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.
On November 7th and 8th Panthea Lee will take part in HCD Uncut, a co-design workshop on challenges in the application of human-centered design in global health and development. The event, which takes place in Berlin and will be attended by an expert group of funders, designers, and implementers, is convened by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID’s Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact.
On Thursday November 2nd, Zack Brisson will attend the 2017 Feedback Summit in Washington D.C. as part of a panel that asks: Under what conditions is information empowering? Panelists from Feedback Labs, GlobalGiving, Omidyar Network, and University of California of Irvine will discuss how increased access to information has empowered, or failed to empower, citizens.
Panthea Lee and Zack Brisson will join dozens of urban experts at the CityLab Summit in Paris to discuss city-level solutions to global challenges. The conference, hosted by AtlanticLIVE, convenes mayors from over 30 global cities to collaborate on innovative ways to move our cities forward. As part of the two-day event, Panthea and Zack will share key insights into city-led initiatives, and learn from other advocates of local change.
This post is co-authored by Zack Brisson and Laura Freschi.
Reboot has long straddled several different worlds: Our user-centered design approach comes originally from the field of product design, developed in the private sector. And our public sector work comprises both multi-national partners, like the World Bank and UNICEF, as well as local leaders from Austin, Texas to Edo State, Nigeria, in cities and subnational government agencies all over the world. We work across multiple spheres of influence, because we recognize there’s more than one leverage point to drive public sector innovation and create more resilient and user-centered institutions.
Working with counterparts at national, state, city, and community levels, we’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on how external actors can best intervene in complex governance systems to help societies inch forward to be more democratic, participatory, and open. We’ve also reflected on the equally important question: At what level is it best to intervene?
Next week, Reboot will be exploring this question as part of the annual CityLab Summit, where mayors from more than 30 global cities will gather with other city-focused leaders and academics. The purpose of the CityLab Summit is to discuss city-level solutions to global challenges—like how to alleviate poverty, how to use the power of big data responsibly, or how to increase civic participation. As we pack our bags for Paris, we’ve been pulling together resources from our past work, at all levels, to share with local-level visionaries. In the spirit of cross-sector collaboration, we’ve put these resources together in a “Plane Reading List” in this post.
But first, we should explain why city-level work is so important.
There’s a bit of a paradox at that heart of how public sector policies are made, versus how socio-economic change happens.
The development economist Bill Easterly has long criticized this paradox in the field of international development, which is one of Reboot’s areas of expertise. The development industry works and thinks largely at the level of the nation state, in part because the members of global institutions (the World Bank, the United Nations) are country governments. NGOs and development agencies most commonly have “country offices,” with “host governments” that are national governments. When we look for development data to set baselines and chart progress, we are most likely to find it at the country level.
And yet this national-level approach is mismatched for the actual work these institutions seek to do. Countries are primarily political units, not social or economic ones. And socio-economic development happens most tangibly at more local levels: the metropolitan area, the city, and even the neighborhood.
This insight—that the most palpable change happens at the city level and below—comes as no surprise to Reboot’s many partners working at the local level, like the New York City (USA) agencies we’re supporting to make city data more accessible, or the civil servants we supported in Elgeyo Marakwet (Kenya) to hear citizen feedback more clearly. The policies, vision, and managerial skills of leaders at the local level make palpable differences in the lives of residents.
In any city, a mayor’s decisions—from short-term emergency response to the long work of changing “business as usual”— create changes that residents see right away. And residents, in turn, are able to respond to those changes in ways that mayors and others can feasibly hear and (theoretically) incorporate into future policies—creating what’s called a “feedback loop.” The feasibility of feedback loops, combined with mayors’ relative autonomy and their discretion over city budgets, have meant that many cities are now global leaders in good governance and innovation.
