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.

A woman speaks to an audience at a media development event in Nigieria

Editorial Decisions, Economic Decisions

The Funders’ Role in West African Media

Editor’s Note: This post, introducing Reboot’s recent research on media development in West Africa, was originally published on the World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation blog.


While independent journalists are bastions in support of good government, “independence” is not always an available choice. In Nigeria, for example, in a highly competitive job market that underpays and has little respect for journalists, many sway their coverage according to explicit and implicit political pressures and are sometimes expected to take bribes. One member of the media explained it this way:

“If there’s a cholera outbreak from contaminated water sources and the Ministry of Water Resources is doing an event, reporters will cover the event and not bother about the cholera outbreak itself. This is not because they don’t care; [editorial choices] have mostly become economic decisions. The Ministry will pay for the event to be covered, that is how the system works. You aren’t supposed to pay for news but you can pay to make news.”

Click here to read the full post on People, Spaces, Deliberation.

data overload visualization

#LongReads: Moving from Real-Time Data to Real-Time Programs

Editor’s Note: Panthea Lee delivered a keynote at MERL Tech in Washington, DC, on October 3. In response to numerous requests from conference attendees, Panthea has adapted her talk to share here. And to kick it off, we are thrilled to share these visual notes from the presentation, recorded by Katherine Haugh on behalf of USAID LEARN

graphic notes of the post you're about to read. By Katherine Haugh

We’re living in an age awash with data. We generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. This means that 90 percent of our current data trove was created in the last two years alone.

It’s a wealth of useful information: On a personal level, we can track the steps we take in a day, or trends in flight prices to save money on a vacation. At a sectoral level, we can track rainfall from one farm to the next, or measure subnational economic development from space. When it comes to data, we are spoiled for choice.

But so much of the data that is supposed to help us make better choices seems to have the opposite effect.

We all know that too much choice can paralyze us individually, even with simple decisions (like getting FOMO when deciding on weekend plans). As it turns out, things aren’t much better for organizations. Earlier this year, Fortune reported on a survey of 300 senior executives in 16 countries about their data use. Even in the private sector, with all of the money of the Fortune 500s, “more data” often causes more problems than it solves: Eighty percent of executives said that an important strategic decision had gone “haywire” in the past 3 years because of flawed data.

To many of us working in development, that statistic will sound pretty familiar. Data can bring clarity and insight, but it can also cause paralysis and confusion.

Feeding (and Fighting) the Data Beast

I recently saw an extreme version of data paralysis in the office of a large Presidential Initiative program. I was surprised that for every single program staff member, there were three people fulfilling M&E roles. And the M&E staff were working 60-hour weeks, compared to the standard 40-hour work weeks of the program staff.

This office was responding to an emergency situation; their initial mandate of tracking 50 indicators had ballooned to 150; and the donor was requesting weekly reports. They were fighting the data beast.

The most frustrating part of the situation for the staff was that nobody was reading their reports. Decisions were still being made based on human responses and judgment. Even when their data-gathering efforts uncovered real-time challenges in implementation, procurement barriers usually meant that staff could not respond in a timely manner.

They wondered: Why are we collecting real-time data, when we can’t implement real-time programs?

This is an extreme case, but not an unfamiliar one. In large and small ways, development practitioners have been asking this question for some time. Andrew Natsios, a former USAID administrator, described this situation at a macro scale in his essay “The Clash of the Counter-bureaucracy.” Natsios focuses on the particular challenge that USAID faces in reporting on its work, and defending its value, to Congress.

Natsios describes the perverse incentives that often drive M&E. Congress, which funds USAID, prioritizes the approval of the American people, who don’t really understand the role of global development. And many members of Congress don’t understand development well, either. The pressure to count and comply, to justify program work for the DC audience, is dysfunctional. The counter-bureaucracy essentially ends up encouraging work that can be easily counted.

We run into real problems when we confuse accountability with countability.

Two Kinds of Data, One Big Problem

Reboot has seen this dynamic in ethnographies we’ve done, studying both development donors and implementers. In practice, we’ve found that the problem of the counter-bureaucracy results in two types of data.

We call the first type of data Downstream Data, or management data. It’s the patient survey data that helps a health clinic administrator understand that her staff have been overcharging patients for medicines. It’s the SMS-based birth registration system that helps the government understand where schools need to be built. It’s the sensors that help farmers know how much water they need to sustain their crops. In short, Downstream Data is useful for adaptive management and can help programs generate impact.

Upstream Data, or reporting data, is mostly for high-level decisionmakers and oversight bodies. It is useful for institutional accountability, strategic planning, and stakeholder coordination—which are all important.

But the fixation on Upstream Data, as represented by the counter-bureaucracy, does tend to conflate countability with impact. When we look closely at how decisionmakers at the highest levels use upstream data, there seems to be a widespread assumption that there’s a correlation between the number of indicators and the magnitude of “development happening.” The more we can measure, this assumption goes, the more impact we’ve had.

As Natsios points out, the opposite is true: “The development programs that are most precisely and easily measured are the least transformational, and those programs that are most transformational are the least measurable.”

Upstream Data Must Be “Success-Storied”

The other challenge with Upstream Data is that it’s designed for people who are not close to the issues. To be quickly parsed and understood, data needs to be aggregated, processed, and “success-storied” and meet these audiences’ needs. It is slotted into inflexible indicators, suited to reporting templates, and gathered on donor timelines. In short, Upstream Data has a lot of the context stripped away. So it often doesn’t reflect the dynamic interplay between work on the ground and the data that’s needed to make sense of what’s happening.

But, unfortunately, it’s usually Upstream Data that is the highest priority. It serves the goals of those who have the most power, and it’s connected directly to funding streams. Downstream Data serves beneficiaries who generally wield less power, and the structures for collection are less well-defined.

Implementers recognize the limited utility of Upstream Data for their programmatic work, and know that they need Downstream Data for more adaptive management practices. The structural challenges that prevent implementers from getting the data they need are hugely disempowering; Upstream Data consumes resources and diminishes motivation, ultimately detracting from a program’s ability to pursue good development.

Data is Time-Consuming, Messy, and Incredibly Valuable

Measurement for the sake of upstream awareness misses the point of development. None of us got into development work because we wanted to track indicators. We want to make people’s lives better. That’s the metric we should hold ourselves to on a daily basis. To make data matter, we have to figure out how it can be used to ultimately serve human needs.

To break out of the counter-bureaucracy, we need to move beyond focusing on the quantity and speed of data. We need to move from collection to processing; to build in more time to understand the implications of data; and to integrate data into decisionmaking.

That time doesn’t fit into neat expectations. Data is inherently messy. It’s a snapshot of information from a specific time and place. There is a lot of narrative and context and meaning that is embedded in data, that need to be drawn out through conversations. We have to understand decisionmaking, and then adapt and present the data to directly support it.

And this is possible! This kind of decisionmaking-driven data-gathering is happening throughout the sector. One example is Reboot’s experience designing our My Voice program.

My Voice began when the World Bank asked Reboot to do a social accountability program to improve the quality of health facilities in Nigeria based on patient feedback. The World Bank was interested in, among many things, a dashboard to understand the feedback. Our first thought, as implementers, was, “Not another dashboard for DC.”

So we worked closely with the World Bank team to think about how social accountability was related directly to impact on the ground. We did it through in-depth ethnographic research with service providers and health officials all along the service delivery chain.

In our pilot, we observed people in facilities, in government offices, and at the state and national primary health care agencies. We worked to figure out what pain points they had—and how the information we could gather could help solve it.

A photo of the three types of actors we worked with: citizens, service providers, and policymakers

We saw the data beast first hand. For example, we met busy clinic managers who weren’t around to supervise staff, often because they were busy reporting to donors. They knew they were in a bind, and that theyneeded to train staff, but they didn’t know where to start.

We also met health care administrators who were frustrated by the reports they received from clinic managers. They knew the data wasn’t exactly useful, but didn’t have time or money to go to the field to get better information. They knew that donor program suggestions were not always a good fit, but they didn’t have the data to know why.

These were the people with the most power to make a difference in clinic performance, and they were our users. We knew that any solution needed, most importantly, to work for these users. And through testing, we quickly discovered that dashboards weren’t as helpful as printed reports, in-person meetings, and conversations between health officials. They needed a process to interpret the data accurately and use it responsibly.

Two clinic workers review a printed report

My Voice is a tech solution, gathering feedback through an SMS tool. But just as importantly, it is also a program. In this pilot, it included weekly management meetings to aid decisionmaking, reports tailored for uses, and an analysis to scale this data up to the national level to advocate for policies that had real impact on people’s well-being. (Read more about My Voice here.) This is hard work. It is time-consuming. And it takes true collaboration, working shoulder-to-shoulder with users and decisionmakers.

Importantly, it also requires working with government. At MERL Tech, I heard a lot of talk about serving communities, and about serving donors. But we didn’t talk much about serving governments. Ultimately, if we’re doing our work right, it is their capability and assets we should be building. They are the ones who will stick around, and who will use data to serve people in the long run.

Developing the Data Habit

There’s a silver lining in all of this. For all of the challenges of Upstream Data, it is still data. In our own work, and an ethnography we’ve been conducting at USAID missions, we’re seeing a lot of investments in ICTs and new tools to get Upstream Data faster and cheaper. People are looking to leverage ICTs to work with ambitious targets, migrating to mobile data collection tools, and introducing digital project management platforms to manage the reporting burden or reduce costs. These advancements have implications for Downstream Data.

For one thing, it means that data is getting to a level of frequency and granularity that can have surprising revelations. Some programs, in the process of experimenting with ICTs for their upstream requirements, are “stumbling onto” data they can use downstream. When they find this useful data, some begin using it for adaptive, responsive management.

We saw this in one recent, massive project with the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The project was collecting a lot of data about how many people they were testing for HIV/AIDS, and had the idea to take a closer look at the ratio of positive tests to overall tests. They realized that their “hit rate” was low in certain areas, which meant that they were testing in regions where HIV/AIDs was not prevalent. This was a huge realization, and one that allowed them to redirect resources to areas with a higher disease burden.

We also saw this during our elections work in Libya. Our mandate was to build and deploy a mobile voter registration platform (the world’s first!). We ended up doing that—and complementing it with a whole suite of elections management tools. This was because once we started receiving voter registrations, the government realized the value of this data for allocating staff and resources and targeting get-out-the-vote efforts, among other applications.

These are small, discrete examples of people wrangling the data beast and pulling useful Downstream Data out of Upstream reporting streams. And in our research, these “positive deviants” tend to keep going. When program staff see the creative opportunities in data, they start thinking about other questions that can be answered with timely, regular, granular data. Data can become a habit!

But we can’t sit back and hope that this keeps happening. It’s up to us—implementers—to make more space for Downstream Data. The development industry isn’t going to change quickly. So we have to start making these changes ourselves, which sometimes means going beyond the call of duty. It also means working closely with those people within large organizations who are champions for smarter data gathering, to find incremental ways of working differently.

