Introducing Design With: A Reboot Podcast Series

Last year, we hosted four incredible interviews with folks driving radical collaborations across the globe. Our world has transformed so much in the time since, but the wisdom of these great leaders sustains. Take a listen.

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.

How We’re Building a 21st Century New York For Everyone

A Radical New Model of Collaboration for Problem-Solving with Data from the SXSW Cities Summit


Depending on your definition, we’re 10 years into the “open data revolution,” and starting to learn a thing or two about what it takes to solve problems at the community level using publicly available data. We’ve all seen that simply pushing out datasets doesn’t work. Making those datasets user-friendly and putting them on easy-to-use platforms is a step in the right direction…but still isn’t enough to turn accessible data into tangible impacts on people’s lives.

Many city leaders are eager to move beyond the glimmer of open data to pursue a new future for open government initiatives that are more tangibly tied to solving specific problems. But we’re woefully short on concrete proposals for what that looks like in practice.

We took on this topic during Reboot’s panel at the first ever SXSW Cities Summit, featuring Hadassah Damien of the Participatory Budgeting Project, Mary Tobin of the Brownsville Partnership, and Adrienne Schmoeker of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Data and Analytics.

We thoroughly enjoyed leading this vibrant discussion among voices representing government, activists, and civil society, which pointed a way towards a new, ecosystem-oriented model of collaboration. This new model represents an evolutionary shift in thinking, allowing groups that are usually opposed or isolated from one another to come together and solve problems through collective action—using inclusion, empathy, and teamwork.

We’d love to talk with others who have experience or interest in doing this kind of collaborative work to bring together groups along the data-to-impact cycle; to learn more or to share your experience, email us at partnerships@reboot.org.

Discussing Design for Good from Across Sectors

On April 7th, Zack Brisson will speak at a panel on design for good at Designation, a conference organized by the Princeton University group Business Today. Panelists from the New York City government and the private sector will discuss how design principles can be used across sectors to revolutionize social change. The conference will take place at Spring Studios in Tribeca, New York City.

zack brisson moonshot edu

How to Take Risks and Dismantle Disincentives for Change in the Public Sector

An interview on how Reboot came to be, what democracy needs now, and how (maybe) design can help us get from here to there.

Zack Brisson, Reboot’s co-founder and strategist-in-chief, recently had the chance to talk with Dr. Bernard Bull of the Moonshot Edu Show, a podcast devoted to innovation in education. The conversation covered a lot of ground; what follows is a selection from the interview, condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is the story of Reboot?

A: Seven years ago we began with the core premise that human-centered design has a lot to offer the public sector in how it approaches problem solving, but we’ve evolved significantly since then. My co-founder and I were young, naive public sector functionaries who met at a government transparency conference in 2010. We shared common frustrations with the way policy is formulated and translated into services. After several months of complaining and problem identification, we asked ourselves: what can we do to problem solve? That led us to Reboot in its current form.

Our theory of change was to create an entryistic consultancy that would allow us to partner with like-minded reformers across public agencies, to bring forward new approaches, new methods, and new schools of thought on how to formulate policies and deliver inclusive, effective and efficient services.

Q: When you describe Reboot, you use the term “human-centered design.” Most of our listeners have probably heard of HCD but don’t necessarily use it or know what it looks like. Can you unpack this concept, as you approach it at Reboot?

A: We see it as a powerful problem-solving toolset that brings together a variety of disciplines and frameworks that can help navigate complex issues. Core to our experience is that we’ve found that translating human-centered design from the private sector requires a lot of work to make it relevant to the public sector.

At the end of my tenure in the DC swamps, I worked on a policy proposal for a comprehensive federal government-led response to the BP gulf oil spill. Very sadly the decision came back to say that we are not ready to invest in a robust response, because even if we do a great job, we’re not likely to win any of the gulf states in the next election, and if we try something ambitious and fail, we might lose some of the swing states.

That was a real lesson for me in what was going on behind that decision. In the traditional model of public sector problem solving, there tends to be a lot of emphasis on developing something very comprehensive and rolling it out at scale, without a lot of testing or R&D. Those initiatives are prone to failure, which creates a lot of risk and disincentives to tackle the problems that people really need solved.

That’s what caught my eye: The idea that this framework—which starts small, identifies a problem, iterates, tests, brings stakeholders along in an inclusive manner—could tamp down some of these disincentives to take risks in tackling complex issues. And that was part of the motivation for my co-founder and I to try to translate human-centered design to the realities of politics and governance.

Q: This makes me think of the idea that “ideation without insight and understanding often falls flat.” What is different about your approach, compared to older approaches to problem solving?

A: In the private sector, there is an old saying that one dollar spent in research and development is $10 spent at testing, and $100 spent at market scale. So they understand that the more you put in upfront, the more you’ll save in the long term. The reality in the public sector is almost the exact inverse: there is very little budget for research, design and testing, and large budgets allocated for implementation.

I can illustrate this problem up close: we were working with a state government in Nigeria, supported by the World Bank, to solve the problem that teachers were not showing up to school. Policy leaders decided the solution was to equip parents and students with mobile phones to report on whether teachers were coming to class. We were brought in to implement this solution, and right away we started saying no—there was no problem identification, no contextual understanding. Fortunately we convinced them to let us do a 6-week ethnographic design research study, with a large local team interviewing teachers, students, parents, policy makers, to understand why teachers were not showing up.