In recent years, Reboot has worked on many projects at the city level; we’ve seen first-hand how visionary city governments can bring together multiple stakeholders to develop both the solutions for urgent problems AND the trust needed to make those solutions happen. The City of Austin, Texas, for example, did this as part of its participation in the Open Government Partnership’s Subnational Pilot (a great example of national-level work experimenting with impact at the local level). We also supported Nigeria’s Edo State to do this as part of releasing Africa’s first subnational open data portal.
As we’ve worked with these and other local-level leaders, we’ve found that many are wrestling with the same challenges we’ve seen at the national level: If you’re a civil servant, how do you create new ways of working within entrenched bureaucracies? If you’re a member of civil society or other “outsider,” how do you influence the way government insiders work? And for both sides, how do you find constructive pathways for dialogue and collaboration? How do you leverage the power of data to solve real-world problems? How do you collaborate with the media to inform a robust and inspirational public dialogue? In other words: How do you achieve your mission?
We’re looking forward to discussing these questions in detail with city leaders and innovators in Paris this weekend. Here are the resources we’ve pulled together to bring with us; whether you’re heading to Paris or just planning to follow the conversation on Twitter, we hope you’ll find some of these resources useful!
We’re excited to gather many more resources from Paris! If you have another favorite, please share it with us on Twitter @theReboot—we’ll be updating this blog post with more as we go.
It’s been five years since New York City passed a pioneering law: The city now requires that ALL public data sets be made freely available to the public. NYC has made great progress on fulfilling that requirement; the most recent annual progress report has all the details.
But here’s the big question: Who is actually using all this data?
Reboot recently tackled this question—one facing cities all over the world—in collaboration with the City of New York. Through design research, we uncovered a wide variety of current and potential users of city data.
City and civic leaders who focus on making official data available to the public—known as “open data”—have a tendency to focus their attention and efforts on a niche community of civic hackers and tech journalists. Famous examples like I Quant NY, a blog which uncovered a systematic problem of illegal parking tickets, are exciting and tangible, but they can give the false impression that “if you don’t have the skills, you don’t have a role.” In other words, it can often seem like people who don’t have advanced data analysis capabilities (which is the vast majority of people) don’t have any reason to use open data, or to even think about it.
Reboot’s new research shows otherwise. We partnered with the Open Data Team within the City of New York to conduct user research with both existing and potential data users in the city. Importantly, our research didn’t focus just on using data, but rather on using data to solve problems. That’s because city data only matters if it makes residents’ lives better.
Viewed through that lens, it’s clear that data analysis skills are only one piece of the process. To use data to solve a problem, we need people who can identify the problem and communicate the solutions, as well as those who can collect, clean, and analyze the data. That’s why we like to say that open data is a team sport. For cities who want to truly unlock the power of open data, it’s important to engage and empower a well-rounded team of residents with a variety of skills.
So today, we are sharing a key output from our research in NYC. To introduce the City’s staff and leaders to the wide variety of people who can use open data, we developed six user personas (composite portraits based on multiple research subjects, commonly used in design). These are a visual, easy way to understand the many kinds of users with potential to benefit from data.
These personas are based on New Yorkers, but we believe they are widely applicable to any city that wants to extend its commitment to empowering residents to use data to solve real-world problems. We’re pleased to share this slideshow of the six personas as a free resource:
You can read more about this project, and how the City of New York is continuing its visionary work, in our case study. And if you’re working with your city to unlock the power of data (or to get more data to be freely available), we want to hear about it! Reach out to us on twitter: @theReboot
Reboot has been selected to attend this year’s SXSW conference, leading a panel on the future of open data, From Publishing Data Sets to Solving Problems. The panel will be part of the new Cities Summit track, a convening of civic leaders, creative citizens, and urbanists, brought together to create more equitable, resilient, and livable cities. Zack Brisson will moderate, alongside 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 and Femmetech. #SXSW #citiessummit
The Wikimedia Foundation covered findings from research they conducted in partnership with Reboot on their blog, sharing personal stories and statistics from the cross-country study that aimed to better understand and serve new potential Wikipedia readers. Reboot worked with The Wikimedia Foundation on this research in India and Nigeria, studying how access to connectivity and trust in information varied across communities. Learn more on the Wikimedia blog and in the New Readers Research Findings wiki.
