9 out of 10 people do so happily. Why? They don’t see it just as paying taxes, but as investing in their collective well-being. They see it as buying individual quality of life. Or as my partner pointed out, they see it as paying for their government to hold their worry for them. So even in times of crisis, no one is worried that they can’t go to the doctor, can’t put food on the table, or won’t be able to keep a roof over their heads.

The fact that in America, we have to fight for these basic human rights is hard for him to grasp. It is hard for him to understand that in times like these, random citizens are connecting with each other over long conference calls to try and find ways to meet their basic survival needs.

It is hard for me to grasp, too. And I’m speaking as someone who works with and in the spaces between communities, activists, governments, and global public institutions.

The infrastructure of government is so broken that concerned citizens are cobbling together plans for our immediate security and future well-being via a collection of Google spreadsheets, Zoom videocalls, and Twitter hashtags. Of course it’s difficult to grasp. Because it is absolutely bonkers.

Hope in the time of crisis

People are losing their jobs and worrying about how they’ll pay rent. Isolated elderly people are suffering from debilitating anxiety and loneliness. Populations that were already vulnerable—those who are  homeless, undocumented, uninsured, working class, in abusive relations, with pre-existing conditions—are rightly terrified about their survival. Families in Italy are attending the funerals of their loved ones by livestream. And none of us have a true sense of how long this will last. So we brace ourselves, exhausted, trying to gather strength and fight.

At the same time, we’re seeing an incredible outpouring of creativity and generosity. There’s been a mushrooming of mutual aid groups, emergency food donations, financial support for wage workers, and solidarity for frontline workers. Our organizing is rapidly translating into life-saving policies and life-affirming actions. We’ve banned evictions, guaranteed access to basic utilities, and opened access to nourishing art. All seemingly overnight. What we were told were intractable problems were not so impossible to solve after all. Many of the reforms were forced by public health necessity. We need to ensure that when and as things “normalize”, our local and global leaders sustain the political courage to institutionalize them.

But first, we’re in the here and now. There’s a lot happening. People are looking for answers, as are our governing bodies. In the conversations I’ve been a part of, it seems like everyone is expecting the answer to come from someone else. But there is no answer yet. This is an unprecedented moment that will require entirely new ways of problem-solving both conceptually and literally (time to buy Zoom stocks!).

A call for radical collaboration

We have the opportunity to imagine, propose, and realize new paradigms for how society functions. We will figure it out together. As we do, here are some things we’re keeping in mind (and reminding others)—we’d love to hear yours, too:

  • We urgently need transformative collaborations.The answers for how we get through this will not come from any one place. We need radical collaboration that transcend traditional models of partnership.
    We need to work with community groups to develop new ways of understanding people’s needs—both the obvious (economic stability) and the less obvious (social isolation). We need to listen to activists to make sure the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors aren’t overlooked. We need radical partnership across government, companies, and researchers to triage and prioritize urgent needs—and to allocate resources to respond. We need to collaborate with distributed mutual aid groups, both as a sensing mechanism and a stopgap when institutional capabilities fall short. We need international agencies to monitor trends, learn rapidly from what’s working and what’s not, and ensure regions that are hit later are as prepared as they can be—particularly in regions where health systems and digital infrastructure are weak.
  • We must center response efforts in equity and justice. COVID-19 will impact different people differently. Already vulnerable populations are at much higher risk. There are huge differences in the expectations, infrastructure, and programs in place to support different populations. We need to rapidly (and creatively) build the capacity to take care of all who need help, not just the healthiest or easiest to serve.
    We need emergency shelters, food security for all, bans on price gouging, protections and hazard pay for frontline workers, accessible and affordable healthcare (even for the uninsured and undocumented), emergency unemployment benefits, emergency assistance for small businesses, moratoriums on evictions / foreclosures / utility shutoffs, safety in prisons, a stop to ICE enforcement, protections against domestic abuse, and far more. To ensure these happen, we need to build broad public momentum around these proposals—and work rapidly with responsible institutions and new allies to make them happen.
  • We should be both obnoxiously demanding and unreasonably kind to each other, across divides of “citizen”, “activist”, and “government”.People are asking hard questions of our institutions—and rightly. Much of the federal government response has been slow, incompetent, or downright dangerous. And so we take to the phones, to petitions, to social media.But many working within institutions are also anxious—and they lack the tools to manage this unprecedented situation. These public servants need our help to figure out what to do. So let’s be demanding, but let’s also be kind and helpful. For civil society groups, this means rolling up our sleeves to dig into the minutiae of policies, resources, and programmatic mechanisms to help them figure out operational roadmaps—and fast.
    We must organize against incompetence to tell our institutions what we won’t settle for. But we also must help them organize for effective response to urgently realize the solutions we need.

These are tense times. It feels like the whole world is holding its collective breath as we see how this pandemic will unfold. How it plays out—and more importantly, how we collectively respond—will define our moment in history, and set the path for how we build a more compassionate, more resilient future.

I don’t know what this looks like, but I do know we can get there together. I’m coordinating with Reboot’s friends and partners both in the US around the world—activists, designers, civil servants, technologists, community groups, academics, movement leaders, policymakers, funders, development agencies—to build a network for radical collaboration around response efforts. We’re looking for new allies and ideas, so please drop me a line if you’d like to join us:

Now let’s get to work.

corey chao buzzwords fuzzwords co-creation co-design

Buzzwords and Fuzzwords Video Series: Co-Creation, Beyond the Workshop

From USAID to The LEGO Group, city governments to private car manufacturers, “co-creation” as an approach to building initiatives and products alongside their eventual users and implementers is generating a lot of buzz.

But at a time when people are using co-creation to mean—well, anything really—how do we make sure we’re not using the term in a way that causes confusion or encourages trendy-but-impractical solutions?

At Reboot we’ve led dozens of co-creation journeys for a wide range of people, including journalists, policymakers, technologists, researchers, and local communities. And so we’ve had ample opportunity to consider, amidst the infinite possible objectives and trajectories, what makes a co-creation journey have integrity? What makes it deliver on the promise that including stakeholders in the design of an initiative will make it better—more effective and more sustainable?

In this episode of our “Buzzwords and Fuzzwords” series, Strategic Designer Corey Chao talks about the “guiding lights” that he uses to design a co-creation process. First, he says, consider who should be in the room, and why. Second, prepare for existing power dynamics. Third, think beyond a single “touchpoint” to the grander arc of the whole co-design process.

Go ahead, give him a listen.

From Fists in the Air to Seats at the Table

Author’s note: This essay has benefited from many conversations with my colleague Chelsey Lepage, who has done extensive thinking on the role of activists during and after political transitions, based on her experiences working directly with human rights activists during a political crackdown in the horn of Africa. 

Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president ousted in 2011, died earlier this week. His passing sparked memories of the Arab Spring in Cairo, when we believed that our protests would lead to a more just social order.

I moved to Cairo from Germany in 2011 to witness the birth of a new Egypt. Following the overthrow of Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for three decades, I wanted to play a small part in making my home country more open, inclusive, and accepting of difference. I wanted to see my fellow Egyptians challenge cronyism and corruption. And I wanted to see our government take care of the people who needed it the most.

Unfortunately, this dream of a new Egypt didn’t last long. We soon found ourselves in the streets again, only weeks after the military took control of the country, to protest for “bread, freedom, social justice,” and a new constitution for all Egyptians. 