It turned out there were massive policy issues driving this problem. Teachers were assigned random school locations four or five  hours away from their homes. Wages were frequently not distributed, forcing teachers to get other jobs to pay their bills. You could have had the most robust surveillance tool, but you wouldn’t have addressed the problem, you just would have just had an expensive waste of time and energy. Instead our ecosystem analysis presented opportunities for policy interventions that were quite cheap and created incentives for teachers to be in the classroom.

When you dive into the context, the right points of intervention are usually not what you started with. If you’re not testing your assumptions, you’re not doing design right.

Q: Often times, time and money are invested in “great ideas,” without a contextual understanding of the problem. How can human centered design lead to different results?

A: This is very much a case of the “hammer in search of a nail syndrome”—we have these tools, and there’s a presumption that they will change outcomes. When we reframe with a design approach, we ask ourselves to define the problem statement, map out the stakeholder ecosystem, test and evaluate our process, revise our approach (as your first shot out of the gate won’t do the trick), and arrive at an informed intervention based on the context.

Q: IDEO is one of the organizations that many people think about when they hear design thinking. How is your approach similar or different from the IDEO approach and their toolkit for design thinking?

A: I have a lot of respect for the IDEOs and Frogs of the world. They helped pioneer what these tools can do at scale and we’ve learned a lot from and been inspired by them. But we are fundamentally in different businesses. They come from a private sector background and we come from a public sector background. One of the biggest challenges in bringing human-centered design into the public sector is that there is a different bottom line.

A quick example to show the difference is New York City’s redesigned 311 service, which allows residents to submit and track routine issues, from potholes to noise violations. It’s worked really well from the perspective that there’s been a huge uptick in usage. So by a private sector metric, the fact that usage has gone up, it’s a success.

But when you look at the analytics, it turns out the vast majority of users are from the most well-off neighborhoods of the city who already have the highest level of service delivery and a variety of the other means to make their needs known. And there’s almost no usage of 311 among the poorest and most marginalized communities in the city—it’s almost nil. So did we actually solve the policy problem of empowering the more marginalized communities who need the most help in surfacing the needs they have from the city? You can see that the bottom line approach to design from the private sector starts to go haywire when there are so many other considerations that go into what is a good, effective, inclusive public service.

Q: One more design question. I’m wondering what models, frameworks, people, and ideas have expanded your approach to design thinking?

A: We’ve had so many influences—and many are not from a design background. One of the things we’ve learned about translating these tools to the public sector is the importance of integrating design with established disciplines, from economics, to public administration, to health, to financial administration, to governance. A lot of what we’ve learned to do is work with and alongside these other disciplines to bring their speciality into the formula of the design process.

We’ve found that our sweet spot is to have our design team work as a “systems integrator.” So knowing how to bring the economist—who may not understand the ground level of communities but does understand broader macroeconomic trends—to the table in a process that might be new to them.

Voices from other fields have improved our work and challenged us to know that design isn’t everything. At its core, it’s a process, not a knowledge base.

Sometimes people get confused about that. It’s a way of thinking about problem solving and there are other pools of knowledge that are useful to bring into that problem-solving set.

Finally, thinkers like David Graber, an anthropologist, who wrote The Utopia of Rules, on the history and formation of bureaucracy, take the ecosystem approach to understanding how and why we have the outcomes we have today. And David Moss, another anthropologist who studies development institutions, looks at the “idiocracy that comes from bureaucracy.” Understanding the systemic level lens in how complicated public sector issues are addressed, and the human element to that, has been really influential to our team’s thinking over the years.

Q: When John F. Kennedy announced he wanted to send a man to the moon and back, many were skeptical. As I do with all of our Moonshot guests, I’d like to ask what your “moonshot” was.

A: Our current systems of governance are wildly outdated. We live in a world where the nation state is the principal organizing system for all political collaboration, and our institutional bureaucratic structures are descendents from paper-based systems of administration where information was scarce and costly. You don’t have to travel far to know that neither of those systems of power are holding up.

So I start with the frustration that I don’t see enough robust discussion about that issue.

What is a democracy 2.0, and even beyond that, what do alternatives to democracy look like? It’s almost taboo in my field to ask—Is there something that could evolve past democracy? I don’t know the answer, but my moonshot would be to drive that exploration a lot more deeply.

I don’t want to say I’m pessimistic about this; I do see emerging opportunity areas towards this idea of a revitalized democratic identity.

First, I’m very interested in the role of local authority. Design teaches us that people are better at solving problems the closer they are to those problems. There are amazing things happening at the municipal and subnational level all over the world. There’s a lot promise in decentralizing fiscal and policy decision-making to lower and lower levels of of government, and even non-governmental authority.

Second, for issues that are less local and more regional, like water rights or land use, I think we’ve underinvested in regional structures for a long time. There’s lot of promise from regional authorities, whether it’s the transit structures that did a lot to develop the US Northeast corridor, or fishing rights in the mediterranean. When diverse groups of people share a common interest they can cooperate in ways that transcend national borders in a meaningful manner.

Third, at the people power level—innovations that take advantage of technology and increased connectivity. For example, participatory budgeting, which has been piloted all around the world, invites citizens to have a tangible, informed voice in how resources are allocated in their communities.

These are exciting ideas that hold a lot of promise for reimagining the forms of government we have today. I’d like to see us go a lot further in taking these things seriously and socializing these ideas so they can enter mainstream policy discussion, so it’s not crazy to say, hey there might be something post-democracy that’s actually better than what we have today.