It also means we have to remember to not get seduced by the promise of more data. Technology can be a red herring. We can think that more remote sensors, more citizen reporters, and other innovations that provide more data will solve everything. We have to remember that every data project will come with new needs to understand it.

So when we get excited about new technology and new data, we also have to get excited about the processes, the time, and the conversations we’re going to put into extracting value from the data. We need to remember to do user research to identify pain-points and institutional ethnographies to identify decision-points. And we need to figure out what is important in the data, and then integrate it into our decisionmaking.

Because if we don’t start making these changes soon, we won’t just be awash with data. We’ll drown in it.

ogp subnational pilots in ghana, kenya, mexico, and texas

Four Champions of Open Government: Celebrating Our OGP Subnational Pilot Partners

Editor’s Note: In the time since this post was published, Reboot signed on to support a fifth subnational government, the Provincial Government of Ontario, in developing its OGP commitments.  We’ll be sharing lessons learned from this work in future Ideas posts.

Over the past two months, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know leaders of subnational open government in Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana and Jalisco, Mexico. Their passion for what they do—whether pioneering new ways of exchanging information with citizens about government resources, or advocating for an apolitical space in government to truly meet their constituents’ needs—has blown me away. Moreover, their commitment to the open government agenda above and beyond their core responsibilities is highly commendable. In Sekondi-Takoradi, both the Assistant Development Planner and Public Relations Officer told me that it is the citizen’s right to know what the government is doing, and that they see open government as a vehicle for achieving this. In Jalisco, leaders from civil society and Congress referred to open government as “governance 2.0,” emphasizing how it can enhance their current policies and programs to better serve the citizens of Jalisco.

These are just small examples, but they are representative of the kind of excitement we at Reboot are seeing a lot of lately, through our participation in the newly kicked-off Subnational Government Pilot Program, an initiative of the Open Government Partnership (OGP).

Reboot is supporting four of the fifteen cities, states, and municipalities participating in the Pilot Program. These fifteen “pioneers” were selected for their exemplary commitment to and innovation in open government, and they’ll spend the next year pushing this commitment even further. Reboot is working shoulder-to-shoulder with our four partners, which include the governments of Elgeyo Marakwet, Kenya and Austin, Texas, United States, as well as Sekondi-Takoradi and Jalisco (mentioned above). We’re serving as the bridge for these partners between the governments and communities, and between subnational actors and the OGP.

Unique Opportunities at the Subnational Level

“Subnational” is an important new approach for OGP, and we believe it’s a smart move. Launched in 2009, the platform has been a thoughtful driver of a global effort to make national governments more transparent and accountable to their citizens. It’s been an experience of continuous learning and growth, and Reboot is proud to have been deeply involved in this community for the past couple of years.

But many of us in the community have recognized that there is a gap between the national-level commitments made through OGP and citizens’ actual experience of government. The most palpable experience of an open government happens at the local level, where there is space for citizen participation and engagement in decision-making in a way that is logistically challenging at the large scale. The tenets of open government are also more tangible in service delivery at the subnational level. For example, in his blog I Quant NY, Ben Wellington catalogues how open data improves life for New Yorkers, such as using the New York City government’s open data portal to spot a pattern of the NYPD handing out erroneous parking tickets.

Beyond improving life for citizens, the subnational approach also has potential benefits for governmental actors and practitioners pushing for open government. That’s because it can be bottom-up, able to meaningfully integrate citizen voices—directly or through mediation—in decision-making (as opposed to starting with rigid mandates from the top). Perhaps most importantly, at the local level citizen needs can be paired with an understanding of government capabilities, to ensure that priorities are in the “sweet spot” of not only what is needed, but also what is feasible.

The “sweet spot”  approach (finding the nexus between capabilities and needs) has always been core to Reboot’s methods. We’re excited to be putting it into practice through a community as innovative and prestigious as OGP. It’s still very early; we’ll see how this theory works in practice. Along the way, we’re excited to share what we’re learning. To that end, we want to highlight some of the early innovations we’re seeing (especially given our uniquely broad view of the OGP subnational program as the partners to four different “pioneers”):

  • Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana: As the main hub for Ghana’s young oil industry, Sekondi-Takoradi is faced with an influx of people and businesses attracted by the industry. The twin-city is addressing this challenge through new interventions in participatory decision-making, improved service delivery, and transparent and accountable governance. One example is Time with Community, a bi-weekly platform for community-government dialogue, which used to be an internationally funded initiative and which the assembly has formally integrated into their own processes.

  • Jalisco, Mexico: Jalisco has a track record of going beyond conventional aspects of governance, and the state has built strong momentum in policy making that reflects accountability, participation, technology, transparency, and collaboration. One good example is the Vamos Juntos program, designed to solicit citizens’ input on public budgets.

  • Austin, Texas: A leader in open government for decades, Austin has enjoyed multiple awards in innovation and participation. The city is eager to share its learnings and to scale new heights through participation in the pilot. The recent Task Force on Community Engagement, which issued a report on improving Austinites’ opportunities for participation, is one example.

  • Elgeyo Marakwet, Kenya: With principles of transparency and of accountable, responsive government embedded in the Constitution, Elgeyo Marakwet’s government has a high mandate for sustained commitment to open government by public officials and employees at all levels of government. One example of how it puts this commitment into practice are the “dialogue days,” when the county government reports on projects and strategies to communities, and fields questions and suggestions from community members.

None of these examples are the end-all be-all in open government innovation. Open government is complex incremental work no matter how small of a scale the implementation is. We’ll probably never be “finished,” but here at the beginning of the project, we are excited by the chance to learn side-by-side with the people who have been doing this hard work in their cities and states for years, and to share what we learn as we go. We are hard at work—stay tuned for updates!


measuring impact

How We Measure Impact

“Measuring impact” is one of the biggest conversations in the social sector today. New advances have made the science of measurement more precise and comprehensive than ever before. But as the science gets more granular, the art of measurement gets trickier.

So I’d like to share today how we’re measuring our impact internally, against one of our foundational goals—to change the way the public sector works.

By “change the way the public sector works,” I mean that we are driven not only by our desire to help save and improve people’s lives, but by a belief that the status quo in our field is too often destructive or wasteful. Our theory of change is to partner with ambitious and visionary players within large institutions, and, together, to push those institutions to incorporate responsive, human-centered, and politically aware approaches into their work. We want to see more of the money invested in social change go to sustainable, positive change.

It’s an ambitious goal. Measuring impact is never simple; but on a goal this big, it can feel sisyphean.

The first time we tried to measure our progress was with our first major report. It was January 2011, and although we had secured enough work to rent an office and hire our first few employees, we hadn’t yet had the opportunity to demonstrate our way of working. The Arab Spring had just begun; as we watched it spread to Egypt, we felt compelled to act. We worried that the West’s typical interventions could exacerbate the tense situation. So we took a somewhat crazy step. We flew to Cairo, shortly after President Mubarak stepped down, and spent three weeks conducting an immersive ethnographic study across the country. We wrote up our findings, and began forcing them on all of our contacts at the World Bank, State Department, and the UN.

In the months following, we wrestled with how best to understand the impact of that report. We hoped it helped bring the voices of everyday Egyptians into international policy deliberations. We were able to track at least some of the ways that it moved through networks of decisionmakers, but we also had to get comfortable with the fact that progress is incremental, and metrics are often tangential. Getting to measure improvements in people’s lives is a rare privilege in our work.

But we were lucky enough to see one sign of success: The World Bank engaged us to do a similar ethnographic study of post-revolutionary Tunisia. It was our first (paid) opportunity to advocate for our methods and ways of working. That project led to a fruitful partnership with the World Bank that continues today.

Now, five years in, Reboot has a number of incremental indicators to motivate us forward. We count the recent shift in policy dialogues. Critical institutions, like our clients at the World Bank and the UN, are embracing more adaptive, contextual, and participatory approaches to their work. We do not take full credit for those changes, but we are glad to be one of many voices calling for them.

We also count our competitors. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery; I can list at least six similar startups that have emerged in recent years (with many referencing our work as a model, and a few even pulling copy directly from our website). Just as we are excited to see major institutions adapt their ways of working, we are excited to see our methods spread among consulting firms. Inspiring an army of like-minded actors is central to our theory of change.

But first and foremost, we count our clients. We are lucky to work with passionate visionaries at some of the most influential institutions in the world, and they keep coming back to us with new challenges. They are willing to listen to us as we push them to challenge assumptions, and they’re willing to challenge our assumptions in turn. The projects we’re able to achieve together are indicators that the social sector can change for the better.

Like all sustainable change, improving the social sector is an incremental process. But we are proud, and I’m personally grateful to Reboot’s community of clients and colleagues who are inspiring us forward.


This blog post is based on Zack’s talk at Slush 2015 on building a social enterprise.
design research interview in indonesia

What Anthropologists Can Learn from Designers (And Vice Versa)

And What Development Can Learn from Both

Last year, while earning a master’s in anthropology and development, my fellow students and I were asked to discuss whether international development is anthropology’s “evil twin” or “moral heart.”

The question gradually divided us: Those who saw development as anthropology’s “evil twin” were research-driven “purists” who did not want to forsake their academic integrity and ethical code in the largely market-driven development industry. Others, like me, saw development as anthropology’s moral heart; as action-oriented “pragmatists,” we wanted to use our anthropological values and knowledge in development practice.

My studies equipped me with scathing critiques of the development industry but no clear path for moving beyond critique to action. I did not see how I could apply my skills to the everyday realities of development, until I came to Reboot and discovered design research. The design research approach aligns with my training in ethnographic methods and immersive fieldwork, and the principles of user-centered design mirror my anthropological value system. It turned out that design research was the bridge from academia to practice that I, as an anthropological pragmatist, had been searching for.

Webs of Similarities

Day-to-day, a design researcher’s job is very similar to that of an anthropologist. Both take a semi-structured and highly immersive approach to field research, recognizing that the root of complex challenges are often just out of sight. Pioneering anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski called this the study of “the imponderabilia of everyday life”: all of those factors that can’t be seen secondhand or via desk research, and instead “have to be observed in their full actuality.” Both design researchers and anthropologists pay attention to the “imponderabilia” in order to remain receptive and adaptive to unexpected insights.

Anthropologists and design researchers also share an understanding that humans and societies are multi-faceted. Both seek to not just understand how people behave, but why; they know there are many ways to interpret the meaning behind even the simplest action. American anthropologist Clifford Geertz described man as “an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” To understand those highly subjective webs of significance, we have to search for meaning, not just facts.

At the heart of this search for meaning, Geertz emphasized the awareness of subjective bias. As part of the ethnographic research process, anthropologists strive to maintain a self-awareness of how they are actors in the system they are studying, referred to in the discipline as “positionality.” They are constantly on the lookout for ways their presence as a researcher may change people’s behavior, which allows them to separate themselves from their research subjects (or, in design research, their “users”). Design research (at its best) strives for positionality by having diverse perspectives on a team to triangulate information and minimize the influence of individual biases on the research data. This positionality helps generate “user-centered” insights, as opposed to “research-centered” insights which neglect to mention the researcher’s timing, placement, and relationships within the system they are studying, and thus fail to account for potential biases.