With many cities releasing troves of official data freely to the public, the movement for transparency through data is facing a new challenge: How can governments work with communities in actually using that data to improve people’s lives? Last week, the Sunlight Foundation offered a new tool for anyone wrestling with that question, A Guide to Tactical Data Engagement, a four-step resource to help governments and communities collaborate to use open data for impact.
Because the guide is germane to so much of Reboot’s current work, we were excited to join the Sunlight Foundation in the public launch. Our Design Researcher Emily Herrick took part in a conversation (now available online) about how governments and their partners can put the four steps into practice. Emily shared tangible insights from our recent research with the City of New York’s Open Data Team, which has committed to bringing the benefits of publicly available data to everyone in the city. Our research helped the Open Data Team work toward that goal by reaching beyond the typical “civic tech” community and engaging people who are not yet users of open data—but who are well positioned to create impact (because of their specialized knowledge of local community issues or their communications skills, for example). During the conversation with the Sunlight Foundation, Emily shared the user personas we developed through that research, bringing these potential community collaborators to life.
In addition to sharing research insights, Emily also offered advice for other “outsiders” working with governments to solve city problems. As an external partner—a social enterprise that works hand-in-hand with governments, using design as a strategic tool to spark innovation—Reboot has long experience with a unique, two-fold role as design researchers: Our first and most obvious job is to conduct rigorous research and develop insights for our clients. Our second job, less understood but equally important, is to ensure those insights make their way into the ears (and hearts, and minds) of the people within government who have the power to act on them.
For that second job—making sure findings on data- and user-driven approaches actually influence program design—we rely on the following three “mantras.” We’ve developed these principles through our years of work with city, state, and national governments, in places as seemingly different as Elgeyo-Marakwet, Kenya and Austin, Texas. These are relevant for any “outsiders” building partnerships across government lines to help them carry out the steps of tactical data engagement:
It’s easy to think of government, or even an agency, as a monolithic, faceless institution. But it’s more helpful to remember that every organization is made up of individuals, who make decisions based on who and what they trust. In the context of our NYC user research, we were lucky to have an individual partner within the Open Data Team who was committed to the user-centered approach. This internal champion helped our team create trust across government agencies. With that entry point, we are able to create momentum to influence people in other agencies, and at other levels, who were not initially enthusiastic.
With the NYC Open Data user research, we worked with three different agencies, each with different roles in the initiative. Each agency brought its own perspective and set of priorities for improving open data. So while our research was meant to help the Open Data Team understand the users and potential users of open data outside of government, we also needed to understand and align this other set of users—the stakeholders within government.
One big way we align priorities among different stakeholders is by making the research as accessible as possible. So, instead of burying the findings of our research in a dense report, we created beautiful visual assets that government partners can relate to and understand. We presented these assets, along with insights and recommendations, in a workshop with all three agencies. This allowed people to absorb, push back, and ask questions about the focus area and the key use cases. We also created assets (personas, a presentation, and script) which the Open Data Team can use to drum up internal buy-in across the city government. This kind of effective, visual communication of findings and recommendations is essential for real collaboration as the initiative moves forward.
Emily shared more stories and details about these mantras during the conversation. Listen to the full webinar—which includes presentations from Stephen Larrick of the Sunlight Foundation; Kara Kratowicz of the City of Madison, Wisconsin; and April Urban, of Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development—here. Thank you to the team at Sunlight for including us in the launch of this helpful new guide!
Lauren Gardner joined the digital agency Huge’s Give a Damn series, which spotlights the work of creative entrepreneurs designing actionable solutions for a better world. Lauren presented alongside Robin Newman, Product Design and Leader of Huge Change, and Catherine Addo, Senior Strategist at Purpose. The all-female panel discussed how to meaningfully incorporate social impact in the context of private sector marketing and design.