“Strengthening Kenyan Media” Report Featured in Business Daily

Business Daily, a Nairobi-based newspaper by the Nation Media Group, published an op-ed by Ory Okolloh of Omidyar Network discussing Reboot’s latest report: Strengthening Kenyan Media. The article calls for a robust debate on the Kenyan media ecosystem, citing findings from our research on the challenges facing a free and vibrant press, as well as opportunities to strengthen the press as public watchdog.

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Data is for Everyone: Three Open Data Lessons from a Hurricane

Here in New York City, we’re wrapping up Open Data Week—a series of conversations and workshops about how cities can “open” their official datasets for public use. As my colleague Zack wrote earlier this week, we are at a major turning point for the open data movement, as forward-thinking leaders understand: To create impact, open data must be demand-driven. We at Reboot are working with partners and cities to put this shift into practice, by engaging individuals and advocacy organizations in the design of data initiatives, so that data resources are directly connected with true citizen needs.

This conversation resonates with me on a personal level, because last fall, I watched people create and use data to make decisions that affected their own personal safety during Hurricane Harvey. I want to contribute to this important conversation with three ideas for how cities should think about data, drawing from what I saw.

Why data matters in a hurricane

I grew up in Houston, which experienced catastrophic flooding during Hurricane Harvey last August. The storm dropped more than 50 inches of rain over four days, overflowed bayous, submerged freeways, damaged over 200,000 homes, and displaced thousands of people, including friends of mine who had to be kayaked out of a two-story house.

I was visiting family when Hurricane Harvey hit, and two days after I arrived, we evacuated to Dallas. As Harvey ravaged my hometown, we streamed Houston news stations constantly, but few of them reported from the area my parents lived in. So we used the Harris County Flood Warning system to monitor real-time data on the inches of rainfall and bayou overflow in my parents’ neighborhood. I was impressed with the reliability of this official data system, as we cross-checked it with reports from neighbors, but became even more inspired by the amount of unofficial citizen data generated and shared.

During and after the storm, I was amazed to realize how many people were making and using data to inform urgent decisions. Most of these weren’t civic tech hackers or specialists. They were ordinary people reporting information as they saw it and sharing it as widely as they could.

Lesson 1: Open data doesn’t have to be fancy.

Most of the data that I saw shared and reshared on social media took the form of simple Google tools. Spreadsheets, like this one for hotels taking FEMA vouchers and this one for translation needs at shelters, were easy to keep up-to-date which was crucial amidst a constantly evolving disaster situation. People shared Google forms and used Facebook pages to coordinate volunteer rescues. Most of these resources also relied on crowd-sourced data, and needed to allow a wide range of people with various levels of data and computer literacy to contribute their knowledge. In this dynamic, a simple Google spreadsheet—that could be easily shared and updated by many people in real time—became a powerful tool.

There are people doing incredible things with data, like these visualizations and interactive maps published in The New York Times. While these beautiful presentations are useful for communicating with wider audiences after a disaster, they’re not necessarily models for cities focused on distributing actionable information in an emergency situation. In non-emergencies, too, cities thinking about impact should remember that very simple applications of data can be elegantly effective.

Cities can also draw from readily available and existing data: For example, in many places that regularly deal with flooding and water issues, there are already meters in place that can sense water levels. These can feed into simple, publicly available digital maps to help people plan their evacuation routes. That’s how the Harris County Flood Warning System map (which my parents and I were monitoring during Harvey) worked. The map didn’t present this data elaborately. Instead, it focused on a few types of useful data and allowed both citizens and newscasters to monitor the situation citywide when they were unable to physically get to many neighborhoods.

Harris County Flood Watch map
Harris County Flood Warning System map, during the storm, showing which bayous were over bank (red), near bank (yellow), or within bank (green). Originally captured by Urban Edge.

Lesson 2: Everyone can create data.

During Harvey, ordinary people were engaging with data as both consumers and producers.

When cities are working to open data, many of them are very focused on the technical aspects and privacy implications of releasing their internal sets; others are concerned that too few residents have the capacity to process and work with data in meaningful ways. But the flood of resources shared on social media over the course of this disaster demonstrated just how much useful information citizens already have access to and need.

A recent article in Governing Magazine pointed out the inefficiencies that happen when governments aren’t willing to engage with citizen-created data—and used Hurricane Harvey as an example. The article described the CrowdSource Rescue site, a volunteer-run map that helped first responders identify stranded residents, but which operated in tandem with a government-run effort. “The inability to share data on who needed to be rescued led to redundant efforts from volunteer and government responders,” the authors say.

While the danger of duplication is greatest during a disaster, when the needs are timely and immediate, it’s a good lesson for any city government. Supporting ordinary people to use data to solve problems doesn’t have to be only about releasing government data sets. The open data movement should be looking for ways to coordinate with the projects that people are already putting their effort into and the knowledge and resources they’re connected to. Governments can identify where this data already exists, and build from there, instead of recreating it. By doing so, they can not only better identify citizen needs for open data, but also leverage the power and knowledge of ordinary people.

Lesson 3: Some of the most helpful open data users are information translators.

In Reboot’s recent work supporting cities in developing demand-driven open data initiatives, we’ve strongly encouraged leaders to focus resources on people who are connected to advocacy or community groups, who also have a fair amount of data capacity—they are able to access, provide, translate, and facilitate data for others to use. For example, the user personas we created for New York City to understand the current and potential users of open data emphasize the role of the “Influential Interpreter,” as one of the key players in the data ecosystem.