Drawing Lessons from the Differences

Where the similarities end, design researchers have unique contributions to make to anthropology. The most exciting to me is how design research translates ethnographic insights into actionable policies. Deeply immersive and long-term anthropological fieldwork is difficult to finance and not intended to turn into actual change. Design researchers make compromises that allow them to carry out immersive and iterative research to support change within the institutional realities of development.

Academic anthropologists often spend months and even years immersed in a single place, learning the language and speaking to people across social strata about nearly every aspect of their lives. On the other end of the spectrum, the stereotypical development consultant is working on a wider regional level, with a tighter timeline and with success often measured by quantitative metrics set by large donors. Design researchers find a realistic middle-ground between these two approaches; at Reboot, for example, we often conduct research over a few three-week “research sprints,” partner with local researchers to gain a deeper understanding of the local community, and measure both quantitative and qualitative factors. While this type of fieldwork may not be truly ethnographic to the purist, these trade-offs are necessary to do deeply contextualized, qualitative research within the realities of development.


I came to my master’s program with the question: “How can anthropology improve the practice of development?” My peers in both the purist and pragmatist camps sought to make their research meaningful to the people they studied. My work at Reboot has shown me how well anthropological methods complement those of design. More significantly, I’ve seen how the unique principles and tools of both approaches to research can benefit both the pragmatists and the purists.

Graphic Facilitation for Co-Creation: How Doodling Can Connect Conversations

As a multidisciplinary team, Reboot often uses unconventional tools to help our clients talk through complex problems and create shared understandings. As our resident doodler, I have started experimenting with graphic facilitation to add another tool to our kit.

The graphic facilitator is a relatively new role in the world of workshops. The practice grew out of a network of West Coast consultants in the 1970s, who were inspired by the visual approach designers and architects took to solving problems and collaborating on projects. Today, it has become popular at both commercial and public sector conferences. At Reboot, we have seen how its strengths are especially useful for co-creation processes. When convening a group of diverse stakeholders to “create” together, graphic facilitation meets a need for new tools and strategies to break traditional dynamics and hierarchies—allowing groups to be truly collaborative.

A graphic facilitator works in real-time, illustrating conversations in a way that helps synthesize and emphasize important points. The role of a graphic facilitator is flexible depending on the meeting’s context. For example, as part of the core facilitation team, the graphic facilitator can serve as a form of entertainment to keep listeners engaged, or as the primary notetaker for an event.

More generally, the graphic facilitator becomes the public listener. Brandy Agerbeck describes this role as connecting all voices, inputs, and ideas while synthesizing and recording them—creating a visual map of the meeting. This map can be a tool for organizations seeking more innovative or participatory approaches to their work.


Here are three specific ways that graphic facilitation can add value:


Breaking down established barriers and hierarchies is crucial in the early trust-building phase of a co-creation process. When organizers resist icebreakers (often out of fear that they’re too cheesy or informal), a graphic facilitator can help bring color and fun to the room.

In co-creation sessions, every person arrives with their own perspectives, top-down pressures, and out-of-work distractions. Subconsciously, attendees use these lenses to filter how they connect with and understand other people in the room.

The graphic facilitator can be a connecting force. Seeing a visual representation of the co-creation process generated in real-time allows viewers a fresh, more holistic perspective of the group’s conversation—helping remove personal filters.

Verbatim meeting notes can be a useful record after the fact, but the visual feedback of graphic facilitation can help shape the real-time conversation. Graphic facilitation’s strength lies in its natural ability to track and synthesize conversations into themes by using visual tools such as images, arrows, clusters and color.

Watching these visual cues come to life can inspire and spark new ideas as well. We have found this especially useful in our co-creation workshops. In order for true co-creation to happen, the group needs to develop a shared vision—something that can be hard to do when there are mixed perspectives and goals. By visually articulating the feelings and themes through a neutral listener, graphic facilitation can literally develop a shared “vision” record.

Once an event or gathering is over, it can be hard to sustain the energy and ideas, and even harder to communicate to colleagues and others about the decisions reached. This is especially difficult for a co-creation session, which is a new approach for many organizations, and from which organizations may be eager to see the “so what” or the tangible outputs. Creating a written summary or report can be time- and resource-consuming; graphic facilitation offers a ready-made, easy-to-digest visual representation of the event, which can be shared immediately.

Co-creation isn’t just about the workshop, it’s about what you build out of the workshop. Graphic facilitation provides a tangible output that can bridge to that next step, giving the team more time and space to create other outputs.


people using MyVoice, an SMS feedback system

The Principles for Digital Development: Applying both “Design with the User” and “Design for Scale”

The Principles for Digital Development, which Reboot is proud to endorse, are not static “lessons learned.” They should be living guidelines, continually refined through community discussion, because they’re so complex. Unexpected nuances and conflicts pop up in practice, not only between the Principles and the prerogatives of multiple stakeholders, but even between the Principles themselves. As puts it:

[The Principles] do not answer difficult questions that arise from tensions between individual Principles, such as how to balance the move toward open data with growing privacy and security concerns.

While we see these tensions at Reboot, we know it is always possible to find a “sweet spot.” And the process of finding that sweet spot is not a hurdle; it can be a fruitful step in design and development.

Our recent work developing My Voice, for which we won a Core 77 Design Award, shows how the somewhat-competitive prerogatives between “Design with the User,” “Understand the Ecosystem,” and “Design for Scale” can push development projects to more effective solutions.

My Voice: Incremental and Iterative Results

My Voice is an SMS-based citizen feedback platform that enables citizen-driven improvement of public services. We developed and validated the platform through two pilots (in line with the Principles’ call for “incremental and iterative approaches”).

The first pilot, in partnership with the World Bank and a local agricultural organization, gathered feedback on a national program aimed at increasing farmers’ skills and incomes. Building on that experience, in 2014 we developed and implemented a module for citizens to monitor (and improve) government health clinics in rural areas.

The results were exciting: During a nine-week pilot across 11 primary care clinics, My Voice enabled unprecedented constructive dialogue between patients, service providers, and public health officials. By the end of implementation, more than 80 percent of all patient visits were registered in the My Voice database. Further, service providers at the participating health clinics were responding to patient feedback with practical improvements (such as keeping facilities open on weekends).

These promising pilots were a result of using the Principles for Digital Development. To “Design with the User,” for example, we employed a six-month immersive research and design process, including in-depth ethnographic interviews and embedded user-testing. To “Understand the Existing Ecosystem,” our majority-Nigerian team embedded with providers and policymakers, conducted research at clinics, and developed an in-depth, politically aware understanding of how My Voice could best be attractive to citizens, service providers, and government officials alike.

When the “Scale” is Bigger than the “Ecosystem”

Our deep level of immersion raises an interesting question about another of the Principles for Digital Development: When a service is designed for and with a specific set of users and ecosystem, how broadly can it scale? At what “scale” do the users and ecosystem change?

To “Design for Scale,” you must define the ideal “scale” for a particular project, and be clear from the beginning about how a design will adapt to different contexts. Technological choices are only part of this challenge.

With My Voice, we created a solution through a two-part design: 1) A technology platform, which gathers citizen feedback and formats it specifically for provider and policymakers; and 2) A programmatic model, to integrate citizen feedback into service providers’ management and improvement processes.

We saw the need for these two integrated, mutually reinforcing parts from early in the user-centered process. When talking with patients at health care clinics, for example, we found that even the word “feedback” was unfamiliar; people had low expectations that their input would be wanted or used. The technology platform on its own would not have inspired participation if the programmatic model did not exist to ensure that My Voice would stimulate meaningful response.

Looking beyond the pilot stage, we saw that this two-part approach would also be useful in “Designing for Scale.” The open-source technology platform can be easily transposed; the programmatic model helps provide a framework for adapting the tool to processes and constraints in different sectors. That process requires understanding a new ecosystem and further user research and testing. In this way, institutionalizing the Principles for Digital Development requires a continuous loop—we are never “finished” with one of the Principles, even as a project reaches its envisioned “scale.”

Envisioning My Voice At Scale

For any institution or company that delivers public goods, My Voice can be an affordable means of collecting valuable data on the quality of services. Bringing the platform to a larger scale is not a one-step process, however. As we discuss the potential for new My Voice implementations with partners, including in future health care focused projects in Nigeria, we are continuing to work in alignment with the Principles for Digital Development. This means that we will first work with implementation partners to provide iterative “test cases,” ensuring that as we grow My Voice, we continue to refine it within the constraints of actual contexts and based on live user feedback.

Ensuring we have amply demonstrated the value of the service is also necessary to ensuring that it can win the full support of government, donor, or other stakeholders who may be invested in its wider implementation.

Success in any development project requires navigating multiple prerogatives. It is often simpler to find the “sweet spot” between two Principles than it is to reconcile tensions between the Principles and the priorities of multiple other stakeholders. “Design for Scale,” for example, often aligns well with donor methodologies and budgets, while “Design with the User” can be a more difficult ask. On the flip side, donors may reap benefits from touting an “innovative” pilot without being held accountable for delivering on the expectations. While there are tensions to be answered between users, ecosystem, and scale, these three Principles must all be followed for any individual one to work.

How to Use Open Data for Collaboration, not Antagonism, to Inspire Reform

I used to assume that governance reform failures were the result of leaders’ bad intentions. Coming from the open data advocacy world, it seemed that there’s a lack of political will for governments to be open, even when politicians’ campaigns tout their investment in transparency. An analysis of 28 African countries by the public finance expert Matt Andrews, for example, showed far more transparency during budget formulation than in execution. This kind of sleight-of-hand leads many of us to view our government counterparts as antagonists rather than partners.

Yet over the years, I’ve realized that politicians’ intentions are not always the limiting factor in reforming governance. I’ve sought out and partnered with reform-minded government officials, and in these cases, the thorniest problems were embedded in the institutions themselves: Arcane systems and cultures that often enable bad intentions and constrain good ones.

Open data holds promise for improving these systems, but it won’t really work without institutional reform, which is never easy or quick. To see results, we can start with improving open data programs themselves by finding the right “good intentions” to act on — that is, targeted reform opportunities. When reform-minded political leadership, a prioritized political investment, and influential civic accountability actors align, open data programs have much better chances of achieving the incremental steps needed for reform.

I recently saw a powerful example of open data as a two-way information channel during a project in Nigeria. We were working with a team at the World Bank, as well as an advocacy organization that wanted to track government investment in local school projects. The local Ministry of Education was already using a public website to share up-to-date data about the results of a “model schools” initiative. But many citizens were justifiably suspicious after years of what they saw as government mismanagement and neglect. The advocacy organization, the Niger Delta Citizens and Budget Platform (NDCBP), set out to confirm the government’s data by gathering a new dataset of its own.