StateScoop, a publication covering innovation and technology in state and local government, featured Reboot’s New York City open data research in their recent article Assembling the Open Government Puzzle. The article identifies areas for improvement in transparent government practices, and highlights Reboot’s user personas—illustrated archetypes like the “Community Champion” and the “Influential Interpreter”—as a tool to engage current and potential data users in New York City.
Ahmed Rufai Isah joins Reboot as an Abuja-based Program Coordinator. He helps the team meet goals, guides and coaches local researchers, and facilitates smooth knowledge transfer for clients and staff members. Rufai brings expertise in digital communications and media from a range of past positions in the private and public sectors.
Emily Herrick will join the Sunlight Foundation’s Tactical Data Engagement webinar on September 19th at 1pm EDT. The webinar launches the foundation’s guide for facilitating open data, which shows how governments can implement community-driven open data interventions. Emily will share lessons from Reboot’s NYC open data user research as part of the kickoff conversation, alongside April Urban, Research Associate at Case Western Reserve University, and Kara Kratowicz, Data Projects Coordinator at the City of Madison, WI. Listen to a recording of the webinar here. #TacticalData.
“Open government for us is a coyuntura,” explained David, the leader of a civil society organization in Guadalajara, Mexico. I was sitting in his office with my colleague, Ana Maria, conducting one of our daily ethnographic interviews. “Coyuntura?” I asked. I’d been a student of Spanish for over a decade, but had never heard that word. David and Ana Maria explained that the English word for coyuntura is “juncture”—but that translation doesn’t capture its full meaning. David had used coyuntura to describe a point at which different human, capital, and material resources meet and make things possible. Our conversation on that autumn day in Guadalajara stuck with me. As coyuntura has slipped as a loan word into our English-language reports, it has raised a critical question for me. Is there a way to not only navigate language barriers, but also use them to our advantage in our work as development professionals?
Language barriers are intimately familiar to me. Growing up speaking both Swedish and English, I quickly learned about the power of communicating fluently in two languages, but I just as quickly learned that meanings could be lost or mysteriously transformed when I switched from one language to the next. A simple one that usually tripped me up was the word eventually; the Swedish equivalent is eventuellt, but it means that something might or might not happen, whereas the English word connotes that something certainly will happen.
Linguists have been publishing studies about these incongruences for decades. While the subtle differences between similar words might not seem consequential, the truth is that linguistics has real implications for development work. Take, for example, a recent study published in the Scientific American that found that reading statements requiring a moral judgment in a foreign language—rather than participants’ native language—led participants “to place greater weight on outcomes and less weight on intentions in making moral judgments.” In other words, if we hear something in a language we don’t know well, we may focus more on the what than the why of another person’s decision, especially in a gray area, ultimately decreasing our empathy. These shifts in moral judgment have certainly affected negotiations between politicians of different countries at a forum like the UN, or complicated conversations between an American doctor and a Spanish-speaking patient. As development practitioners, we need to be alert to how language barriers can affect our decision-making.
At Reboot, appropriate language use and comprehension is at the heart of our qualitative research methods. Ethnographic methods require in-depth conversations to capture experiences; when these conversations happen in an unfamiliar language, we need to carefully process them to check for biased interpretation and pull out meaningful insights. Our work takes place in a variety of linguistic contexts, and often involves close collaboration with locals who speak English as a second or third language. To do our work well, we have to take measures to mitigate language barriers, and caveat what might be lost in translation.
To do this in many instances, we rely on the acquired language abilities of a permanent staff member. This certainly has drawbacks; for one thing, consider how dialect and slang are so variable in terms of geographic origin. I experienced this when I took notes in a focus group with Mexican and Dominican women in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, as part of our research with the New York City Mayor’s Office. Having studied Spanish in Ecuador, I understood the Mexican dialect readily. But I found it tricky to follow along the entire conversation because the Dominican dialect shortens the endings of most words. For example, when saying, “we go to the city,” Dominicans would say vamo a ciudá instead of vamos a la ciudad. In that research, to fill in the details I relied on our local researcher, a Puerto Rican woman who had lived in the community for 10 years.