I was impressed to see the same thing was true during Harvey. A volunteer civic tech group, Sketch City, crowd-sourced information about resource needs at different shelters, and compiled it into a live map for those looking to help. As the Sunlight Foundation described, Sketch City was able to build on open data from the city and county with citizen inputs to create a realtime connection between shelters and donations so that resources could be effectively funneled to those in need. These types of data facilitators can help bridge the technology and data literacy gaps to elevate citizen voices and knowledge.

For a city responding to a disaster or just seeking to solve an everyday problem with data, this also means that resources from other places may be available. After a hurricane or other event, many people want to help—those with data skills can support other communities by lending expertise and time in processing and making data available.

Taking the lessons forward

Seeing the willingness of Houstonians to help their neighbors—whether by rescuing strangers, volunteering to tear out sheetrock, or creating and sharing useful data—reminded me just how proud I am to be one of them. It also showed me that anyone truly can create and use open data. Coming away from New York City’s Open Data Week, I hope we all commit to broadening the circle of open data producers and consumers, and increase the resilience of our city in the face of both the next big storm and the daily challenges of building a more just and equitable city.

The Field of Dreams Fallacy

Why U.S. Cities Need a New Approach to Data

One of the long-running dangers that can trip up social change practitioners is something I call the “Field of Dreams Fallacy.” It happens when an institution decides to make an investment in any new tool without real input from the people it’s trying to serve. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mobile feedback tool or dashboard, a co-creation workshop or community of practice, or any of the countless other innovative approaches and technologies that have emerged in the past 50 years. If an institution barrels ahead with an “if you build it, they will come” approach, the impact is likely to fall short.

I’m thinking about the Field of Dreams Fallacy because it’s “Open Data Week” here in New York City:  series of conversations and workshops examining the movement to make official government data “open,” or freely available online. Reboot is thrilled to be participating in Open Data Week, because open data can be a powerful and important tool. But it’s also one that has been especially prone to the Field of Dreams Fallacy in the past decade—this week is a big opportunity to push the entire movement forward. It’s time to start focusing our data efforts on users first.

Set aside the dream and start with real-world problems

New York City is a true pioneer in data transparency. And like other leading cities around the country, the City is well aware of the Field of Dreams Fallacy, having already found that simply making data available is not enough.

In 2012, city government passed a law requiring all public data to be freely available online. While making progress on that ambitious goal, the City has also updated and refined its approach by making a commitment to “open data for all,” recognizing that data is only “open” if it is accessible and useful for everyone. In that effort, the City is finding innovative new ways to understand not only who is currently using its data, but who has the highest potential to use it—and to find new ways to engage those activists and community leaders.

Cities all over the country are running into the consequences of the Field of Dreams Fallacy. For a long time, cities have measured their progress on open data in terms of how many datasets they’ve released. A growing number of conversations reflect the realization that this metric is not enough: The data is open, but there is not enough articulated demand for it to be frequently used to drive tangible change.

But in searching for solutions to this problem, too many leaders are still focusing on the data and technology. A number of cities still measure success in terms of datasets downloaded, which doesn’t really capture whether the data was even useful. It’s still a “supply-driven” approach, which starts with the question, “What data is available that we can open?”

It’s time instead to start asking, “What problems do our residents want to solve?”

Always start with the user

Reboot has been working to understand and improve the ways governments and citizens use data as tools for problem solving since our founding. We developed the first sub-national open-data portal in sub-Saharan Africa, studied the national open data portfolio in Mexico, and conducted a scoping study with the Open Society Foundations to examine how well government data initiatives understand the users of their data (the answer was, “not always very well.”) We’ve seen many positive examples of innovative governments that genuinely seek to engage residents, and we’ve also seen the pitfalls of proceeding ahead on a data initiative without real clarity about the actual people expected to use the data.

For years, we have also worked with city partners on better approaches. While the approach depends on the constraints and goals of any particular city and its residents, broadly, we see the solution as starting with the users, and involving them throughout.

For example, we recently partnered with the City of Madison, Wisconsin and the Sunlight Foundation to take a user-centered approach to data. The City was in the midst of updating its development plan, called “Imagine Madison,” and gathering resident feedback about priorities for the city. The City’s data team wisely started with that feedback, and residents’ expressed interest in “complete neighborhoods,” in taking a new approach to making its data useful.

The report from that work is now publicly available; it includes a list of “Data Use Cases,” which shows in practical terms how data can be useful to civil society, such as “To prove my point” (when advocating for policy change) or “To make program decisions” (when deciding how to allocate resources). These kinds of plain-English uses for data are a good starting point for cities looking to improve their approach to data.

Invite people first, and then build it together

The Field of Dreams Fallacy is not just about data. As humans, we tend to fall into this trap with any new tool. That’s why Reboot’s core, foundational principles include “start with the user;” it’s our way of ensuring that our solutions are always targeted directly at real-world impact.

Because if you build it, they may not come. Instead: Invite people first, and then build it together.


I’m excited to talk more about our demand-driven approach during Open Data Week:

Join Reboot at SXSW’s Cities Summit

On March 13th in Austin, Texas, Zack Brisson will moderate From Publishing Data to Solving Problems as part of SXSW’s first ever Cities Summit, a convening of civic leaders, creative citizens, and urbanists. Panelists Adrienne Schmoeker of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Data and Analytics, Mary Tobin of the Brownsville Partnership, and Hadassah Damien of the Participatory Budgeting Project will share tales from their experiences using NYC open data to fight poverty, change lives, and build community. Join us! #SXSW #CitiesatSXSW #changeliveswithdata

Celebrating NYC Open Data Week

On March 9th, Reboot will host an End of Open Data Week Celebration, welcoming civic change makers and data enthusiasts to come together for a happy hour closing reception. We’ll be playing games, sharing open data tales, and enjoying (free) beverages, snacks, and slow jams. Reboot’s Principal Zack Brisson will provide brief remarks alongside Adrienne Schmoeker from the City of New York; and Carey Klutz from Open Contracting Partnership. NYC techies and social change makers: RSVP to join us!