We helped NDCBP gather data about the quality and progress of school construction, using a representative sample of the some-200 projects. NDCBP had a rather antagonistic history with the government, so we also worked with them to move from throwing stones to bringing hard evidence to engage government counterparts in constructive conversation. The new dataset was the start of an ongoing conversation that increased the grassroots voice in decisions about education spending. Even when the new governor’s administration began in 2015, the Ministry included NDCBP in evaluating the outcomes of the prior regime’s education policies and advising on which to carry forward and how. NDCBP was the only civil society organization included. Thus, open data was a tool for accountability as well as to facilitate productive communication between citizens and government.


In our investigation of over 200 schools, surveyors visited school locations and asked basic questions about each, starting with whether or not it actually existed. This “non-model” school in Rivers State, Nigeria had seen minimal maintenance and children used the floor for desks.

Data can be a powerful tool for change, so any delay in the implementation of open data programs can look deliberate. But the truth is that opening data is filled with immense, and legitimate, logistical and legal hurdles. Where technology moves quickly, institutional integration is a methodical, lumbering process. Open data programs should set realistic expectations and programming with the intention of supporting incremental institutional change.

And through collaboration, not antagonism, we will set important precedents for colleagues both in government and civil society around the world. After all, the field is new, and many of us are figuring out how to do things for the first time. The processes and standards we set will have impact far beyond our individual careers. Let’s instill more listening, more empathy, and more collaboration into the process now. It’s the best way to turn our own good intentions into results.


This blog was originally published on Broken Toilets’ blog on June 21, 2016.

people powered media innovation in west africa

Omidyar Network on the Value of Investing in Media

Introducing People-Powered Media Innovation in West Africa

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Omidyar Network’s blog. Reboot and Omidyar Network have announced the release of a new report on supporting journalists to influence governance in the rapidly changing West African media landscape. We are pleased to share here Omidyar Network’s post introducing the report:


Independent media is influencing politics and government in previously unprecedented ways in West Africa. The increasing diversification of media ecosystems after decades of state control, along with new digital tools that allow for greater citizen engagement, have led to a dramatic reshaping of the dynamics between citizens, media, and government. In tandem, new opportunities for funders are opening up, providing the potential for significant positive social and economic impact.

Recognizing these trends and wanting to better understand how we and other funders and practitioners working in the space could help drive greater impact, Omidyar Network partnered with Reboot, a social impact firm dedicated to inclusive development and accountable governance, to undertake a research project identifying the constraints and opportunities that drive media innovation in West Africa today. The project paid particular attention to identifying concrete examples of organizations in Nigeria and Ghana — countries chosen for their vibrant media ecosystems — that represent the wider trend of innovation within the local media landscape and could provide important insights, as well as highlighting specific opportunities and actions for funders to explore.

Over four months from July to October 2015 the Reboot team conducted in-depth interviews in Nigeria and Ghana with 58 respondents, including those representing media, government, civil society organizations, and citizens across focus countries. The detailed findings of the research have published today in a report titled People Powered Media Innovation in West Africa.

Based on the review of the current media landscape, Reboot identified the emergence of digital tools as a key factor contributing towards greater openness and citizen participation. The role of social media is particularly key; from the rise of “influencers” who shape opinions, to the role of the “crowd” in monitoring elections and pushing for more open budgets, to breaking news before mainstream media houses. The media is also increasingly influencing government, for instance in-depth reporting on corruption is driving investigations and leading to…

Click here to read the rest of this post on the Omidyar Network blog.


media innovation in west africa

Keeping the “Interest” in Public Interest Journalism

A New Reboot Report on Audience Engagement for Media Development in West Africa

No matter what your field, inspiration often comes from unexpected sources. Media innovators working in West Africa, for example, are taking lessons from Buzzfeed and Upworthy.

Once described as the fastest growing media site in history, Upworthy takes an innovative approach to analytics. “Attention minutes,” the amount of time people spend per piece, is the site’s key metric, rather than pageviews or clicks. This approach stems from the belief that “for democracy to work, the world needs more empathy;” in other words, emotional resonance is vital to sustaining interest in public interest journalism.

Sites like Zikoko in West Africa are beginning to emulate this strategy, with content spreading steadily across the continent and through the diaspora, earning it the moniker of an “Afrocentric Buzzfeed.” Right now, with media increasingly influencing governance, it may be time for public interest journalism to follow suit.

Lessons like these drive Reboot’s latest report, “People-Powered Media Innovation in West Africa,” supported by Omidyar Network. In a time of growing journalistic freedom and power to hold governments accountable, funders have a chance to support media development for both social and economic impact. As my colleague Nonso recently wrote, Reboot’s in-depth research in Nigeria and Ghana showed that audience engagement can drive both innovation and government accountability in this era of new media. The new report examines some pathways in this direction.

Audiences are the Future of Media Development

Despite citizens’ critical role in reshaping media and improving governance, few organizations are leveraging them for both social impact and financial sustainability. Beyond the low-hanging fruit of elections and major corruption scandals, citizen energy remains largely untapped.

Interested funders and entrepreneurs can both improve media’s impact on governance and increase financial stability by focusing on audience engagement. That’s not to say that it’s a quick fix: Few people leap straight from reading the news to taking political action. However, they can be pushed through increasing engagement levels, and funders can provide tactical support to media at each of those levels:

Level 1: Acquisition: To acquire an audience, media must differentiate. Currently, too few in West Africa leverage the power of niche, choosing instead to imitate mass media and “do everything.”

A powerful counter-example in Nigeria is Sabi News, which has realized the value of a niche orientation. A digital news and opinions platform known for its popular columnists, the site features a roster of social and political commentators whose analysis of current events run from bitingly critical to refreshingly entertaining.

Prior to Sabi’s launch in 2014, its founders conducted an audience survey asking Nigerians to name five journalists. Over 80 percent of respondents couldn’t name more than one. However, most could name at least five commentary columnists with ease. This insight drove the site’s editorial strategy and columnist-focused positioning; the site today boasts audience metrics comparable to much bigger organizations.

Level 2: Activation: To get audiences talking, media must understand what makes them tick. Most are using blunt analytics that mask the nuances of engagement. The international example from the Filipino news site Rappler is among the more innovative.

Alongside each story on Rappler is the question: “How does this story make you feel?” Readers can choose from eight emotions, selected with help from psychologists, including “amused” and “annoyed.” While deceptively simple, the strategy has proved highly successful, and Rappler believes this may be a “gateway” to further engagement on the substance of news stories and debates. These metrics are also helping journalists hone their skills in telling stories that resonate.

Level 3: Action: Converting passive readers into active citizens is challenging. But one opportunity to motivate citizens is to create politically opportunistic content, tied directly to unfulfilled government promises.

This strategy was successful for the radio station Nigeria Info, in partnership with the budget advocacy group Niger Delta Citizens and Budget Platform. Frustrated by the Rivers State Governor’s signature education initiative, which was woefully underperforming, the partners developed a radio program dedicated to education issues. [Disclosure: Reboot supported the design and early implementation of the program.] The show quickly gained popularity, and a highly engaged listenership put pressure on the state to deliver on its commitments.

Within a year of launching the program, the government had implemented several overdue policy reforms and initiated promising new educational programs. The radio station has since applied this strategy to other negligent government bodies, including the National Emergency Management Agency and the state power company.

An Important Moment for Investors to Step In

These kinds of tangible governance outcomes help demonstrate to citizens that their voices and media matter, inspiring further civic engagement. This, in turn, both strengthens the media landscape and advances accountable governance. While audience engagement is key, beyond these specific strategies, the research showed a great need for new financial pathways to give media the space to experiment with engagement.

Right now, overall investment in media is low; of the USD 110.3 billion spent on official development assistance in 2012, only 0.4 percent was targeted at media development. Private impact investors often overlook media, as its impact is diffuse and difficult to measure. In this environment, new investments are vital, and have high potential for impact.

Funders have an opportunity to improve the viability, effectiveness, and sustainability of independent media. They can do so by incentivizing journalism at the individual level; improving investment approaches at the organization level; and innovating financing at the philanthropic field level. These opportunities can help ground conversations between funders and media organizations, and serve as a jumping-off point for other ideas. By detailing these, we hope our newest report will be a source of inspiration for further work.


Click here to read the complete report, “People-Powered Media Innovation in West Africa.”

ogp event in tbilsi

Communities of Practice: They Keep Disappointing Us, but We Keep Building Them

How the Open Government Partnership is boosting COP effectiveness

Collective Action: A love-hate relationship

Collective action presents challenges that are widely recognized, yet people continually prefer to work together. Governance practitioners recognize that the issues we work to address are complex; as a result, we seek support from peers to achieve our shared goals. Building a “Community of Practice” (COP) is one demonstration of this attitude. The term, borrowed from cognitive anthropology, describes the productivity that happens when people gather regularly to discuss common work. Through offline convenings, online meetings, or in a blended approach, COPs aim to deliberately organize collective action.

In reality, however, many COPs fail to meet expectations and are difficult to sustain. The reasons are often no different than those fundamental to collective action problems, such as aligning varying perspectives and motivating operational management. COPs then, as a tempting solution to issues of collective action, will continue to be built but are also ineffective without a better understanding of why they are failing, and how we can improve the human interaction that occurs within them.

A Testing Ground for New Approaches

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is offering alternatives to traditional approaches to COPs. Last year, the OGP engaged Reboot to expand on its peer learning mechanisms, and offer a user-centered approach to community building.

We leveraged our experience embedding in Mexico’s Office of the President to test a new facilitation approach to OGP gatherings. The critical element was an organizing principle that we had discovered would mobilize fruitful conversations amongst government reformers: coordination across their own agencies. We tested this as a design principle for two workshops with the OGP, first at the European region meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia in June, and later in Mexico City at the annual summit in October.

Our experience has led us to insights for increasing the effectiveness of COPs. We hope that by sharing them here, others can reflect on the peer learning that they foster, and gain inspiration to similarly experiment.

Communities for Lonely Reformers

Workshop participants in Tbilisi and Mexico City were Points of Contact (POC), the government actors who are responsible for implementing their nation’s open government commitments.

Of all the people working in government, OGP POCs may be most in need of community. They have a challenging mandate and few direct colleagues: They’re government employees, but they’re not quite aligned with “traditional” civil servants’ ways of working, nor with those of their counterparts in civil society. This “insider-outsider” status has advantages in terms of reform, but disadvantages in terms of peer learning.

Online, these reformers have access to a growing base of knowledge and connections. The Open Gov Guide, a directory of OGP process, is one valuable tool for POCs seeking guidance on action plan development. Further, The GovLab recently launched the Network of Innovators, an online skill-sharing network that provides valuable infrastructure for open government actors seeking to build relationships within and across sectors. Reboot’s own contribution is our user’s manual for government innovators: Implementing Innovation,which complements established OGP resources with practical lessons that lead program implementers through anticipated hurdles, and offers structured ways of thinking through paths to addressing them.