I remember distinctly the moment when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces announced that we had been heard, and that there would be a drafting process for a new constitution. We, the protesters, were invited into the room to be a part of the negotiation. And that was where we encountered a huge challenge: we knew how to form alliances and organize protests against injustice, but we were brand new to building consensus at the tables of the powerful. We did not know how to rally around something we would do with—rather than against—those in power. 

Social Movements Form In Opposition

This challenge was not unique to Egypt, nor was the way our movement had formed. From the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia to the Taksim protests in Turkey and the Maidan protests in Ukraine, social upheavals can gain strength suddenly, often around a single violent event, and then go on to challenge deeply entrenched power structures. Precisely what made these movements so powerful was the activists’ willingness to risk life and liberty in their urgent desire to work against—an oppressive regime, discriminatory legislation, a systemic lack of justice—in these early chaotic moments of change.

But in Egypt, as in these other contexts, what came after the big disruption was much less clearly defined than the need for change in the moment. 

What Comes After the Big Disruption

What we hoped for, once activists succeeded in disrupting the status quo, was a non-violent transition to a more just political order. But in many countries, ruling governments have stayed in power by eliminating opposition and harassing leaders of social movements. In practice, this means that the community organizers and political professionals who might run such an orderly transition have been driven underground, or simply don’t exist at all.

In fact in recent years, over one hundred governments—in both democratic and non-democratic states—have introduced legislation restricting the activities of civil society organizations. Regimes deploy formal and informal tactics to disadvantage CSOs, and the number of human rights defenders killed by governments is at a record high across the world.

Political Transitions Amidst Shrinking Civic Space

In an era of shrinking civic space, instead of the orderly political transition we hope for, one or more of the following scenarios usually occur:

  1. Successful leaders of grassroots protest movements blend into the background and political movements take too long to form. Meanwhile, new (often illegitimate and predatory) actors seize power amidst the leadership vacuum. In Egypt, there were a number of such actors, including the Muslim Brotherhood and, importantly, the Egyptian Armed Forces. 
  2. Formerly united protest movements realize that beyond a shared agenda against, there is limited alignment of ideology and objectives. They disintegrate into infighting, with parallel factions vying for leadership positions. There were many nascent, small political parties in Egypt which were unable to collaborate and align, resulting in cannibalization, and leaving  plenty of space for more mature players to take control—like Mubarak’s old cronies, the military, and the Muslim Brotherhood. 
  3. Having worked against the system for long periods of time, activists lack the tools and skills to contribute to political development, that is, to work for and with. That was a challenge we encountered often; in part because of our inexperience in driving consensus, in part because of the persistent, predatory power structures. 

All three of these scenarios occurred in Egypt—and we see them happen all over the world. While transitions offer real opportunities for movement leaders and activists to protect and entrench precious gains, the path to more inclusive political processes is unclear. 

We found that the skills and tactics that enabled us to challenge an oppressive system were ill-matched to the long-term and incremental work of political reform. This led to yet a new challenge: millions of Egyptians were disappointed in movement leaders because the change they hoped for did not materialize. 

Co-Design for Activist Support

These challenges call for urgent and new thinking. How can movement leaders take forward the momentum that they created to build sustainable political change? How can they build the bridge from political disruption to political reform?

Through our work at Reboot, we seek to help answer these questions—to get a deep understanding of where political transitions work well and to develop guidance for success, jointly with those who will use it. Our research, in collaboration with activists, centers on: How can we shift mindsets and tactics from opposition to collaboration, when the time is right? How can activists play a role in aligning the objectives, resources, and capabilities of all the different actors involved in the transition? What key ingredients create the coalitions needed to sustain political reform?

From my perspective, I know that back in 2011 this kind of guidance could have made a real difference in how we managed the transition from working against, to working with. Today, I work so that other movements may have a better shot at taking their seats at the table, and making them count. 

Four Stories of Turning Failure into Feasibility

One of my favorite stories of governance “lessons learned” comes from my friend and colleague Oluseun (Seun) Onigbinde, who runs the organization BudgIT.

A few years ago, BudgIT created a mobile app to help citizens in rural Nigeria find information about public projects-in-progress, so they can hold elected officials accountable. There were only two problems, as Seun says, “Number one: People don’t go looking for information about public projects. Number two: People don’t use apps.”

I’m thinking about Seun’s reflections as we at Reboot get ready for the OGP Global Summit in Ottawa at the end of this month. The Summit is always an opportunity to share exciting successes and big ideas in the open government space; but in thinking about what I hope to share with (and learn from) my peers, I’m trying to keep in mind that we can sometimes gain the greatest insights from discussing our failures.

That’s why Reboot hosted a “Fail Fair” at last year’s summit. We brought together three colleagues who have achieved impressive successes, and asked them to talk about their failures instead—with a focus on technology, a common area of expectations-falling-short-of-results. Seun’s story is just one of these “failures” (although “failure” might be overstating it, as BudgIT ended up designing a low-tech, grassroots alternative, with far better results; Seun tells the whole story in his own words below).

In celebrating failure, what we’re really doing is reminding ourselves that doing good development work requires trial and error. The more we can be open about the errors, the more likely we are to try new ideas, to stay open to risk, and to iterate and adapt our way to real solutions.

So as we get ready to head to Ottawa, I reached out to last year’s panelists and asked them to recap their stories from our discussion.

Story #1: BudgIT finds an old-fashioned grassroots solution is better than any tech.

Oluseun Onigbinde is the Lead Partner and co-founder of BudgIT, a civic organization that works to make public finance data more accessible, transparent, and understandable to citizens.

The idea behind Tracka was to create a simple, easy-to-use website for people in rural areas in Nigeria to find information about local public projects and keep tabs on their progress. The site encourages visitors to, “Don’t just complain about it, act now!”

Based on the site’s success, we started working on an app version of Tracka. As Zack wrote in the introduction, people generally don’t go looking for information on public projects, so our app was designed to make it easier. But then we ran into the problem that people don’t use apps.

We had conceived of the app as a strategy to grow Tracka; ultimately, we had to scale that back. We saw it as a project design failure. To avoid this kind of thing in the future, I believe people should always put themselves “in the shoes of the user.” You have to always ask the question: Is the thing I’m working on contextually right for society? In a lot of cases, we find that an advanced technological solution isn’t.

More often, the mantra is: Use low tech. Abandon apps.

To that end, we shifted our focus for Tracka to another mode of adoption. We had previously found success in partnering with Enough is Enough Nigeria to expand our radio programs to distribute governance information—creating a network of community champions in local communities, and using social media to amplify their work.

We used a similar solution for Tracka. Instead of an app, we started hosting town meetings about public projects. We were immediately surprised by the number of people who attended. This grassroots solution ended up being a better way to communicate and engage with people. Technology had a role, in that we used social media to invite people to the meetings and then to amplify the conversations that were happening at the meetings. But technology was just a way to augment the real solution. For example, we created an SMS program, enabling citizens to send text messages from their communities, which integrates into our webpage and which we can use in real-time to drive action.

One of the big challenges with this kind of pivot, naturally, is managing donor relationships; someone in the audience at the OGP Summit asked about this last year. When you realize something isn’t working, and you need to pivot, how do you bring donors along? This is a real challenge for a lot of groups, and one of the ways we try to manage it is by communicating with donors about the importance of additional funding for expanding in-person programs to more states (rather than continuously investing in more apps). We were very fortunate to have a donor, Luminate (formerly Omidyar Network, Government & Citizen Engagement Unit), that fully trusted our judgment and provided a core grant for developing Tracka, which was flexible enough to allow us to scale to 22 states and rethink our approach.