Andrew Haupt

Welcome Andrew Haupt!

Reboot is excited for Andrew Haupt to join our leadership team as Chief Operating Officer. Andrew brings expertise in business operations and deep experience supporting the start-up and maturation of nonprofit. He is eager to help Reboot further its impact by applying his entrepreneurial mindset to our operations, HR, and finance units.

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Design Thinking in Practice

On March 3rd, Lauren Gardner will join fellow social innovation practitioners from Frog Design and Moment to discuss the evolution and future of design thinking at an event hosted by the NYU chapter of Design for America. Lauren and her fellow panelists will speak to students from NYU, MIT, RISD, Brown, Yale, and Columbia Universities about using design thinking in their careers, and the challenges and opportunities this approach presents.

open data users of madison Wisconsin

Who’s Using Data in Madison, Wisconsin?

Results of our collaboration with Sunlight Foundation are public.

Many city governments are “opening” their official government data—making it readily available, so that everyday citizens can use it to solve everyday problems. But there’s a hitch, as I wrote about last November: Success isn’t just about opening the data. It’s about meaningfully connecting the right data to the people that can use it.

Today, I’m pleased to share a new story of how one city is seeking to do just that. Reboot, Sunlight Foundation, and the City of Madison, Wisconsin have been collaborating in recent months to understand how Madison can improve its “data to action” ecosystem. Specifically, our goal was to find opportunities for the city to better align the data it releases (and the support it provides) with the needs of community groups focused on neighborhood development issues.

Along with Sunlight, we conducted interviews with 36 people, including local activists and community representatives; academics; city staff from multiple departments; local media, direct service community-based organizations, and large nonprofits. We synthesized their responses, looking for themes and patterns to pinpoint where the city’s open data resources could make a difference.

Sunlight’s report on that work is now available online, including a new set of user personas, valuable tools for helping governments understand who those “everyday citizens” really are, so they can match the city’s data offerings to their needs.

These personas are part of our growing body of research into practical applications of data in people’s lives. As the Sunlight Foundation put it:

While our engagement with Madison will focus on one specific opportunity, this process is showing the city’s team how they can better connect to the information needs and experiences of residents in the future. As Madison continues to support opportunities for the community use of data, either around complete neighborhoods or other issues in the future, we hope city staff will remain engaged and enthusiastic about resident engagement around open data.

And we hope that enthusiasm will spread to cities everywhere.

Read the Sunlight Foundation’s full post—including detailed user personas like the “City Staffer” and the “Disseminator”—at the Sunlight Foundation’s blog.

Bringing Citizens Into the Budgeting Process

On January 16th Ahmed Rufai Isah will take part in an interactive session organized by the National Institute of Legislative Studies on sustained citizen involvement in the budget reform process in Nigeria. Participants, including senators, academics, civil society organizations, and members of the press, will discuss principles of citizen engagement, the process of budget reform, and the role of the legislature in distributing funds. Follow the conversation at #NILSBudgetReform.


Reboot Reflects

7 Years of Controlled Chaos, Careful Iteration, and a Whole Lot of Learning

Reboot was founded on storytelling. First are the human stories, gathered through ethnographic research, which drive all our strategy, design, and implementation work. Finding, synthesizing, and elevating the voices of people who are usually unheard is how we counter the typical top-down, design-by-numbers approach to policy. Equally important are the stories from our work—both lessons learned from challenges, and case studies of success. We share these stories with other idealists and reformers to show that there is no one “best practice” or magic bullet; our work is a series of thoughtful experiments in response to a changing world. The way we tell our stories is part of how we change the hearts, minds, and long-entrenched processes of powerful institutions.

During this seasonal time of reflection, I’m excited to take a look back at Reboot’s seven-year history—and share our story in a new way. I’ve gone back through our work over the years, and gathered photos from projects that embody something essential about our years of growth as an organization. I’ve pulled these together in this “Reboot Album,” as a different way of looking at the lessons we’ve learned.

In our first year, we learned to channel our anger.

We started Reboot because we were angry at the great injustices and vast inequality in the world. We saw these injustices as systemic, and we believed that change required tipping the scales of power, so that ordinary people—and marginalized voices in particular—have a meaningful say in the processes that impact their lives. Through Reboot, we set out to work with leading public institutions (where power concentrates) to design policies and deliver services that are accountable to the people they serve.

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During the momentous shifts of 2011 in the Middle East and North Africa, we recognized that the narratives emerging from mainstream and social media did not necessarily reflect the voices of ordinary people. We also knew that these narratives would shape international policy and investments in the region for years to come. And so we booked tickets to Egypt—on our own, with no real mandate—and documented the work of labor groups, lawyers, youth activists, and others that had long been working for change. We then brought our findings to international policymakers (who lacked on-the-ground reporting on which to base decisions). The World Bank was impressed: They asked us to do similar work in Tunisia, to inform their future support for good governance in the country. These early projects set a standard for our work that has stayed with us ever since: Surfacing the needs of the marginalized and integrating those into institutions with the resources to act.
In our second year, we experimented rapidly.