While these online resources serve their purposes, a thriving and fruitful COP requires in-person interaction. Recognizing this, the OGP is regularly bringing together members to share expertise, discuss working strategies and practice, and energize and inspire each other to fight shared battles.

Three Principles for Making Intentional Communities Effective

So how does the OGP get the most out of these in-person events? And what considerations should be made when participants are government actors? Our experience surfaced three principles to structure in-person interactions that resonate with participants, and plant the seeds for ongoing community building.

Principle #1: Every community needs a useful “organizing principle,” a way of slicing and dicing the group for increased interaction.

When the OGP facilitates peer learning and exchange through working groups and regional events, the groups coalesce around domains and geography, respectively; for example, there is a working group for “open data,” and a regional event for Africa. Both of these organizing principles are well-understood, and relevant to a wide and diverse audience.

In Tbilisi, the OGP and Reboot prototyped an alternative approach to organizing the community. We asked members to share their most pressing challenges, and in listening to their frustrations, we discovered that many are experiencing difficulties in coordinating across agencies. In response, we designed the workshop around this challenge. We observed that focusing on an issue of concern that they themselves raised helped to motivate shared problem-solving in a real and observable way. The synthesized workshop results are five dominant pain points that POCs are hungry to address through peer support: 1) Lack of time; 2) Lack of political will; 3) Lack of financial resources; 4) Staff turnover; 5) Lack of understanding “open government.”

Principle #2: Treat the workshop conversations as data, and use it to drive your programming going forward.

Building on the prototype workshop in Tbilisi, for example, Reboot designed and tested another workshop for the OGP Annual Summit in Mexico City. There, participants built off of the existing five challenge areas, but had the freedom to modify. For example, they noted that number four, “Staff turnover,” is often a symptom of the other challenges. They also added a sixth challenge area, “Rapidly changing institutional environments.” Those conversations are the seeds of the vibrant community; making sure they feed into programming and structure of the COP going forward will help make sure that community thrives.

Principle #3: Break community members out of established roles and mindsets to encourage innovative thinking and noteworthy engagement.

We’ve written before about participatory workshop design; here, it’s important to note that these practices remain applicable when working with civil servants and policymakers.

We sometimes see skepticism towards workshop activities that seem like too much “fun” or that don’t appear to have immediate, productive objectives. But encouraging flexibility and creativity is necessary for every successful workshop. Prompts and exercises designed to make individuals think or act in unfamiliar ways helps to motivate the unexpected and atypical interactions that generate the most valuable conversations.

For example, in our pre-engagement to the workshops with POCs, we heard many express a sense of loneliness in their work, and a common worry that they were facing unique challenges. By designing activities that asked these participants to “role play”—imagine that they are in a position that is currently not their own—resulted in greater interaction, with many contributing with reflections on their own experience and offerings that pushed traditional limits.

Transforming COPs through Smart Community Building

Reboot is often asked to share our expertise in design and facilitation. Our secret: We do not just design and facilitate workshops. Principles, including those shared here, apply long before the three-day window when a community is all in the same place and ready to form, and are vital long after. In the long-term work of managing a community, the most valuable workshop design starts at the earliest vision and fits into a much broader design.

We are using these principles to go beyond the workshop and build worthwhile collective action within the OGP. This year we will be working shoulder-to-shoulder with several subnational OGP pilots as they create their action plans. We’ll be experimenting with what works, and what doesn’t, in co-creation with government and civil society at the state, county, and city levels.  Stay tuned for more updates on this work and how our lessons on building effective communities of practice evolve.


This article was originally published on the Open Government Partnership Blog on June 7, 2016.


media landscape in west africa

Innovation in the Face of Corruption: The Critical Role of Independent Media in West Africa

Independent media plays a critical role in advancing good governance. In many places, this role is increasing, as communities and journalists use new digital tools to upend traditional power structures. In Nigeria, for example, there are notable examples of journalists turning a bright spotlight on corruption. But as independent media in Nigeria strives to grow in relevance and impact, the systems of political interest are pushing back.

The case of Stella Oduah, former Minister of Aviation, shows how media victories in emerging democracies can be extremely incremental. Journalists exposed in 2013 that she had misappropriated public funds, spending N255 million (USD1.3 million) on bulletproof BMW cars. Oduah was removed from office, but the corruption charges against her are still pending; in the meantime, she has been elected to a higher position in the national senate. Despite the media’s success in exposing Oduah, she remains in power. The path from media exposure to accountability is not straightforward.

Announcing a new report on media and good governance

Despite steep challenges, the opportunities for media development are ripe. As media systems across West Africa diversify after decades of state control, there are opportunities to support innovative journalism, not only to increase government transparency and accountability but to encourage economic development as well. But in such a rapidly changing environment, funders interested in these opportunities need an empirical grounding for their investments.

This is the inspiration for one of Reboot’s most recent projects. Omidyar Network, which has invested in innovations that accelerate and support independent media around the world, engaged Reboot to develop a nuanced, field-based understanding of the constraints and opportunities that drive media innovation and impact in West Africa.

Through four months of in-depth field research, we learned first-hand from citizens, journalists, media professionals, and government representatives in Nigeria and Ghana, countries chosen for their vibrant media ecosystems. Based on this research and in collaboration with Omidyar Network, we are currently preparing to release a new report on our key findings, to inform international donors who want to understand and engage media development in West Africa.*

Despite liberalization, steep challenges for independent media

Nigeria, which last year removed a sitting president from office through the ballot box for the first time, is experiencing fascinating changes in the media industry. With well over 400 radio and TV stations, more than 80 newsprints, and rapidly growing online media, Nigeria is a regional leader in media industry diversity and volume. The boundary-pushing outlets include both traditional and new media outlets, including Channels TV, Sahara Reporters, Premium Times, and Nigeria Info. These and other practitioners have advanced the media landscape, shaking up old models and scoring major successes.

Yet as media calls for greater accountability and transparency, government is responding with more measures for control. Government is able to tighten the tap on local media resources through ownership of media houses (or connections to owners), ties with advertisers (or advertisers’ perceived political interests), direct payments to journalists, hiring influential journalists to run government or corporate press teams, and other means.

Business cultures in West Africa also devalue the work of journalists. Experienced, credentialed journalists often lose jobs to less-experienced journalists who will work for less pay. In Nigeria, it is common for a media house to skip paying journalists for months on end, a practice justified through the expectation that journalists will make enough money in “tips.”

A field like this, where coverage is bought and paid for, often compromises media’s integrity. But in the digital era, new alternatives are opening up.

New media drives media innovation

With resources scarce, one of the biggest pressures encouraging media innovation is the voice of citizens, especially empowered by social media. Notable disruptions include: Occupy Nigeria, a campaign against fuel price increases, spurred largely by social media savvy activists; Bring Back Our Girls (#BBOG), a stand against terrorism and kidnapping in Nigeria; and EkitiGates, an unveiling of military involvement in rigging elections and evidence of the rise of citizen journalism.

Last year’s presidential election was a milestone in this trend. The popular narrative during the election was set by online political activists and platforms, such as the organizer/blogger Japheth Omojuwa. New media’s power rose alongside social media; by the 2015 election, there was a flood of new media startup organizations, as everyone wanted a voice in the marketplace.

Above and beyond the elections, social media has transformed the media and influenced its growing prestige in Nigeria. The proliferation of social media has made it harder for media organizations to serve only the interests of a few elite. Citizens have access to breaking news from a variety of sources, and so are demanding their media organizations keep up, both in terms of speed and in terms of representing more than just official narratives.

There is a unique dynamic between journalists and citizens that is helping push the boundaries for media. Journalists are getting better at providing content that resonates with citizens’ interests. Citizens are reinforcing journalists with recognizable support, including engaging with content and demanding depth, clarity, and credibility in reporting. This dynamic is behind many of the most exciting innovations uncovered through our research, which will be released soon.*

The challenges in the terrain also signpost the great opportunities to be harnessed in Nigeria for media to shape governance outcomes. Progress has been made, but there is still limited evidence that long-term change happens because of media. What is clear is that much more and smarter work is needed to advance media development and impact. We look forward to continuing the conversation!


*Click here to read the complete report, “People-Powered Media Innovation in West Africa.”

Lessons from Five Years of Reboot

A New Podcast on “Entryism,” Design, and the Reboot Story from Co-Founder Panthea Lee

From 140 characters to project reports, how we frame and explain our work is an iterative process at Reboot. Our communications team has always wished that we could bottle the nuanced wisdom from our founders. Thankfully, someone finally did that for us. Stephen Ladek, founder of International Solutions Group, interviewed Panthea Lee for his Terms of Reference podcast last fall.

Over 30 minutes, their conversation unpacks how we work towards our big founding vision. Some highlights:

  • Panthea’s “aha moment” that took her from frustrated development practitioner to founder of Reboot.

  • “Infiltrate sounds like the wrong term”: The ups and downs of being an “entryist”—working inside and with organizations to radically change the way they do things.

  • Guidelines for how we choose our projects to match our theory of change, and exciting new ideas we’re experimenting with for the future.

If you’re looking for a bit of inspiration and know-how on working to change the way governments and major development institutions approach their work, listen here.

Congratulations to Stephen on the 100th episode of Terms of Reference! We’re looking forward to following the podcast’s new focus on thought leaders at the forefront of innovation in development and humanitarian aid.


Design Diary: Cover Concepts for the 2016 World Development Report

A lot of work goes into designing the cover for any publication, and no less for a report as complex and widely-discussed in our sector as the World Bank’s World Development Report.

Every year, a new team of economists and scholars from the World Bank comes together to write the World Development Report, a several hundred-page report on a theme in global economic development. Reboot was proud to serve as design partner for this year’s report, “Digital Dividends.” We worked closely with the Bank’s editorial team to set the report’s visual style through its graphs, cover, and a set of infographics.

For Reboot, creating the cover for the report wasn’t just about creating a beautiful end product (although we are happy to say that was one result). Following many months of designing graphs, chapter dividers, and a style guide, the cover was the visual capstone. Its design needed to speak to all of the important themes of the report, and the journey to the final cover took us in many different directions. In this post we’ll share some of the cover designs we came up with, and discuss how we reached the final version.

Here’s one early idea that the editorial team really liked from the start:


It’s a visual representation of the report’s metaphor of the internet as a 21st century machine running on 19th century tracks. Outdated policies and regulations aren’t adequately supporting the new digital frontier. This design suggests a parallel between internet advancement and its underlying institutional infrastructure. While this design is a clever, snappy way of showing that concept, it falls short in that it represents only one idea from the far-reaching report. We needed something that meant more.