Abandon the obsession with apps. Use low-tech solutions that are close to home.

Story #2: The World Wide Web Foundation focuses on people and process—not product.

Michael (Miko) Cañares is Senior Research Manager for Digital Citizenship at the World Wide Web Foundation, an organization dedicated to the improvement and availability of the World Wide Web.

Our story comes from a time when we were looking to build use cases for open contracting data. That is: How can we demonstrate different ways that communities can use open data? To that end, we partnered with a local organization that wanted to create a portal analyzing data on public contracts. Unfortunately, that portal died a natural death, for lack of use. You can read more about that project in this blog post.

That project (among others) is the inspiration for four lessons we constantly remind ourselves with. It’s our way of holding ourselves accountable and not repeating the same mistakes. These are key, cardinal principles we always remember in our work:

  • Lesson 1: It’s not about the data, it’s about the problem you want to solve. We often see people starting with an interest in the power of data; but really, the first question always has to be, “What is the problem?”
  • Lesson 2: It’s not about the tech, it’s about the civic. Our work should create a healthy atmosphere of interrogation. Ultimately, our solutions should be leading to action and discussion among people.
  • Lesson 3: It’s not about the portal, it’s about the people. This principle keeps us focused on those who we hope will use our tools; nothing really works if it doesn’t work for users. Our mantra is: We seek first to understand before we intervene.
  • Lesson 4: It’s not about the product, it’s about the process. Finally, we have to remember that the work we do is itself part of our mission of openness and transparency. Inviting people into that process along the way is the root of real change.

We are still internalizing these lessons; just knowing them doesn’t mean you start doing them! Because we know we need constant reminders, we have someone on our team for every project who functions as an arbiter, ensuring these lessons are baked in.

We seek first to understand before we intervene.

Story #3: The MacArthur Foundation engages cohorts to spark networks of impact.

Oladayo Olaide is Deputy Director, MacArthur Foundation Nigeria Office, where the Foundation is focused on reducing retail corruption and strengthening Nigerian-led anti-corruption efforts.  

The MacArthur Foundation takes the strategy of making “big bets.” In Nigeria, the Foundation is focusing on the major issue of corruption, and is taking a cohort approach to grantmaking.

We started by investing in journalists to produce investigative reports, but while these reports were successfully uncovering corruption, they weren’t generating any response. There was a gap between report and action. We faced the question: How can we drive social action and pressure the government?

Within this question, we also faced specific challenges. For example, some grantees were not reaching specific segments of the population, because of language barriers or because they weren’t reached by certain media channels. We also saw that grantees faced stiff competition from national issues in trying to get their corruption reports to “break through” the noise.

To move forward, we saw a need for greater collaboration. One thing we’re working on now, for example, is to support civil society and journalists to work together. We are supporting civil society organizations to provide the “last mile” necessary for investigative reports to cause action. We also engaged another cohort who are focusing on interpreting investigative reports and ensuring they reach people in local languages.

We make “big bets,” but that’s not just a one-time investment. It’s about iterating and learning and adjusting over time.

To move forward, we need greater collaboration.

Story #4: Reboot uses design to facilitate critical conversations

Panthea Lee is our Principal and co-founder here at Reboot.

In 2011, Reboot was asked to work with the new Libyan government and the UN to help support a peaceful democratic transition. In a country still marked by violence and separated by vast physical distances, we were asked to develop a voter registration tool and implement a national program that would allow all citizens to participate in the new democratic process.

One thing we learned was that: The process was more important than the tool we were actually developing.

Gaddafi’s regime had been purged; the people who were setting up the government had never done this before. We found that when presenting different design solutions, the ones we thought were best—and that performed highly based on “objective” tests—weren’t the ones our Libyan counterparts chose. We used “could reach as many people as possible” as our core metric of success, but for our counterparts, there were many other complicating factors as well, from cultural norms around the display of women’s names on the voter roll to putting their best foot forward for the international community.

We had to check our ego and know our limitations. Democracy is about people driving for themselves. As designers and technologists, it’s easy to think we know the “right” technical solutions, but to truly support democracy in Libya, we had to be there for the solution that the emerging democratic government wanted. We had our project timelines, and desperately wanted to see as much positive change as we could while we were there. Our challenge was to set aside those outcomes (which really just satisfied our own egos and our desire to “drive positive change”). We had to constantly remind ourselves that we were supporting a larger change process. When we were able to do that, we saw that what was more important than our design solution itself was the conversations that our design process was supporting.

More important than our design solution itself were the conversations that our design process supported.

Join us in Ottawa!

I’m excited to hear more stories of “failing forward” in Ottawa at the end of May. I hope you’ll join us for a couple of sessions hosted by Rebooters:

Both of these are areas that defy traditional metrics and target-setting approaches, and that require a lot of trial-and-error. I’m looking forward to hearing ideas—and examples of lessons learned!—from the inspired and inspiring community at OGP.

ford tech fellows

Lessons from the Ford Tech Fellows program: Three Principles for Translating Tech into Public Good

Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on the Ford Foundation’s Equals Change Blog.


While technology has become integral to almost every aspect of social justice, the field of people working at the intersection of these two areas is relatively small. That’s why we at Reboot were excited to support the inaugural cohorts of the Ford Foundation’s technology fellows program.

Now, as the foundation prepares to welcome its third cohort of tech fellows, we are pleased to share a set of principles—best practices we have developed in collaboration with the initial cohort, the program teams that have supported them and benefited from their insights, and Ford’s Office of Strategy and Learning—for bringing public interest technologists into an organization. We believe these principles demonstrate the value of embedding new kind of expertise in philanthropy, and will be valuable to funders and nonprofits interested in leveraging technological expertise to accelerate emerging programs, support strategic shifts, and advance the public interest.

Each year, the tech fellows program recruits three fellows with experience in both tech and social justice to join Ford’s program teams for two years. The fellows introduce new behaviors, tools, and mindsets to their teams, and make connections between their existing networks and their new colleagues.

Because the program is so new in both its goals and its approach, the foundation recognized the importance of having an independent expert collaboratively track progress and offer feedback in real-time. And that’s exactly what Reboot did: We worked closely with Ford staff and the fellows to identify, analyze, and act on challenges and opportunities as they arose, drawing on our experience designing innovation and tech initiatives around the world. Through this process, the tech fellows program became both an opportunity to institutionalize public tech expertise, and a test case for how adaptive management can strengthen new programs and help teams integrate new kinds of knowledge in their work.

In a relatively short amount of time, the program changed how staff across the foundation talked about and understood technology’s role in their work, and strengthened connections between people with different kinds of expertise. As the first tech fellows move on to new challenges beyond Ford, we look forward to seeing how they benefit from the knowledge and connections they gained at the foundation.

Three principles for translating tech into public good

The story of this program is about how everyone working for social justice can use technology to push back against inequality, and the biased systems that technologies can mirror and perpetuate—and how they can build and expand the reach and impact of public interest investments. That transformation will take a growing field of experts who are well-versed and well-connected in both technology and social impact. As more organizations take part in building that field, the Ford Foundation’s tech fellows program offers useful lessons.

Principle 1: Value and build external and internal networks of support.