We had a bold vision for the world we wanted, but we also knew our limitations: We needed to work within the realities of the public sector. In our second year, we tested those boundaries in all directions. We worked with a broad range of partners, from multilaterals and INGOs, to private sector and Fortune 500 corporate social responsibility initiatives, to academia, local non-profits, grassroots organizers, and hackathon buddies. We also tested a range of working models, including fee-for-service, receiving grants, making grants, and pro-bono engagements. This year set a tone for how we would work for years to come: Stay curious and nimble, continuously experiment with possible paths to impact, refine our model and tactics accordingly.

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We started working in Nigeria in 2011 and opened a second office in Abuja in 2012; of the many programs we’ve since delivered in the country, the Niger Delta Social Accountability program (with the World Bank, funded by DFID) was memorable because it was the first time we brought together so many diverse stakeholders—communities, activists, civil society groups, private media, governments, and donors—to co-design innovative solutions to longstanding challenges of corruption. Co-design is often misinterpreted as “put all the stakeholders together, and ask them to figure it out.” Over this two-year program, we learned the how-to’s of good co-design: grounding all conversations in a robust understanding of the political economy, structuring and sequencing activities to address power imbalances and to build trust, and developing solutions based on windows of political opportunity. These practices have been central to our approach ever since.
In our third year, we hit our stride.

Suddenly, we knew we were doing something right. We were not only getting opportunities to do bigger projects with greater impact, we were being invited to share and spread our methods across major institutions. For example, we published a Design Research Guide for media development practitioners, as part of a collaboration with Internews to help the organization evolve how it designs programs, starting in Pakistan. Similarly, our fiscal ethnography work in Nigeria—which challenged traditional ways of addressing corruption—influenced World Bank practice, opening new ways to address the mismanagement of public funds. Reviewers at the World Bank called our work a “breath of fresh air” and “one of the most impressive studies in recent years.” Another, a lead public sector specialist, recommended this work be used in future staff trainings.

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Our theory of change has always relied on spreading our approaches. After two years of executing projects ourselves, we had an opportunity to train others in design methods when Internews partnered with us to improve information access in Pakistan’s conflict-torn tribal regions. We recruited an entirely local team of researchers and trained them to conduct design research, then worked hand-in-hand with them to surface unexpected findings that would drastically alter how practitioners approached interventions in the region. While the security situation required this approach, it’s one we’ve continued to use ever since: find passionate and committed local partners, empower them to do thoughtful work, then make sure their work reaches the right decision-makers.
In our fourth year, we invested in our team.

After three years of hard work (and too many seven-day workweeks to count), we saw that we needed to step back. We had just led a 10-organization consortium to implement the world’s first mobile voter registration and elections management platform in post-revolution Libya, and aspects of the project had taken a toll on us. Our work was not sustainable at the pace we’d set, and so we took a close, hard look at everything we were doing and why we were doing it. This was hard: Learning to slow down, when the challenges facing us seem so pressing, was really difficult. But we knew we had to manage our growth and invest in ourselves.

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This was the year we built the internal policies, structures, and norms we now rely on to support our incredible team. We moved into a new office, upgraded our benefits, and matured our internal policies. We found ways to encourage work-life balance among staff, many of whom struggled to “turn away” from their projects. We also codified lessons we’d learned in our early years. We reflected upon what makes a successful Rebooter, and updated our recruitment practices accordingly. We articulated the factors that enabled satisfying projects, then refined our tools for identifying and assessing new opportunities. This meant we started saying “no” more frequently, and became very picky about the work we accept, focusing on those with the right conditions and counterparts for values-aligned, impactful work. This ethos has served us well into the present day.
In our fifth year, we found a voice.

I started this post talking about storytelling; in year five, our ability to communicate grew exponentially. Over five years, we had made a strong case for why public institutions needed to better hear their constituents, and we had a compelling body of evidence of the impact possible when they did. Beyond the what and the why, we now also had the how: We had proven approaches and tools, including MyVoice, our award-winning tool for using citizen feedback to improve public services. And we saw that we needed to double down on our advocacy and communication efforts, to make bigger change across the field. Without advocacy, we could only drive change on the projects we worked on; with advocacy, we could create ripples in the pond.

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Over the years, we did more and more trainings and talks, and published more about our work. We’ve trained thousands of researchers, civil servants, activists, and others in more than 30 countries. We’ve taught at Harvard, Columbia, NYU, Parsons, and SVA, and spoken to changemakers at Code for All, PopTech, and Singularity University. Our work and ideas have been featured by the Aspen Institute, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Fast Company, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review. In year five, we released our guide to delivering more participatory and accountable governance, “Implementing Innovation.” In the years since, and in our travels around the world, we’ve been delighted to find “Implementing Innovation” already printed out and in-use on the desks of many new partners.
In our sixth year, we staked out our territory.

By year six, we had an ample body of work, and saw that we had an opportunity to specialize—honing in on domains that were extremely influential on the social contract, and where we already had deep experience. And, of course, since we first set off, the world had changed—citizens now had more ways to organize around their interests, digital data had made it easier for governments to share information about their work and for others to analyze it, and the information landscape had evolved—and we recognized that to have greater impact, we needed to seize these new opportunities.

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This year, we launched our three programs: We help realize responsive, accountable government, through “Reboot Governance,” so that public agencies make commitments that reflect what their constituents want and need. We support independent journalism, “Reboot Media,” to foster and support nuanced, informed public dialogue about those commitments, which helps ensure they are fulfilled. Through “Reboot Institutions,” we continue our entryist work within organizations committed to the public good, to develop creative and practical solutions—and the practices to support them—to deliver on those commitments.
In our seventh year, we worked deeper, broader, and smarter.