That brought us to the “circuitree”:


In this illustration, the branches and leaves of the tree form a pattern resembling circuits, representing the world’s rapidly growing digital infrastructure. The roots allude to the institutional practices and policies that support advancements in digital development. We experimented with several versions of this illustration, some of which emphasized one of the report’s key cautionary messages: that the analog foundations (roots) of digital development are too small, and not growing fast enough to keep pace with advancing digital technologies. This cover’s metaphor certainly captured more of the report’s most important themes. However, it presumed that readers had at least a moderate level of understanding of the themes, which would be necessary to make the connection.

As we searched for a new solution, we wanted to stretch our concept of what a cover could be. In years past we’d seen covers of the World Development Report include photographs, illustrations, and maps, but we hadn’t seen a cover that told a specific story. Enter, the infographic cover:


For these two concepts, we started with a dataset comparing internet adoption to more traditional development indicators—access to clean water and, sanitation—and tried to represent that data in a way that was compelling and informative. The results were interesting, and it certainly challenged the traditional use of a cover, but its character separated it too far from covers past.

Throughout our various explorations, we aimed for a balance between accessibility and thoroughness. The “wi-fi train” made a good icon, but didn’t go far beyond that. The circuitree brought complexity to the metaphor, but only if you knew what to look for. The infographic was informative and independent, but misaligned.

Finally, we reached a solution:


The World Bank team had been particularly drawn to this photograph throughout the process. Taken by John Stanmeyer, it shows migrants in Djibouti straining to access mobile signal from Somalia. In addition to being a beautiful image, this scene captured a story that reflects an important idea of the report: Despite 20 years of civil war, Somalia’s mobile sector experiences fierce competition, ensuring better mobile access than Djibouti, and many of its other, richer neighbors. Thus, the photo strikes the right balance. It’s both accessible, conveying themes about mobile technology to uninformed readers, and thorough, evoking the complex market and political factors that impact digital access explored in the report.

The process of designing a cover is not often short. But while we went through multiple versions, we had many opportunities to experiment along the way. And we landed in a place that yielded new opportunities: We were able to take the cover a step further with an infographic explaining the story behind it.

A Beginner’s Guide to More Meaningful Infographics

I love infographics. They are valuable tools in both the public and private sector. But often, through my internet wanderings, I come across an infographic that seems a little off. Instead of helping me consume data in a meaningful way, it leaves me feeling confused.

Generally, these misfires happen when a pile of icons and numbers is mistaken for an “infographic.” A recent Guardian post marketed to the Global Development Professionals Network, for example, promised to be a Beginner’s Guide to Data Visualization. The author describes an infographic as “traditionally static, a colorful page layout bursting with icons and statistics,” and recommends some drag-and-drop tools that are simple to use, allowing any organization to create visualizations with their own data. But, contrary to this article, infographics are more than flashy “bursting” visuals and certainly cannot be created with one-size-fits-all templates.

Infographics should help us understand data—something which does not happen by plopping data points next to icons or inside objects that become abnormally shaped bar charts. I urge the development sector to leave “beginner’s guides” behind, and move toward a more meaningful infographic.

Well-designed infographics help viewers enter data in a way that a spreadsheet or research report simply cannot. They use visual patterns and organize content to enhance human cognition. Sure, they can (and should) be attractive and inviting, but successful infographics also enable a viewer to remember data by intertwining it into intentionally chosen visuals and simplifying its complexity.

Over the last couple of months, I have become fascinated with how the international development sector makes and shares these visual tools. Mostly, I have been influenced by Reboot’s recent collaboration with the World Bank on the visual identity of the 2016 World Development Report. Through this partnership, we created a series of promotional infographics to be released in tandem with the final report—helping the World Bank’s complex technical findings become more compelling and memorable.

A Rule of Thumb for Meaningful Infographics

Here’s an easy trick to avoid the meaningless infographic trap: the next time you look at an infographic, remove all the visuals—the icons, illustrations, or diagrams. If it still reads the same, then that designer has not used the full power of these visual tools.

More than just making things flashy, visuals help people navigate complex information and process even the easiest concepts faster. Take, for example, two different ways to understand a shape. While text is processed sequentially, images are processed simultaneously:


See what I mean? “Pictures are powerful,” states Dan Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures:

Processing images activates more corners of our minds than words alone, we have a greater tendency to believe what we see—and the images we create are far stickier than things we have to read.

Distilling Data into a Narrative

So now that you know how to recognize a bad infographic, how do you go about making a good one? The first step is to consider your purpose and your intended audience.

Different infographics serve different purposes. Some are highly technical, showing complex processes to experienced audiences, while others break down data into a narrative. Though these categories are not mutually exclusive, understanding the differences between the two helps organizations choose the appropriate format.

While working with the World Bank, we found ourselves at this crossroads, deciding between a technical or narrative infographic. So, like all of our projects, we began by asking a lot of questions, including:

  • What audiences will benefit most from an infographic?
  • What level of understanding do they have on this topic?
  • How can we convey the best story?

While the World Development Report (WDR) contains enough data to create a series of highly complex visualizations similar to Mike Faille’s exploration of the U.S. border crisis, we decided our intent was to help the average reader distill the themes, trends, and issues of the internet and development.

By asking these questions to ourselves and the World Bank, we saw that these infographics would play an important role in disseminating the ideas of the WDR beyond the academics and wonks—to readers who may not pick up the report and read it cover to cover.


Clearly defining our audience allowed us to craft a cohesive narrative that illustrates the report’s main themes. For example, this pie chart emphasizes the size and scope of the digital inequality discussed in the report.

Purpose-Driven Images

Guided by our target audience, we began to explore other ways to communicate the WDR’s key concepts. Rather than just plopping icons next to data, we intentionally created visuals to enhance our users’ experience and understanding of the problem.

For example, understanding the physical and technological infrastructure of internet connectivity is important to understanding the report’s policy recommendations. The idea of “connectivity” felt fuzzy to us, but the nuance was too complex to explain quickly. Within the publication, the World Bank had the attention and word count to explain the integral connections that make up this idea. We knew that our infographic—as internet content—would not have that luxury.

As visual thinkers, we saw this challenge as an opportunity. Using the WDR’s Policy Matrix, we created an illustration that references its main points, but also “paints a picture” that viewers can understand with ease:


What makes this illustration successful is the intentional reciprocity between the written content and each visual element. The visuals are not necessarily what you notice first. But if you apply the Infographic Rule of Thumb and remove all of the visuals from this post, you end up with a list of different kinds of technologies; and then we’re back to the WDR’s Policy Matrix—it’s difficult to parse.

With the illustrations, you get a complete picture of what happens at each “mile” of connectivity. Take the section: “First Mile: Where the Internet Enters a Country.” This phrase is essentially meaningless without the familiar coastline and buoys (which play a role in laying the fiber optic cable necessary for internet to enter a country). It’s not about the picture of the coastline or the city, but about picturing the web of connectivity as a whole as it moves through each “mile.”

As organizations become equipped to collect more and more data, infographics will be an even more crucial tool to bring readers into statistical information easily. It is time for the development sector to think more holistically about this important form of visual communication. So the next time your organization decides to create an infographic, take a step back and think critically. It’s not just a pretty picture—it’s a thousand words.



See more infographics, and download the full 2016 World Development Report here.

Reboot team members discussing Reboot's principles

Fervent, Humble, Uncowed: The Hard Work of Putting Principles into Practice

For the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of lecturing at Hofstra’s Zarb School of Business. I always relish my time with these aspiring entrepreneurs, and I’m especially impressed by the way they balance realism and idealism.

Their sensitivity to this tension was on display during our most recent conversation, as they asked about how we maintain Reboot’s internal culture. It’s a topic near to my heart as we’ve always worked hard to be a principles-driven organization. A few years back, we articulated these in a list that is shared with every staff member during onboarding, and which guides our work and culture. The Hofstra students immediately saw how challenging this idealistic list might be to put into practice:

Reboot Principles

  • Empathy: Respect people, place, and custom.
  • Bespoke: Common ingredients, always unique.
  • Adaptive: Embrace failure, question yourself, watch your back.
  • Realist: Humanity is beautiful, humanity is cruel.
  • Fervent: The task is urgent, the moment is now.
  • Humble: I don’t know what I don’t know.
  • Intelligent: But I do know what I do know.
  • Inquiring: And I want to know what I don’t know.
  • Confident: When I don’t know, I’ll make a plan to try and know.
  • Moral: There is a right and wrong.
  • Judicious: Yet my vision is too weak to know it perfectly.
  • Uncowed: Truth to power and strength in the face of evil.

This list is both high-level and incomplete, and constantly evolving (in keeping with our commitment to being adaptive and inquiring). It captures the spirit of the values that we strive to keep front-and-center in everything we do.

But the Hofstra students were right: It’s incredibly challenging to follow through on these ideals. Their questions led to a rich discussion: How do you maintain fervency when dealing with problems, like poor education, that are decades or centuries in the making? What does it mean to be moral when you’re making choices between mutually unpleasant options? What are the consequences of being uncowed when speaking up can cost us future and larger opportunities to push for the change we believe in?

Inspired, I brought the conversation back to our team. I see these principles at work every day when I look at what my colleagues are producing, but I realized it had been a while since I had heard from them specifically about how they understand the process. So I did a quick survey, and asked a few individuals to chat a bit more. As it turns out, we could write a long book on this question, but here are just a few of the themes we surfaced on what these principles mean in practice:

They mean Reboot has to stay “right-sized.”

“I think Reboot’s small team enables us to be nimble and scrappy, free from excessive bureaucracy. It allows and encourages contextually-driven approaches to problem-solving.”
— Adam Parker, Communications Designer

In a very physical sense, the principles have shaped Reboot: Committing to these principles means growing slowly and cautiously. We have built our capacity and grown to meet new challenges, but we are always resisting the momentum that so many consulting firms fall into, where “feeding the beast” becomes more important than sticking to principles. Our size also helps us do adaptive, bespoke work.

They mean we value our staff as people.

“The work we do lends itself to our principles. Our team has to be really passionate about our work. I call it the ‘Reboot Recipe,’ for different projects—different people have different quantities of the values. We push each other to make the project what it needs to be.” —Nina Kiernan, Operations Manager

Everything we do is a product of collaboration; none of us could maintain these principles on our own. Different team members bring different strengths, and we constantly challenge each other to be better. Our size also encourages empathy and collaboration between team members; we have the space to know each other outside of work, and think about each other holistically as humans.

They mean we toggle between principles at different project phases.

“Being a realist is powerful because it helps you understand what is possible within all the constraints. But, sometimes seeing the world for what it is (rather than from a more optimistic or idealistic view) can feel constricting and overwhelming.” — Emily Herrick, Communications Designer

Being “adaptive” and “bespoke” is different at the beginning of a project than it is in the home stretch, although they still apply throughout. The emotional peaks and valleys of any project also call for modulated principles. There are times when maintaining fervency requires rose-colored glasses, and maybe putting realism aside for a minute.

They mean that sometimes, we ruffle feathers.