From the beginning, Ford’s tech fellows program sought to develop the community of practice working at the intersection of technology and social justice. Program teams found particular value in the fellows’ wide existing networks in fields like smart cities and criminal justice. These networks enabled fellows not only to represent the foundation at external forums, but to facilitate new connections. One fellow, for example, was instrumental in organizing and curating a summit on emerging media that forged new opportunities between practicing artists and funders.

In addition to these external connections, internal networks are also important—and that starts with the bonds among the fellows themselves. Bringing multiple fellows into an organization at once, and supporting them as a cohesive, tight-knit cohort, can enable peer support and shared learning. At Ford, designing the program to support internal networking meant offering frequent opportunities for fellows to meet and share what they were learning.

Principle 2: Start with structure, then drive towards autonomous creativity.

Titles like “public interest technologist” or “tech fellow” can be ambiguous at best. So the early stages of any fellowship program benefit immensely from thoughtful structure. Creating clear, specific job descriptions can help knit incoming fellows into an existing team. Ford, for example, asked directors and program officers to help develop fellow selection criteria, giving them a chance to ask for the expertise they most needed, and then more easily integrate the fellows into their work.

As time goes on, it’s valuable to gradually increase the autonomy of the fellows, allowing greater independence to manage their own time and relationships, and to propose new ideas. At Ford, once fellows were embedded in their teams and had built strong working relationships with their directors, they were able to drive independent ideas that helped create connections across the institution. For example, one fellow worked with program officers from across the foundation to support a comprehensive approach to digital security. This fellow-driven initiative introduced a new kind of role for a tech fellow, as well as a potential organizational structure—and it would not have been possible without a level of earned autonomy for the fellow.

Principle 3: Provide ample space for reflection, and help guide it into action.

Fellows come to the foundation with a body of experience and expertise that is further deepened through the fellowship and has proven invaluable for Ford’s teams. But how to ensure that all this knowledge is communicated to colleagues and retained by the institution, once the fellows have moved on? Making space for self-reflection and discussion—such as through a facilitated full-day learning retreat, similar to one we organized for the fellows—and developing clear avenues for exchanging information, can help address this challenge.

At the same time, to avoid the dreaded graveyard of unread reports, it’s important to channel fellows’ reflections to the right audiences. The right audience for a memo on common cybersecurity challenges faced by grantees, for example, might be program officers responsible for grants related to digital security, algorithmic bias, or other security issues. On the other hand, incoming fellows might be the key audience for guidance about how to navigate (and learn from) Ford’s institutional dynamics in a non-grantmaking role. Regular discussions and meetings focused on interactive reflection also help enable action-oriented learning.

The importance of learning by doing

It’s been inspiring to watch fellows and staff navigate Ford’s program in such an open, adaptive way. This came through in how the fellows and staff discussed, debated, and listened to each other about the challenges of defining “technologist” within the foundation’s work. It was also clear in how fellows and staff redefined the objectives of the program to clarify the roles fellows can play in the foundation. And it was apparent in the way staff and fellows integrated those new roles and an accompanying theory of change into the job description for the 2019 incoming fellows.

Thanks to an organization-wide commitment to embracing mistakes and learning by doing, the tech fellows program has become stronger and clearer. More than any one practical or strategic consideration of program design, this commitment to learning and iteration may be the most important lesson from this program. Indeed, “learn by doing” may be the most important principle of all.

From Data Row to Reality with NYC Open Data

In New York City, “Open Data for All” is more than a government mandate. It is a call to action, an invitation, and a vision for the city and its 8 million residents.

Since the Open Data Law was signed in 2012, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) has worked to increase the impact of New York City’s public data beyond the thousands of datasets published in the Open Data Portal. By enrolling government agencies, empowering communities, and educating the public, MODA works to turn rows of figures into a case for the significance of this data—and more importantly, its potential to help us problem-solve.

We’ve worked with MODA and other NYC government agencies towards this mission, developing engaging reports to tell the story of open data, as well as conducting research and creating visuals to help data advocates better understand who uses the city’s public data (and how).

The Public Data at Work video, created in collaboration with MODA and NYC Media to accompany the 2018 Open Data Progress Report, invites all New Yorkers to make the most of their city through public data.

ogp summit

The (Unofficial, Unsolicited) How-To Guide for the OGP Summit Session of Your Dreams

Editor’s Note: This post was co-written by Panthea Lee & Nathaniel Heller, and first appeared on Open Government Partnership Stories


This May, the Government of Canada (GoC) and Open Government Partnership (OGP) will convene the 6th OGP Summit in Ottawa, bringing nearly 100 national and local member governments of OGP and their civil society counterparts together to discuss the opportunities and challenges to make governments more responsive and accountable to citizen needs.

The call for proposals for Summit sessions is open for another week (through February 6, 2019), and we know our community is hard at work identifying topics and preparing proposals for Ottawa. But we’re eager to make this Summit the best one yet. We’ve both been to too many events where the best conversations happen by the coffee station, where we end up only catching up with those we know, and where formal programming is seen merely as a set of color-coded barriers between breaks and before happy hour. Magical things can happen when smart, ambitious people get together, but we need to be strategic about facilitating that magic; as we have too often seen, it doesn’t happen on its own.

In that spirit, here are five tips on how we can collectively make this year’s Summit greater than the sum of its parts:

Tip 1: Harness the unique value of gathering in person.

It’s 2019. Technology is wonderful(-ish). Strangers and colleagues alike can video-meet and share ideas, tips, and resources to help each other along from anywhere in the world. So why meet in person? Simply put: gatherings allow us to dig in to the thorny stuff. There’s no substitute for face-to-face gatherings to discuss complex issues; wrestle with difficult questions; come up with collective solutions; and rally, organize, and support each other to make them happen. It’s also a great way to build meaningful social capital between potential allies and partners.

Let us think bigger and more creatively about the value of a global gathering to do things that we otherwise can’t through digital, remote, asynchronous channels. Let us realize the promise of face-to-face human connection, dialogue, and action.

Tip 2: Do talk about ideas. Don’t put on a dog and pony show

As you’re thinking about topics, remember why you started working in this movement to begin with—start conversations from that place. Meaning: Ask the big questions, debate the answers.

People are human. They like arguments and contested ideas, not four people saying the same thing using different words. They want to be entertained, not lectured at or sold to. No one wants to come to a session that is marketed as “Useful Thoughts on a Big Think Topic” that is then delivered as “How My Organization Is (or Did Something) Awesome.” You can easily identify the latter by the ratio of heads-staring-at-phones to heads-looking-at-the-lectern.

Be biased towards a discussion format that pits presenters and participants with different ideas against each other. (And if you’re organizing a panel, design a cohesive and critical conversation that speaks to the above, rather than a lineup of tangentially linked show-and-tells.) Sharing how you or another organization did something is fine (concrete examples are helpful!) but then talk about what worked and what didn’t. Tell us how you achieved those wins and be honest about where we’re falling short.

Tip 3: Tie your session to what is happening in the world.

There’s a lot going on in the world right now. Nationalist political agendas are gaining traction. Corruption scandals erupt and confound weekly. Threats to civic space are growing the world over. Despite working on these issues day in and day out, these issues become abstract topics to chew on, rather than concrete challenges to address when we enter the conference force field.

But change doesn’t happen in the abstract. Change happens when groups of committed people develop targeted, sophisticated responses to specific challenges in specific contexts, and launch them within specific windows of opportunity. Put simply, it happens when they solve real-life problems using common sense, smarts, and often a dose of luck.