As we expanded last year, we grew at two levels: the local and the systemic. At the local level, we invested more in our domestic work; we have always done projects in the U.S., but in the political climate of 2017, we’ve been called to invest more in our home of New York City and around the country. In an era of post-trust politics, we are partnering with organizers and governments to solve problems using data and facts. We are strengthening protections for vulnerable populations, especially those affected by the criminal justice system.

To have more systemic impact, we recognized the need to build alliances and movements around the values we hold dear. We’d helped stand up a global initiative for civil society strengthening, and were excited about the systemic and ongoing impact being realized. And so we are helping build and strengthen a coalition of investigative journalists in West Africa, supported the global open contracting movement in mapping its forward path, and helped the Wikimedia movement define its 15-year vision for the world’s leading open knowledge platform. And while multi-stakeholder strategy and movement-building exercises can often be messy and abstract, we developed structured processes that grounded each in the tangible: the concrete needs of those that will be affected.

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Open data has the potential to transform citizen-government interactions and ensure more accountable public institutions. To realize this potential, initiatives must be framed with political sensitivity; be grounded in citizens’ real needs and civil servants’ real constraints; and balance solving specific, hyperlocal needs with establishing connected infrastructure for broader impact. This year, in New York, New York, and Madison, Wisconsin, we’ve worked closely with city stakeholders—residents, neighborhood associations, technologists, businesspeople, civil servants, and others—to deliver on the promise of open data.
In the future, we will continue to invest in our allies—and broaden the circle.  

The current global trend of growing tribalism is fundamentally opposed to Reboot’s values. We believe that all people are interconnected, and humans hurt each other when we don’t understand each other. So change begins with empathy and self-awareness: We must understand those that are different from us, and take responsibility for how our own actions (or inactions)—as countries, communities, or individuals—contribute to others’ well-being or suffering.

To develop such understanding, we will continue to tell stories and ensure those stories inform change. This work is hard and slow, but Reboot is lucky to have allies who share our values. In the past year, 60% of our work was with repeat partners, and another 30% came through referrals. In a time when the world seems to be splintering, we are grateful for long-term relationships with those who share our commitment to bottom-up approaches to designing our future.

In the coming year, we are looking to expand our channels for storytelling. To counter insularity and fear, we need broader, cultural change. And so we will be looking for new ways to tell the stories of those among us that suffer most—as well as our complicity in perpetuating suffering and our possible roles in alleviating it. And we want to find new ways of mobilizing others, beyond our current allies, to join us. We’re just starting to explore ways of doing so; if you have ideas for us, we’re all ears.

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From our family at Reboot, thank you for everything you’ve done to help realize a more inclusive, more just social contract this year. We’re looking forward to a brighter, more open 2018.

Reboot’s Media Strengthening Work Featured on Nigerian TV Show “The Core”

On December 6th, Ahmed Rufai Isah will appear on The Core, a Nigerian TV show produced by Daria Media, to discuss political ownership as a threat to independent media and the need for financially sustainable newsrooms. Rufai will share lessons from Reboot’s media portfolio, including research on the West African radio ecosystem, as well as insights from our work supporting and convening Nigerian independent media.

Rethinking Media in West Africa’s Social Contract

On November 29th, Yop Rwang Pam will present findings from People-Powered Media Innovation in West Africa at the 2017 International Conference on Religion and Politics in Lagos. The event is organized by the Lagos-based organization Action for Community Development. Yop will discuss the role media plays in government accountability, sharing insights from Reboot’s media portfolio.

Designing Open Contracting 2017: Three steps to a convening that creates long-lasting impact

This post is co-authored by Lauren Gardner of Reboot and Kathrin Frauscher of the Open Contracting Partnership.


We’ve all been there: We leave a major convening with the lasting impression that the breaks were the best part. Building relationships with peers and colleagues is a huge motivator for many of us deciding to attend an event, and community-building is a goal for many organizers. But when time is limited—as it always is—the opportunities for people to talk to each other are the first to get squeezed.

In the world of civic innovation and good governance, enormous resources funnel into events. There is value in bringing people together to spark collaboration, build consensus, and develop long-term communities. But we’ve all been to events that fell short of these goals: Long, dense PowerPoint presentations. Lots of talking, with a limited sense of progress or accomplishment. Especially where organizers are the stewards of public funds intended to improve lives, these missed opportunities are a frustrating waste of precious time and money.

So when we get the chance to design a convening, how do we take the best part—talking to each other and working through shared challenges—and move it out of the sideline and into the limelight?

Open Contracting 2017: An Important Opportunity to Engage

We’ve been wrestling with this challenge in recent months, as an inspired group of open contracting pioneers—the Open Contracting Partnership, Hivos, CoST, B Team, Article 19—have prepared for this week’s Open Contracting 2017, engaging Reboot as the design and facilitation partner.

Open contracting is the idea that governments can improve the way they contract with private partners. Governments spend huge sums of money through contracts, for everything from buying pencils to building airports. Modernizing these contract processes—by publishing and using open, timely data on spending—can reduce corruption, foster entrepreneurship, and improve people’s lives.

Open Contracting 2017 brings together more than 200 government accountability influencers and innovators from dozens of countries, seeking to take this idea and collectively articulate the solutions and approaches that will guide its development in the future. It’s an opportunity to build momentum and a shared vision for this idea to continue to grow and have impact.