“To be uncowed is central to our existence. We are constantly challenging entrenched systems, but that is a difficult stance to pull off, especially in a world where interests often flourish by conforming.”
— Nonso Jideofor, Program Manager

We are working to change the power dynamics of a major international field, where structures have been shaped over decades and with the support of governments. That is especially true when we find ourselves at major conferences and convenings. We work in a unique corner of the market, with clients who are open to change and innovation, but we also engage with communities where the push for change is not always as strong. We are known for speaking up when we disagree.

They mean that sometimes we walk away from projects.

“The question of being ‘moral’ is hard, because we know ‘development’ itself is an imperfect enterprise. The larger system that we work within needs change and reform. We try to ‘do good’ in the face of seeing so many things that are wrong.” — Panthea Lee, Principal

Our principles are not just about idealism; they are central to the approach that we believe gets the best results. That means that on the rare occasion when a project runs counter to these values, we have to walk away, even if it’s a “great business opportunity.” In these moments, we are transparent and uncowed, explaining why we believe in our approach. But when a project has been stuck on a counterproductive track, we have ended contracts.

They mean that sometimes, we burn out.

“I recently watched two colleagues preparing for a workshop forgetting to fulfill basic personal human needs—such as eating and sleeping—as they were so focused on improving the experience of those around them.” — Adam Talsma, Senior Designer

Reboot attracts a certain kind of staff member: Someone who is driven by many of these same principles naturally. Fervency is one of the most common; we’re idealistic, passionate, and we work hard because of it. But we need to remember not to let our fervor come before our own human needs. Nearly everyone on staff had an example to share of seeing others work too hard. We are all committed to them and driven, but we are working harder to push each other to take breaks.

They mean that our work is always fresh to us.

“Everyone just has this attitude towards getting the job done, even when things don’t work out as expected. I’ve never seen a Reboot team member throw up their hands and say, ‘This isn’t what we signed up for, we’re out of here.’ Everyone wants to make a project work, even if it turns out be a totally different beast than what was initially discussed and planned for.” — Kerry Brennan, Associate Director of Programs

Projects regularly surprise us. In all of our proposals, we are clear about the fact that our process subordinates predictions and assumptions to actual research and engagement. We can’t know the best solution until we have done the research. This, as well as shifting client priorities and needs, mean that many of our projects end up in a different place than where they started.

Looking ahead

We make no claim that our principles are perfect. They can adapt and evolve, both in the way we put them into practice and the way we articulate them with each other and our partners. As the examples above show, we’re adapting them to suit our work every day. But what is vital is that we follow a set of shared principles, because what we believe shapes how we act. That’s the best advice I have to offer, both to business school students and our colleagues at large: Principle-driven work takes adaptation, empathy, and humility. Find colleagues and collaborators who share those characteristics, and I believe you’ll find an environment where a commitment to social progress can thrive.

I recently spoke about our principles, and the story behind them, at my Slush 2015 talk on building a social enterprise. Watch that video here.

Reboot staff brainstorm for a project

We Want to Learn, Now Let’s Talk About How

Like many organizations, Reboot works hard to learn from what we do. To us, this means continuously reflecting on our methods and processes. But I was inspired to pause and reflect more deeply about what “learning” means during a recent convening of actors who specialize in governance issues. This governance community is eager to understand its impact, and as a result, “learning” is a hot topic of conversation. However, the term is fast becoming a buzzword and runs the risk of turning into a fuzzword. Our strategy to mitigate this risk is to be precise about how we learn.

The convening, held in Rio de Janeiro, was for TALearn: a community of practitioners, researchers, and donors working together to improve learning in transparency, accountability, and participation efforts around the globe. (Read Brendan Halloran’s summary of the workshop here). Led by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, this community unites around a shared understanding of what “learning” is, and what it is not. As a community, we believe “learning” has been sequestered in the “monitoring and evaluation” phase of international development projects, which traditionally rely on quantitative exercises, and are conducted either after the completion of interventions or at formal, often far-apart, milestones. Learning should instead be continuous and adaptive to relevant needs, contextual structures, and processes. For TALearners, it is a path away from rigid results-based frameworks that only measure outputs, and toward mechanisms that produce observable governance outcomes.

How TALearners Learn

During the four days in Rio, participants shared inspiring examples of how they learn. For example, one donor described a “pre-mortem” process for when they consider support for an organization. This exercise involves mapping possible red flags across the prospective project cycle. It gives the grantmaker an opportunity to troubleshoot challenges before committing formal support, and metrics that they can use long-term for assessing progress if they move forward.

Another example came from a representative of a non-profit in sub-Saharan Africa, who explained how some donors approach them with problem statements that do not resonate with community needs. To align on a more relevant starting point, the non-profit invites these donors into a co-creative problem definition process. This is an important but difficult action for a grant recipient, as it requires challenging a funder’s assumptions. Yet in their experience, this open dialogue creates vital space for both the nonprofit and the donors to learn, and sets the stage for effective long-term collaboration.

We saw several good practices of learning-in-action during a site visit to Meu Rio, a Brazilian grassroots advocacy organization. Meu Rio constantly tests new ways of mobilizing citizens through online and offline engagement. They run experimental sit-ins, rallies, and automated phone calls to policymakers. They also recruit new team members from the favelas where many of their citizen-driven campaigns arise, and analyze how this helps them successfully influence government to win those campaigns.

These examples motivated me to reflect on our own learning methods at Reboot. I am sharing them with the hopes that others will do the same. Some of our peers have already begun to offer their thoughts. Sam Polk and April Knox of Results for Development wrote an enlightening report on learning methods based on their organization’s experiences. Marine Perron and Janet Eng of Fundar offer their insightful learning around technology platforms in this post.

If we can collectively take stock of how we are operationalizing “learning” as a community, we can also leverage this information to transform how we assess the impact of transparency and accountability initiatives.

How Reboot Learns

One promising step toward being concrete about “learning” is an emerging dialogue that asks us to define, “learning for what and for whom.” Methods that are purpose-driven (e.g. learning for what) and user-centric (e.g. learning for whom and by whom) are critical to answering what and why we are learning. Alan Hudson, the Executive Director of Global Integrity, developed a framework, shared in this post, for his organization’s new learning strategy. It is a useful prompt for the transparency and accountability community to get specific about learning efforts.

I’m using a similar framework here to organize Reboot’s methods of organizational learning, with a focus on our internal “users.” This focus deserves one important caveat: Our client and partner counterparts are an equally critical element of our internal learning environment. However, since we do not direct their learning, I’m focusing here on the four levels of ‘users’ that we can most influence. They are:

  1. The individual
  2. Project teams
  3. Those responsible for learning across projects
  4. Organization-wide directors and strategists

At each of these levels, we operationalize our learning in different ways, depending on our priority “purposes.” For example, some efforts target inclusive, efficient, or effective collaboration. Others aim to improve project execution, such as through strengthening communications with partners. Finally, certain learning activities are developed just to contribute to core professional development.

Across the board, we aim to develop processes and systems to surface, share, and apply learning in everything we do—whether we are developing an SMS-based feedback system, guiding an organization’s strategy, recruiting colleagues, or communicating across our internal units. Here are just a few examples of our specific learning objectives and methods for the four internal user groups:


Icon of an individual User: Individual Rebooter
  • Using Slack, we share knowledge to grow knowledge. We endlessly share articles and reports through an online Slack channel, “Reboot Reads,” to identify and then discuss lessons from our field. Since Reboot works in multiple domains, this is especially useful for learning from sources curated by each other’s expertise.
Icon of a team User: Project teams
  • We develop inclusive processes to ensure all Rebooters are well-versed in ongoing work. Project managers facilitate an inception workshop at the start of every project. Everyone across our operations, design, and programs teams are invited to join these workshops to understand project basics and to offer their own feedback. Through continual process-focused debriefs and sessions to synthesize observations and formulate insights, we make time to intentionally reflect before, during, and after project cycles.
Icon of teams collaborating User: Strategy, Design and Communications teams
  • We continually refine our internal best practices for more efficient use. We developed a “library” of past and present projects, and core approaches. The library serves as a digital archive of much of our institutional knowledge, so that all team members have access to language and lessons learned as we consider how to tackle a new initiative.
Icons of operations at Reboot User: Operations and Programs teams
  • We trial new recruitment processes to best meet the evolving needs of our team and our applicants. Previously, we asked candidates to complete an exercise in the final stages of the interview process to understand their problem-solving approaches. We are currently testing an update to this process by asking candidates to complete part of the exercise earlier, and monitoring how it streamlines hiring.


Opportunities for Further Learning

Reflecting on how we learn at Reboot, I saw two opportunities for growth. One is learning across projects, or program learning. We have improved our ability to learn from individual projects, but we can be more intentional about “connecting the dots.” What do our engagements have in common? How do we tell the stories that tie various aspects of our project portfolio together? How can we use shared project insights to iterate on how we are operationalizing our theory of change? To help us answer these questions, in 2016 we will pilot a recurring organization-wide strategy workshop focused on sussing out common elements across our engagements.

We also have room for growth in individual learning. We are busy people, so we do not always take advantage of all the opportunities to learn. We are not likely to get less busy, but we can discover ways to encourage individual learning within existing constraints. To this end, I am planning a round of internal user research to better understand our own behaviors. Where and when do Rebooters gain knowledge— on a plane? On their daily walk during lunch? On a work-from-home day in the middle of the week? Based on these answers, we can design more appropriate spaces for individual reflection and innovation.

This is only a peek into how Reboot learns, and I hope it is a starting point to a larger conversation. If you have further examples, please share them with us on social media or in your own blog post. We are excited to develop a robust case for how we learn (and strive to learn) in the transparency and accountability community.

Introducing “Implementing Innovation: A User’s Manual for Open Government Programs”

We’re proud to launch “Implementing Innovation – A User’s Manual for Open Government Programs.” You can download the PDF here, visit the microsite, or contact us for a hard copy.

This guide draws from our experience around the world helping government reformers achieve real change. It is a practical resource for anyone working to implement an open government initiative, whether they are inside government or outside supporters. This post tells the story of how this manual came together. We hope you will find the manual useful, and we welcome feedback at

In 2012, two Mexican civil society leaders were on the cusp of a big decision: whether to take jobs in their federal government. They did not take the deliberation lightly. They had previously founded a non-profit focused on citizen participation in public policy, but had never served in government. They were wrapping up public policy-related graduate degrees. They believed in the ability of government to make a difference, but were more used to going against its bureaucracy than working with it.

But when asked to join an innovation unit within the Office of the President of Mexico, they decided to seize the opportunity to push their values into practice on a national scale.

Those familiar with open government or public sector reform initiatives will recognize the daunting questions they faced next. How would they make the complex, all-encompassing goals of “innovation” and “open government” meaningful and actionable? How would entrenched bureaucrats within the Mexican government respond to reform? How would they secure the specialized talent and funds they needed to realize their ambitions?