So as you develop your sessions, ask yourself: How can my session contribute, in a very concrete way, to the changes I’d like to see in the world? What are immediate needs or opportunities I see, and how can we address those? Name those challenges, people, and opportunities specifically rather than falling back on archetypes, personas, and frameworks.

Tip 4: Propose solutions. Be action-oriented.

The Summit is not just about high-level deliverables like policy reform commitments or pledges of new partnerships. All sessions should have a bias towards solutions and action. At the beginning of your session, be clear about what your objectives are, then revisit those at the end. Attendees should walk out having achieved that objective; otherwise, you’ve missed an opportunity to learn, influence, and organize.

The best solutions or ideas in the room might come from lay participants rather than presenters. Do your best to structure the discussions as a two-way conversation between them. At the end, summarize the ideas surfaced, invite attendees to name concrete actions they can take to move them forward, and volunteer to coordinate follow-up.

(Bonus) Tip 5: Make our new friends feel welcome.

While this principle may not apply to all sessions, it’s important to keep in mind. Given that inclusion is a priority for Ottawa, the organizers are investing in bringing people and communities that don’t usually participate in these conversations. This means that in May—in addition to existing commitments to support more women attending—we’ll see more young people, more representatives from indigenous communities, and more colleagues from the Global South. This is fantastic.

To make sure everyone can get the most out of the Summit—which, in turn, will help the open government community expand and deepen its impact—and welcome our new friends, we can:

  • Make sessions as jargon- and acronym-free as possible
  • Indicate the ‘experience level’ each session is appropriate for—there is certainly value in sessions tailored to seasoned open gov folks; if that’s yours, please note that
  • Get to know these new players joining our fold, and help them think through how our movement can support their work, as well as how we can benefit from their inclusion and ideas

Of course, we’re not the only ones that have been thinking about how to maximize the value of gatherings. The OpenGov Hub community, for one, published this really helpful guide last year to provide practical tips and tricks for a successful session—read it!

Finally, a disclaimer: neither of us sit on the Summit selection committee for sessions, and our recommendations are in no way endorsed by either the GoC or OGP. So if you follow our suggestions, we’re grateful, but there’s no guarantee your proposals will get accepted. But if many of you follow these suggestions *and* your proposals get accepted, we can expect a pretty darn exciting Summit this year. (You can also buy us a drink at the after party to thank us!)

See you in Ottawa, where we’ll be excited to debate ideas, rally around promising solutions, and roll up our sleeves and get to work.


Photo courtesy of the Open Government Partnership’s Flickr page.

Amplifying Accountability workshop

A New Strategy in Nigeria: Why Donors Should Invest in Accountability

Editor’s Note: This op-ed from Adam Talsma was recently published on Nigeria Health Watch. 


The key to improving health care in Nigeria is not necessarily better doctors, more advanced medicine, or technological advances. It’s better governance.

Dr. Mike Adeyemi-Lawal made this point clearly in a recent Thought Leadership piece, in which he encourages politicians to commit to tangible health goals—and encourages citizens to hold them accountable….

In the work of holding government actors to their promises, citizens have an important ally: International donors. Many donors have long invested in Nigeria’s health sector and created positive outcomes. Now, to create lasting impact, donors have an important opportunity to shift strategy. To ensure everyone can access the health, education, and other services they need to thrive, more donors need to …

Read the full op-ed on Nigeria Health Watch:

Person holding a mobile phone

Using Data, Getting Results: New From the Journal of Development in Practice

Editor’s Note: We are excited to share this article co-authored by Carrie Oppenheimer and newly published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Development in Practice. Based on our work in Tanzania—with partners Institute of Development Studies, Overseas Development Institute, and Feedback Labs—Carrie and her co-authors detail our research into how development program managers are successfully using real-time data to improve results (or not!). 


The use of RTD for AM is not, paradoxically, about technology—it is about the strategic and cultural environment that enables RTD to be utilised as a driver of organisational decision-making and of institutional transformation. While RTD can certainly raise the questions and highlight opportunities, it cannot open the door to this kind of transformation either within programmes or more broadly in organisations. As with other forms of evidence utilisation, the key factor is political, institutional, and individual will.

Read the full article at the Journal of Development in Practice:

A New Model of Collaboration to Protect Journalists in Nigeria

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Adam Talsma, Chioma Agwuegbo, and Yop Pam.  

Two years ago, journalist Jones Abiri was arrested by the Nigerian Department of State Services for the “offense” of criticizing the federal government. That unlawful arrest puts a spotlight on the threats increasingly facing journalists in Nigeria. And the story of how Abiri was finally released, after more than two years in prison, shows how the media sector in Nigeria has begun working in new collaborative ways to face these threats and push for more accountable governance.

Abiri’s story is just one from Reboot’s ongoing work with the MacArthur Foundation’s On Nigeria Program and its eight media grantees. This program is part of an important conceptual shift that recognizes that the real obstacles to service delivery in Nigeria are governance challenges. And it seeks to remove those obstacles by supporting Nigerian-led efforts to promote accountability, transparency, and good governance.

The Accountability Ecosystem

When it comes to the complex challenges of improving governance, the MacArthur Foundation and Reboot recognize that no single organization can create watershed change. Instead, we aim to foster an “accountability ecosystem,” a web of efforts that strengthen and reinforce one another. At Reboot, we use the metaphor of the ecosystem to emphasize the interconnectedness of the many key players that must work together to hold the Nigerian government to account: civil society organizations, journalists, social media influencers, subnational media advocacy organizations, government reformers, and citizens.

Collaboration between the diverse actors within the accountability ecosystem, some of whom may have previously viewed each other more as adversaries than allies, looks much easier on paper than it is in practice. Yet collaboration is a key feature of a well-functioning accountability ecosystem. Because powerful actors are motivated to preserve the status quo, attempts to highlight abuses of power are often met with aggressive pushback from the government and the private sector. Collaboration, including sharing resources and expertise among these different groups, strengthens the entire ecosystem and protects individual actors who might otherwise be persecuted for their work. We’ll be writing more about the specific strategies Reboot uses to support collaboration—stay tuned for an upcoming blog post, this month.

How Collaboration Protects Journalists

One early example of collaboration in action is the Media Alliance, a coalition being shaped through the On Nigeria program with the facilitation support of Reboot. The Media Alliance responds to government harassment of journalists in a sustained way, while working to make journalist intimidation a high-profile and high-priority social issue for both government officials and the public at large.

Responding to journalist Jones Abiri’s arrest was one of this nascent alliance’s first efforts. When Abiri was first arrested, two journalist protection organizations released statements, but got no response from the government. More recently, a member of the Media Alliance investigated further, and met with members of Abiri’s family in his hometown. When the investigations were released, multiple members of the Media Alliance signed a joint press release and worked with local civil society organizations to spread the message.

The response on Twitter was overwhelming. It raised the public consciousness of the issue and pressured the government to respond.

Shortly after, Abiri was released on a reduced bail and formally charged, a significant victory in a case where activists had lacked proof he was even alive. The Alliance continued to mobilize partners to speed Abiri’s trial to a positive conclusion: Mr. Abiri was acquitted of all charges, his detention was denounced as “criminal intimidation,” and the government was ordered to pay him compensation.