Participants are already creating impact with their work. CAHURAST-Nepal is training and developing tools for citizen monitors to hold their government accountable on procurement data in Nepal. The Africa Freedom of Information Centre is working with the Ugandan government to evaluate and improve their online procurement portal so that it can be better monitored by civil society. And Development Gateway has been assessing the impact of the widely-used Open Contracting Data Standard to inform its next evolution toward even greater contracting transparency.

The Secret to Successful Convenings

As we’ve designed this event, we have been focused on the idea that the “breaks are the best part.” We  have been working through the questions that face any convener and designer: How do you balance the power dynamics between everyone in the room, so that people feel like part of a cohesive group? How do you ensure that the event offers participants something relevant and actionable to their individual daily work, while also working toward higher collective ambitions?

This is especially important because open contracting is still a new idea. Excitement is high, but there are people who may not yet see their place in this work or oppose it, while others have been living and championing open contracting for years. Our challenge is to bring all of these diverse colleagues into the same safe and creative space to build a vision together.

As we head to Amsterdam this week, we are sharing three key steps that we have taken to advance that goal.

Step one: Convene the Conveners.

Five different organizations are convening Open Contracting 2017. These allies come from different parts of the open contracting ecosystem, and represent different organizational sizes, ways of working, and priorities. The process of planning began by coming together to clearly establish what is most important.

The overall goal of the event is to articulate a five-year vision for open contracting. For all of the conveners, it is critical that this vision come not from them, but from the participants—the people that have been doing the good, hard work all around the world. From the beginning, the conveners expressed an admirable commitment to designing a participatory and responsive event, one that would give participants the space to actively design together and establish this vision.

But even with this broad alignment, it was still necessary to reach consensus about the specifics of these goals. One of the big tools for doing this is establishing shared success criteria. There are always going to be trade-offs later in the design process; together, we started out by agreeing on the criteria we would use to evaluate those trade-offs.

Step Two: Listen to Participants

A workshop is like any design exercise: It has to be based on the needs and desires of the people who will use it. Early in the process, we sent out a survey to conference participants to better understand their work with open contracting, what problems they’re facing now, and what they’d like to get out of the conference; we also followed up with selected participants to probe more deeply into their needs and interests. Based on this research, we developed a synthesized report on participant feedback, which guided the design of the event.

Among other things, we found that most participants are hungry for practical, actionable steps they can implement now for small wins. They also want to make the case for open contracting—ways they can convince political actors and spread the word with the general public. And many want to know how their governments are doing in this sphere relative to others.

In many cases, participants’ stated goals aligned with those of the conveners. The main difference was in degree; participants expressed more interest in short-term guidance, while conveners were focused on long-term vision. But with both of these clearly expressed, we were better prepared to create an event that balances both.

Step Three: Iterate, Iterate, Iterate.

In designing the event itself, we went back to our core goal: Taking the energy, collaboration, and sense of action that make the breaks the best parts of other events, and infusing it into as many aspects of this one as possible.

The resulting workshop design does offer unstructured time for chatting, but it also balances small group break-out sessions throughout the day, where participants will be doing design exercises. We’ll all be getting our hands dirty, working through tangible problems that relate to our work, and we’ll come back together as a group periodically to discuss and synthesize together. Our hope is to build momentum, and leave feeling inspired.

Of course, we need to be ready to change as we go. A conference is carefully designed, but as facilitators, we also have to be responsive and adaptive to the group in real time. Fortunately, we are walking into a room filled with smart, passionate people and we are beyond excited to see what this group comes up with.

The First Step, But A Long Journey

As much as we are looking forward to Amsterdam, we know this convening is just a means, not an end. The conveners are committed to following up with participants and continuing the momentum beyond the event itself. The vision we establish together will guide years of work and collaboration. We hope this gathering is one that participants will look back on fondly, but we also hope that the “best part” is yet to come, in the impact that open contracting has in improving governance for all.


Editor’s note: another version of this post was published on the Open Contracting Partnership blog.

Improving Children’s Lives through Information Access

On December 8th–10th, Panthea Lee will join artists, scientists, writers, and economists to explore the challenges and opportunities of creating information-healthy societies. The 3-day immersive workshop in upstate New York, hosted by Arts Letters & Numbers and UNICEF’s Office of Innovation, will develop approaches to improve the lives of children through increasing access to life-enhancing information about nutrition, health, and educational opportunities.

Leading the Way to Smarter, Fairer Government Contracting

On November 28th and 29th, Lauren Gardner, Zack Brisson, and Panthea Lee will facilitate Open Contracting 2017, a global convening to map out the future of smarter and fairer government contracting. Organized by the Open Contracting Partnership, The B Team, CoST, Hivos and Article 19, with Reboot as the design and facilitation partner, the event will gather 200 open contracting leaders, practitioners, and champions from across the world for two days of co-working, networking, and peer exchange.

Sharing Insights From the Field with Future Changemakers

On November 8th Zack Brisson delivered a lecture at Rutgers Honors College Forum, an interdisciplinary course focused on tackling global issues through social innovation. The lecture, entitled “So You Want to Start a Revolution?” covered tactics for working within existing power structures to create meaningful change.

Strengthening Investigative Journalism and Collaboration

Chioma Agwuegbo and Ahmed Rufai Isah will join the 10th Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Johannesburg alongside international media experts and fellow MacArthur Foundation grantees. The event, which takes place November 16th-19th, is the world’s largest gathering of investigative journalists, with a mission to spread state-of-the-art investigative reporting, data journalism, and cross-border collaboration around the world.