As the number of open government programs proliferates around the world, more innovators are finding themselves in similar situations. While guidelines for general and public sector program management abound, the implementation of open government policies and programs remains largely uncharted territory. Many who sign up to pursue innovation in government find themselves challenged to be innovative in their own program management. Case studies of these programs are common, but advice for the nitty-gritty work of execution is still sparse.

This manual was created in response to this widespread need. It benefits heavily from the experience of innovators within the Mexican government and draws on Reboot’s work with open government initiatives around the world. With an openness towards learning and, importantly, toward taking calculated risks, the leaders of the aforementioned innovation unit curated a team to design and launch a portfolio of programs that would advance public sector innovation. They collaborated across agencies and with civil society and the private sector, navigated unfamiliar processes, and pioneered new approaches where needed. They found ways to dig into the questions that initially sound overwhelming.

And you can too.

A growing community is creating new models for effective design and management of government innovation programs. Although too many practitioners are working in isolation, the field is rich with their collective experience and hard-earned wisdom. This guide is one small contribution to this community, as it increasingly comes together to share and exchange advice in the spirit of greater transparency, accountability, and civic participation worldwide.


Implementing Innovation (PDF 1.2MB)

One woman looking at the camera, one looks away.

Does This Picture Make You Feel Sad? Practical Questions for Ethical Photography

We explore the challenges of following our own photo policy

The international development community has come a long way since the “flies in their eyes” photography and “dollar a day” commercials of the 80s. We have since rejected portrayals that exploit communities’ circumstances and take away people’s dignity. But during a recent Twitter chat hosted by the Overseas Development Institute, many researchers, practitioners, communicators, and photographers trying to put these ethics into practice agreed that we are still falling short.

At Reboot, we take our photo policy seriously. A year ago, we shared our principles and responsibilities for a more empathetic approach to taking and using photos. Yet we’ve found it surprisingly hard to operationalize these guidelines consistently. Here are some of our tools for making it work, and hurdles we still need to overcome.

How We Take Photos

As a fundamental part of our approach, Reboot relies on imagery to capture the complexity and depth of human stories. As such, any member of our team is likely to find themselves behind the camera. We each have our own style and comfort level with photography. But whenever we take photos—whether in a rural village in Nigeria or a government office in Mexico—we try to be transparent, and make the research subject as comfortable as possible.

Introduce the camera, and the photographer, slowly and intentionally.

A camera is obtrusive. Before taking a single frame, Patrick Ainslie, one of our skilled photographers, gradually introduces it as a non-threatening object. He walks into an interview with the camera slung over his shoulder. As the trust and conversation builds, he progressively makes it more visible—first by putting it on a table, then holding it in his hands.

Photographers need to blend in quickly to help ease any tension or anxiety the person we’re interviewing may feel. Since our photographers are also experienced interviewers, joining the interview conversation can be very natural. They don’t just observe from the periphery. But while taking photos, they also try to keep an appropriate distance. They don’t intrude into a research subject’s personal space, but they do stay within his or her line of sight, especially when in someone’s home.

Ask for permission and ensure that each subject understands how his or her photo may be used.

Building trust with anyone we’re interviewing is one of our highest priorities. While photos are nice to have, they’re far less important than protecting this trust—and a person’s safety. At a minimum, we require verbal agreement from a research subject to take or use his or her photo. In instances such as workshops or events where we can easily address all participants at once, we ask for written consent forms. But this is not always possible.

We seek verbal consent by asking two questions:

  1. Do you mind if we take your picture?
  2. Can we use this photo to show the work we do?

The second question usually needs a bit more explanation. We make it clear how we might use a person’s photograph internally—for our eyes only—or externally. To show examples of possible external uses, our photographers carry the below set of laminated examples.

Printed cards showing examples of acceptable photos.

Our camera kit includes examples of our business cards, postcards, and website pages, to help subjects understand how we may use their images.

This photo kit only goes so far when we’re talking to someone who has never used or seen a website. On the other hand, in countries where smartphones are prevalent, people automatically assume that when they say yes to their photo being taken it may be shared publicly. Tailoring this conversation for each context can be tricky.

Asking for permission is probably the most crucial and awkward part of following an ethical photo policy. When we act as researchers, we balance dueling priorities to maintain the flow of the interview and capture it. We still struggle to find the best way to interrupt a conversation to ask for permission. Some of us insert it at the beginning, while others feel more comfortable asking at the end and deleting the photos if the person does not consent.

How We Use Photos

When researchers return to headquarters, they hand over their jpegs as well as the responsibility to our creative team. Those deciding where and how an image appears confront new challenges in portraying people honestly and reflecting our values.

Honor whether or not we’ve gained permission and the context.

It’s best if those who captured photos can sit with the creative team to share the context of the images. Transferring this knowledge is important to using the photos as accurate representations of the actors, the place, and the process.

Ideally, our project teams have already organized their photos into three categories: permission received, permission denied, or unknown. These explicit distinctions make it easy for our creative team to know which photos they can and can’t use. It’s frustrating to have a great photo from a workshop where one person pictured denied permission. But through workarounds, such as cropping that person out or blurring their face, we always honor people’s requests.

Use imagery consistent with our mandate, our mission, and our work.

Sometimes, we find ourselves breaking our own rules. Our photo policy helps us hold each other accountable. When working on a recent output, we were down to the wire on deadline and started to cut some corners in selecting an image to use. The work benefits children—so we picked an image of a happy child for the cover. When Adam Parker, our communications designer, began work on the final draft, he raised some questions: Yes, it is a beautiful photo, but are we portraying the context appropriately? Do we have consent from the child’s parents to use this photo in this way? The answers were “no” and “unknown,” so we chose another photo.

Of course we get excited about beautiful and captivating images of our work. And we all know the time pressure of impending deadlines. But we need these conversations to keep ourselves in line. That’s one reason our photo policy poses the following questions as a guide:

Flowchart depicting Reboot's photo policy


We also use the following principles as guidelines, but not strict rules, to evaluate the emotional tone of our imagery:


Reboot imagery should convey:

  • positivity, opportunity, engagement
  • empowerment
  • agency
  • humanity (people as people, not objects or still lifes)
  • individuality

Reboot imagery should not convey:

  • sadness, neediness, blight
  • stereotypes
  • generalizations
  • a sense of being staged
  • a sense of surprising the subject
  • objectification (people as objects)


Putting a face to the people we work with is a powerful way to show the human context of social problems. Because of this power, photography calls for discipline. Photographers and communications staff have immense control over what type of images they capture and how they present them. Our journalistic instincts may steer us toward an image that’s powerful, but that we don’t have permission to use, doesn’t respect the dignity of its subject, or just isn’t right for the context. We may not always get it completely right, but we use our photo policy as a compass to keep how we present our work aligned with our values.

Update: November 3, 2015
Responses to our original blog post sparked a productive internal and external discussion on the exclusion of imagery that portrays sadness, anxiety, or discomfort. As a result of this conversation, we’ve updated our policy, and this blog post, to reflect some additional nuance: The flowchart now directs you to “proceed with caution” if the subject’s body language communicates these emotions, instead of rejecting the photo. We’ve given relatively more weight to the question of whether or not the subject appears to have agency, moving it up in the decision chain. We also condensed the set of guidelines we use to define the emotional tone of Reboot imagery, clarifying that we do not use these as strict rules. Read more about the rationale behind these changes in our comments section.

Sweet Spot Cover Image

Seeking the Sweet Spot

The first rule of public sector programs is: Get political buy-in! Implementers need political support at both the strategic and operational levels to get approvals and resources.

For open government innovators—people pushing boundaries and challenging conventional attitudes about how government works—this advice is even more important. Open government initiatives are often designed and implemented by people who are new to government and working within specialized innovation units. This, combined with the essentially collaborative and cross-sectoral nature of such efforts, means that they need counterparts within other government agencies to carry out the projects that make up any open government program. Thus, the selection and development of projects and partners is essential to programmatic success: Without the sustained interest and commitment of the right people inside those agencies, the projects will wither away.

Reboot recently had the opportunity to closely accompany an open government program implemented by the Mexican government: Innovation Agents is a fellowship that pairs government insiders and outsiders to spur innovative approaches to problem solving. In the first generation, five teams developed technology-based solutions to pressing policy problems for five government agencies.

Sweet Spot Diagram

One of the lessons we learned firsthand through our developmental evaluation of the program was that there is a “sweet spot” for the level of political buy-in. If implementers can’t align with the political priorities of their counterparts, they may never develop the institutional ties needed to make lasting change, or even get a project off the ground. Failure to gain enough political buy-in is, unfortunately, a familiar experience for program implementers. We saw one of the Innovation Agents projects struggle to attract the minimum political interest to secure institutional linkages with the right people inside their host agency, even though citizens reacted well to their product.

On the other hand, there can be such a thing as too much political buy-in, when high-level interest from too many meddling interested colleagues closes off the space needed to experiment and risk failure. To highlight this less-discussed risk, we share here a story of this less-common—but no less frustrating—possibility: one Innovation Agents project that attracted so much political importance that it temporarily faced “priority paralysis.”

This project had significant political support right from the start of the fellowship; in fact, it was almost totally integrated into the plans of a specific department. However, this tight interweaving of the department (and Ministry’s) strategic priorities with a pilot project that was intended to be nimble and experimental led to some paralysis. In an early conversation, the team members framed the project as something that was originally small, but that had become a priority:

“Now that there is this new focus on the project as well, there is more pressure for the pilot to deliver a good product. We don’t want to waste this opportunity, so it’s better to deliver it late, but to have a good product that demonstrates the right things.”

The pilot became so important that its leadership felt it needed to be almost perfect, and they hesitated to start prototyping. Months later, a desire to complete their commitment to the Innovation Agents program by delivering a finished product influenced a different take.

At that stage, Ministry-wide integration became a barrier to product development. When deadlines neared, the team decided to trade off the focus on institutional integration and instead deliver an independent project. While this shift helped them deliver a working product, its future is now in question because it was not integrated into the processes of the institution where it was originally meant to live.


So, how to find that sweet spot? There is no magic formula, as needed support depends on what a project seeks to achieve. In general, implementers are still more likely to suffer from too little high-level interest than too much. But in selecting a potential project for an experimental public sector innovation program—and working to build interest for one underway—here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Look for projects that have political awareness and a supportive environment, but be wary of those that already have pre-developed (and inflexible) expectations.

  • Focus on the minimum information that counterparts need to feel included at key points, without stoking worries or overreactions to the inevitable ups and downs of innovation.

  • Tout the project’s impact potential, but emphasize that it is a proof of concept—consider how you might adapt the old adage, “under-promise, over-deliver,” as you sustain interest.

  • Develop a clear description of the steps you hope to take after the pilot is a success; describing these farther-down-the-road activities may help alleviate scrutiny and unrealistic expectations for your immediate work. (And, this might help you take a bit of pressure off yourself as well!)

Editor’s Note: In the coming months, Reboot will be releasing more “lessons learned,” like this one, from our collaboration with the Innovation Agents team. Please subscribe to our newsletter, and we’ll keep you updated on new releases.