Today, we’re proud to share this and other of our partners’ milestones on the road to impact. Check out Reboot’s new report: Amplifying Accountability: Building a Culture of Collaboration with Media and Civil Society. The report shares case studies, stories, and lessons learned from this ongoing project—along with specific recommendations for donors and practitioners who want to increase their impact toward good governance.


Support for the Long Haul: Meet Reboot Media

The Media Alliance that secured Abiri’s release, as well as the #ISupportFreePress campaign we blogged about last week, and other initiatives highlighted in the report, have grown out of Reboot’s long-running work. For three years, we have been engaged with local organizations in West Africa to understand the unique challenges and opportunities facing media there, through our Reboot Media program.

In all aspects of that program, we are working to seize opportunities to foster a stronger accountability ecosystem in which individual journalists and innovators are protected and enabled to bring abuses of power to light.

Our new report offers an inside look at the strategy behind this work. We hope you’ll take a look, and then find us on Twitter to share your thoughts—and to lend your voice to our  #ISupportFreePress campaign.

Journalism Is Not a Crime: Updates from #ISupportFreePress Nigeria

Every society needs brave, hard-working journalists to hold our governments accountable—and, just as importantly, every journalist needs a committed, aware society to protect their work. Only when citizens themselves are invested in freedom of the press can independent media fulfill its watchdog role.

That’s the motivation behind the “I Support Free Press Campaign,” a movement of media and civil society organizations, rallying online and in-person, to spark mainstream conversations about journalist harassment. During the first week of the campaign, the #ISupportFreePress hashtag reached more than 300,000 people, as journalists and supporters tweeted their personal experiences and values:

We’re excited to extend the conversation all across Nigeria. And we want you to help!

Join Us: Abuja Town Hall, December 4

Tomorrow, we’re co-organizing a town hall meeting in Abuja. Join us!

Journalism Town Hall
Tuesday, December 4, at 10am
Ventures Park
29 Mambilla Street Off Aso Drive
Maitama Abuja

The town hall will bring together media union representatives and journalists for a panel discussion about the work these unions are doing, and their plans for improving journalist welfare. We’ll be joined by the presidents of the Nigerian Union of Journalists, the National Association of Women Journalists, and the National Press Council. Our collective hope is that this town hall will lead to lasting commitments to protect journalists and encourage more investigative reporting in the public interest.

Join the Conversation Online

You can still get involved by tweeting as part of the #ISupportFreePress campaign! The campaign is a collaboration between the Reboot Media program and the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, with support from the MacArthur Foundation. Our goal is to build awareness across Nigeria about attacks on journalists and, more broadly, the importance of the free press and its effect on a democratic government. It’s part of a wider effort to build momentum ahead of the upcoming February 2019 national elections.

In addition to building citizen awareness, the campaign also brings journalists together to create best practices for fighting press suppression. That’s why we’ve been working offline with journalists for discussions, including at events last month in Lagos and Abuja, where more than 30 journalists gathered to share personal stories of harassment, and the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism premiered a short video documentary about press freedom:

You Can Get Involved

If you’re working in Nigeria—whether as a journalist, a member of a media organization or CSO, or a citizen concerned about corruption—we invite you to host a meeting in your community to help bring the serious issue of journalist harassment into the limelight. We have a toolkit of conversation starters, meeting tools, and even free t-shirts.

Email us at and we’ll get you resources to increase the impact of your event. Because freedom of the press is a cornerstone for ensuring accountability for all.

Unlocking the Potential of Real-Time Data: Why Political Buy-In is Critical

In Tanzania, 97 percent of rural children have no birth certificate. Now, a mobile birth registration system is changing that statistic. The system is not only affecting people’s lives—as registration is tied to access to higher education, voting, and other services—it’s also changing the way the government works, using real-time data to allow for more effective short and long-term planning in service provision.

The mobile birth registration system was piloted in 2012 through a partnership between UNICEF and the Tanzanian government.* The program makes it easier to register children under 5 by increasing registration points and eliminating fees. It then uses bio data tied to specific locations gathered through registration to adapt and modify day-to-day implementation. Program managers have used the data to improve birth registration by enhancing usability of the mobile app, providing targeted training for registration managers, increasing personnel for overwhelmed registration locations, adapting public awareness campaign messaging, and ensuring sufficient stock of registration materials. Despite the increased availability of technology, such sophisticated use of data for adaptive management is still rare among development projects. What makes this program different? Reboot went to find out, as part of a consortium working with USAID’s Global Development Lab to understand the opportunities and challenges of using real-time data in development work.

While our research uncovered a few reasons why this program was successful, we found the key ingredient in Tanzania was political buy-in—the degree to which people at every level of managing and delivering the program feel ownership, excitement, and motivation around its success.

The exciting potential of Real-Time Data for Adaptive Management (RTD4AM)

In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in real-time data in the development sector. This is partly due to the opportunities presented by new technologies that make it possible to collect, share, analyze, and manage data with unprecedented speed, granularity, and cost efficiency. While impact often takes years to demonstrate in development work, real-time data allows implementers to monitor their work early and often during implementation. Real-time data provides the evidence needed to adjust and iterate programs as they go (instead of the traditional approach of evaluating at the end).

In a nutshell, that early-and-often responsiveness is the core of “adaptive management,” another popular theme in development work. While definitions vary, adaptive management broadly refers to a set of tools, techniques, and processes that enable more flexible approaches to development interventions. That’s why real-time data for adaptive management (or “RTD4AM”) has attracted so much interest from practitioners.

As Owen Barder explains in his book Complexity, Adaptation, Results, “Adaptation is the way to deal with problems in unpredictable, complex systems… Real-time learning is essential to check the relative effectiveness of different approaches, scaling up those that work and scaling down those that don’t.”

Investigating the link between real-time data and adaptive management was what brought Reboot to Tanzania. We sought to better understand when, where, and how real-time data systems could contribute to adaptive management practices. While existing literature and expert interviews were helpful in understanding the theory and promise of RTD4AM, given the topic’s relative newness in development work, we and our partners Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Overseas Development Institute (ODI), and Feedback Labs realized that fieldwork was necessary to truly understand how these approaches worked in practice. As such, we examined four case studies in depth—two each in Tanzania and Indonesia, and each in a different sector—to build an evidence-based, field-grounded understanding of what it takes to use real-time data for adaptive management

Our research in Tanzania revealed that the “authorizing environment” is critical to the success of real-time data initiatives. Programs work best when political leaders at all levels work together to bolster programmatic and policy aims. In other words, the political economy surrounding a particular program has much more influence over what adaptations are possible than does the data itself. While technology optimists have theorized that faster data could drive programmatic change, research across all four cases showed that data only drives change when there is an enabling culture. The political economy shapes the way real-time data is considered, collected, and used. In Tanzania, this meant that leaders were directly involved—reviewing dashboards, sharing insights on WhatsApp, and pushing forward policy discussions to further expand the mobile birth registration initiative.

Why Tanzania had the political buy-in

In Tanzania, individuals interviewed across all levels of program implementation expressed support of the birth registration system; they felt that birth registration is a basic right of all citizens. The program had universal buy-in because the goals were perceived as necessary.

But beyond the motivation that comes from such widespread support, the program designers made a conscious choice to ensure that managers and staff had specific tools and processes to translate motivation into action, and to track progress against goals. One way to achieve this was by creating a dashboard, which allowed local registration teams to see their own success rates and compare with other locations. Just as importantly, the dashboard allowed local officials to identify underperforming locations.

Because officials were politically invested in program outcomes, many would monitor progress in their districts and contact local registration offices to address problems and support improvements. This both created pressure for accountability and improvement, and opened channels of communication and potential resources to solve problems. In one case, the dashboard led to an official making a site visit and discovering the staff were overburdened; additional personnel for registration was provided for the site.

The strategy also created a climate of friendly competition and peer pressure. One district official in Iringa, for example, was in the habit of calling his counterparts to playfully tell them that he was “in the lead” when registration numbers in his district climbed above the others. This spurred other officials to bolster birth registration in their districts, leading to targeted support to ensure successful program implementation.

In these conditions, Adaptive Management becomes possible

With staff and managers fully “bought in” to the program, we saw adaptive management happening at multiple levels.

At the national level, the Minister of Constitutional and Legal Affairs attended a launch event to roll out the system in a new region where he was impressed with the data gathered. He immediately followed up with the District Commissioner, requesting district-by-district information. This led to the data being integrated into national-level policy discussions about expanding the civil registration system. The long-term goal is to create a comprehensive system including birth and death records that supports service provision such as voter registration and national identification

At the regional level, the high profile of the initiative led local officials to quickly iterate programs to improve outcomes. For example, one woman in Mfundi sent a complaint via WhatsApp to the Regional Administrative Secretary about a health center that was closed when she went to register her newborn child. Because the Secretary was invested in the program’s success, she followed up with the district executive director, who in turn ensured the health center was fully staffed and operational—an investment of resources to help ensure registration for everyone in the area. Responding to citizen feedback is not always a guarantee; successful feedback loops only happen when all actors along a service delivery chain are motivated to receive and respond to feedback. In this case, the political buy-in led to a quick resolution of citizens’ challenges.

The Potential for Adaptive Management in Strategic Decision-making

At the local level, the data proved useful in supporting officials with resource planning, hinting at the untapped potential of RTD4AM for strategic decision-making. While reviewing the dashboard, one planning official noticed much higher rates of birth registration than anticipated in his ward, prompting him to consider long-term implications on his community. He was able to bring this data to planning discussions to request resources allocation for expansion of schools and health services.

The enabling environment for real-time data was particularly ripe in Tanzania; the combination of donor support, widespread political interest, and belief in the importance of birth registration paved the way for the mobile registration program’s momentum. In other contexts, these factors may not be so friendly. For anyone working with an exciting new data and technology approach, it’s important to remember: technology initiatives are not just about technology; a firm foundation of political buy-in paves the way for adaptive management.


Note: This program was implemented with support from Tigo, Registration Insolvency and Trusteeship Agency (RITA), Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

For the Open Cities Summit, Refocus on the Forgotten: How Open Data Can Revitalize Neighborhoods

Every city has its forgotten quarters—places where sought-after urban opportunities and resources rarely reach residents, and neighborhoods fall into disrepair.

Here in New York City, the neighborhood of Brownsville could be considered one of those forgotten quarters. A few years ago, an assessment of homelessness across the city traced many homeless New Yorkers’ origin back to Brownsville. The neighborhood is on the outskirts of Brooklyn, and has been called one of the borough’s “most dangerous neighborhoods” by Time Magazine. Brownsville is also home to almost 60,000 people—New Yorkers who deserve better.

So how can we start refocusing our cities’ attention on the neighborhoods that have been too-long forgotten?

That’s the kind of question that is driving the Open Cities Summit next week—a gathering of practitioners and leaders focused on redefining the social contract at the city level, ahead of the 2018 International Open Data Conference (IODC18). Reboot is proud to be a co-organizer of the Open Cities Summit. We’ll be leading and participating in discussions about open contracting, open data, participatory budgeting, and other ways of making city governments more transparent and accountable to the people they serve, especially the people living in “forgotten” quarters.

Case Studies in Change from Brownsville

Data can be a powerful way to direct attention to these neighborhoods, as can be shown by a recent collaboration here in New York City between The Brownsville Partnership and New Yorkers for Parks. The Brownsville Partnership is a coalition of non-profit organizations and city partners collaborating to help residents and community stakeholders make the changes they want to see in their neighborhood. The organization has questioned how much of Brownsville’s misfortune—a direct result of public neglect—is the product of a particular narrative, borne out of a particular set of data, that limited the resources allocated to the New Yorkers living there.

To help change that narrative, the organization partnered with the advocacy and research organization New Yorkers for Parks to perform an “Open Space Index” study focused on the neighborhood.

The Open Space Index evaluates 14 NYC-specific goals for the maintenance, variety, and environmental sustainability of open space, as well as access to it. New Yorkers for Parks used publicly available data (such as park inspection data, available on NYC Open Data) for the research, as well as engaging directly with The Brownsville Partnership and local stakeholders.

The resulting study—grounded in data, driven by local voices—is a tangible way for Brownsville as a community to plan for the future and to advocate for support from the city to revitalize its public spaces.

Updating “demand-driven” concepts of open data

This is the kind of use case that advocates of open data have long championed: Local, grassroots organizations benefiting from governmental transparency. But the work in Brownsville is not happening through the traditional open data routes.

Oftentimes, efforts to make government data accessible in a readable, shareable, freely-available format are rooted in market terminology of supply and demand. Yet, the assumption that demand will follow an increase in supply has rarely led to success—making data available doesn’t mean that people actually use it.

Here at Reboot, we have worked extensively with cities seeking to improve outcomes by making their data available, usable, and valuable to all residents. Our work on the users and use cases of city-based data has shown that open data is not really about supply and demand, and discussing it in this context can be limiting.

That’s because open data isn’t really a “market.” When it functions well, open data is more of an ecosystem. Framing open data work through market-based terms like “supply” and “demand” can obscure the approaches that are most fruitful, which are multi-faceted and are based in collaboration and partnerships.

cycle of impact visual

The term “ecosystem” more accurately reflects the organic relationships being built around open data in Brownsville. New Yorkers for Parks and The Brownsville Partnership are finding success through collaboration. A range of skills are required to apply open data to everyday problems, including not just data analysis but problem identification, prioritization, communication, and more. Taking a peer-learning approach has allowed these two groups to bridge a broader range of necessary skills. Our “Open Data Impact Cycle” shows how we visualize these diverse and necessary skills, and is based on our research of open data users in New York City.

The Ecosystem Includes Both City and Grassroots Actors

The ecosystem goes beyond the grassroots—city actors are part of the ecosystem, too.

The Brownsville Partnership and New Yorkers for Parks joined a Community Information Needs workshop this spring, which Reboot organized in partnership with the NYC Parks Department. At that workshop, the groups discussed with their counterparts in city government how they face a lot of the same challenges in using data to solve problems. During the workshop, both sides worked to reframe the open data narrative to focus on collaboration and communication, enabling a more fruitful engagement with stakeholders inside and outside of government.

Extrapolating from that workshop, city stakeholders might find that considering themselves “providers” of data is less valuable. They may find greater success with their open data initiatives by considering themselves part of the ecosystem. In this framing, open data is “supplied” and “demanded” both within and outside of government. Focusing on shared aspirations is more effective and constructive than establishing one-sided responsibilities.

Join the Conversation at the Open Cities Summit (Or From Your Desk!)

Catch Reboot at the Open Cities Summit on September 24, 2018. Apart from being a co-organizer, we’ll be facilitating a workshop in partnership with Open Data Durban, IREX, and the City of Buenos Aires on the problem-solving potential of open data. Reboot will also be speaking on a panel on “Smart Cities and Open Data” at 11AM on September 28, 2018, at IODC18.

You can find out how to participate here, or contact me directly at

And if you’re interested in continuing this conversation, sign up here to receive the Reboot newsletter—we’ll be sending out a special “executive summary” version of our takeaways from the Summit, with lessons learned for city-level changemakers everywhere.


Photos: Adapted from Elvert Barnes and Adi Talwar

The Accountability Ecosystem: Creating the Conditions for Independent Journalism to Thrive

Last year, ahead of Kenya’s presidential election, Reboot was in the country researching the state of its independent media and exploring new ways to strengthen journalism in the public interest. We spent time with dozens of journalists, media entrepreneurs, and others. Whenever our conversations turned to issues like “fake news” or government attacks on the legitimacy of the media—which was frequent—the Kenyan experts would look specifically at the two Americans on our team and say, “Now you know how it feels.”

It’s true: The media in the U.S. is facing many challenges today that our Kenyan counterparts have experienced for much longer. When President Trump claims the entire Russia investigation is a political fabrication by antagonistic media outlets, it’s reminiscent of a strategy used by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, elected in 2012, when he was facing charges from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his alleged involvement in violence around the 2007 elections. After critical media coverage of the ICC trial, many of the journalists we spoke to felt that the Kenyatta administration had amped up targeting media because it blamed them for prolonging the trial. In this era of rising mistrust, both Kenyatta and Trump are trying to redirect public suspicion away from themselves and onto the media outlets that are scrutinizing their actions.

Threats to the media are not unique to the U.S. and Kenya. Journalists face steep challenges all over the world; the most recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review is devoted entirely to the theme. But especially in the context of the long-developed media landscape in the U.S., we need to be looking closely at how journalists and editors in places like Kenya are working—because we’re wrestling with similar dynamics.

Understanding Kenya’s media today

The media in Kenya has a strong reputation as a leader in East Africa—a reputation hard-won. Kenyans have access to an abundance of media choices, supported by a healthy demand for information among Kenyan citizens. Perhaps most significantly, freedom of the press is enshrined in Kenya’s constitution, an achievement that created a wave of optimism when it was ratified in 2010. But many respondents in our research described that optimism as having been tamped back down. Expectations for the media’s ability to truly hold the government accountable have been tempered as commercial forces and shifting media trends are straining newsrooms’ capacity (just as they are in the U.S.).

Those changes are the subject of our interactive digital report, “Strengthening Kenyan Media,”  launched this month. We created the report for Omidyar Network, which has long supported innovation in independent media globally; our goal was to focus attention on Kenya and inspire conversation amongst the international community, and hopefully to drive more investment in and support for strengthening its media.

We found that the Kenya media is subject to the same basic framework that makes media a pillar of democracy all over the world. Not only do journalists inform the public, but independent journalists play a critical role in shining lights on how government operates. Journalists discourage corruption, mismanagement, and other breaches of the public trust. But they can’t do it on their own.

Check-and-balancing the 300-pound gorilla of government

Media only succeeds when it’s part of an “accountability ecosystem” comprising citizens, civil society, the judiciary, and government actors. As in any ecosystem, the strength of each constituent part is impacted by the others. The government is most often the 300-pound gorilla in the room; the media needs to work with both citizens and civil society to balance the gorilla’s weight. If the balance of power within the ecosystem is lopsided, accountability breaks down. If citizens don’t trust voting results, for example, they’re less likely to vote no matter how independently and accurately the press is reporting on elections. And without the trust of the public, the press is less likely to enjoy the protections necessary to practice free and fair journalism.

That’s why strengthening the media is also about engaging citizens and motivating them to pressure their political leaders. Reboot saw this dynamic in West Africa, for example, when we studied how the media landscape is evolving especially in the context of creative new uses of social media by citizens and activists alike to hold government to account. There, we found that while social media had somewhat increased citizens’ weight and influence, it hadn’t significantly improved the overall accountability ecosystem because it had simultaneously changed the constraints on the media. To truly hold the government to account, media in that context needs strategic support to evolve in tandem.

The accountability ecosystem is the framework of our Reboot Media program; we take a systems approach to strengthening media and civil society, while engaging the power of the people. In Nigeria today, for example, we are developing a crowdfunding platform for investigative journalism to help mitigate the influence of corporate pressures on journalists.

You can see the same dynamic here in the United States. The work of the independently funded journalism non-profit ProPublica is one great example: At the end of 2017, the organization published a series of case studies showing how their journalists and readers worked side-by-side during investigative reporting, creating ways for ordinary people to actively engage in the work of holding government accountable. In one case study, ProPublica obtained a list of more than 1,000 people hired by the White House on a temporary basis. Because those hires bypassed the vetting process by virtue of being temporary, ProPublica called on its readers to complete the vetting instead. One reader-submitted tip led to the revelation that a White House staffer had been the subject of five sexual assault accusations, which ProPublica subsequently reported in-depth.

When citizens’ engagement is aligned with the work of independent journalists in ways like these, it creates a positive cycle. Seeing their voices and priorities reflected in the media builds trust and encourages citizens to continue interacting with the media; the media, in turn, improves its ability to hear and pursue citizens’ priorities.

New ways to balance the accountability ecosystem

When the work of civil society is integrated along with that of media and citizens, the force is especially powerful, often because civil society organizations have earned the trust and engagement of large groups of citizens.

We heard an example of how this can work in Kenya, when one member of staff at a civil society organization described a local health facility that was put at risk by a “land grab” from government officials, which would have closed the facility and left many people without access to care. Within a few hours of hearing the news, the organization organized a demonstration using WhatsApp, calling on hospital patients and others to gather. Simultaneously, they reached out to their existing press contacts to amplify the demonstration. The combination of media coverage and public outcry successfully drew the attention of Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission; within three weeks, the land was returned to the health facility.

That’s the kind of ecosystem-based success that everyone interested in good governance should be thinking about. The more we can integrate media, civil society, and citizens, the stronger all three will be when calling on the government to uphold its end of the bargain.

One tactic may be creating actual physical and intellectual spaces, where journalists and their allies in the accountability ecosystem can strengthen their connections and experiment together. Journalists in both the U.S. and Kenya are dealing with economic pressure as well as political. The sea change created by social media and digital publishing has decreased available jobs and increased commercial influence over newsrooms, in ways that often compete directly with the goals of public interest. Any media outlet that relies on advertising revenue is going to face this pressure to some degree, especially in places (like Kenya and the U.S.) where commercial and political interests are often closely intertwined. That’s why we need new business models to overcome these challenges.

Most importantly, now is a time for solidarity. Journalists have long known that they are stronger when they stand together; one Kenyan journalist told us that solidarity is important because “politicians are very good at isolating and attacking media houses.” Several others told us that if they get a tip for a story that they fear would attract retaliation, they will share it with colleagues and encourage widespread coverage—a practice one respondent described as “spreading the risk.”

That commitment to solidarity is a valuable practice for all journalists in the modern era. Now, we just need to spread it beyond the field of journalism, and across the accountability ecosystem.


If you’re interested in the accountability ecosystem, we hope you’ll write to us! Email with your perspective on how media, civil society, and the people can best work together. As we continue working closely with global journalists on a number of initiatives this year to strengthen local accountability ecosystems, and we’ll be writing and sharing more case studies and stories, and would love to include yours!