Which brings me to another measure we take to navigate language barriers; we often engage native speakers as key members of our research teams. These local researchers not only act as interpreters, but as connected community members with deep understanding of the local context and customs. The local researchers do more than just translate words; they explain how and why those words are used in order to deepen our research insights. In Mexico, for example, my colleague Ana Maria helped me contextualize coyuntura in a way Google Translate never could.
However, the local researcher introduces another set of linguistic obstacles. Nuance can easily be lost in translation between the Rebooter and the local researcher, from the local language to English as well as the other way around. For example, in a recent training session for a Wikimedia Foundation project with local researchers in Brazil, the English phrasing of the project objectives and methodological terms did not easily translate to Brazilian Portuguese. This is why we approach training as an ongoing process throughout the project, rather than containing it in a one-day workshop. As we work closely to uncover, discuss, and resolve different interpretations and approaches to understanding people’s lives, we are able to not only translate but also adapt Reboot principles and methods to the local context.
It’s important to overcome language barriers, but the term “barrier” can also be misleading; while a shared accent can be an invaluable connector, in a different way, so can a different dialect—or even a different language. These differences may cast the researcher in the role of an “outsider,” but that role can open new and deeper lines of questioning in surprising ways. Since my native language, Swedish, is spoken by a population the size of New York City, I often fall into that category of the outsider. But as an anthropologist, I’ve found that I can use this role to ask questions about aspects of a language that native speakers take for granted; it often allows me to gain a deeper understanding of what makes a particular context unique.
And that’s what happened with the word coyuntura. If it hadn’t been foreign to me, I never would have reacted as I did, and connected with David during our interview about our different interpretations of the term. The untranslatable quality of the word ignited a conversation that helped us bridge understandings, rather than add to the misunderstandings.
Approached in this way, differences in language can serve as a bridge to connection, rather than a barrier to communication. Lauren Collins recently wrote an article about learning to speak her French husband’s native language; as she poignantly put it, “If first languages are reservoirs of emotion, second languages can be rivers undammed, freeing their speakers to ride different currents.” The international development community has been lacking an open conversation about language comprehension—related to ways we overcome the subtle moral, psychological, and social barriers that language can create, as well as ways to leverage those barriers into bridges. I’d love to talk more about this with practitioners who are experiencing such barriers and bridges: I invite you to not only share the challenges of language barriers, but also the unexpected opportunities they present in their inevitability. Share your thoughts with me on twitter, ethnography slack, facebook, or instagram with the hashtag #languageisabridge!
Editor’s note: TL;DR: please vote for our SXSW panel! Here’s why.
There’s a new kid coming to next year’s South by Southwest conference (SXSW). In March 2018, everyone at SXSW—whether they’re holding an Interactive, Music, or Film badge—is invited to join a convening focused on cities and the innovative ways they’re solving complex societal challenges. Our partners in the City of Austin are helping organize this Cities Summit, led by Mayor Steve Adler. As our national politics flounders, this is an important opportunity to use the convening power of SXSW to draw attention to some of the unsung heroes of city innovation.
City-level innovation is a core focus here at Reboot. From our work with the OGP Subnational Pilot (where we first partnered with the City of Austin) to acting locally on global issues like criminal justice reform and open data here in our hometown New York City, we know that cities are often where the social contract is most tangible. Cities have the power and proximity to design (and redesign) services in close collaboration with the people who live there. Everyone should be paying attention to how cities are working to solve challenges we face worldwide.
So today, we want to highlight a couple of the groups who have proposed panels for the Summit. For those who aren’t familiar with SXSW’s “PanelPicker®,” it’s a quick process, but it means a lot—the public online voting counts for about 30% of how each panel is evaluated for eventual selection. Once you register, you can vote for as many panels as you want, so please take one minute to help bring these visionaries to Austin next March before the deadline of Friday, August 25:
We hope to meet all of these people at SXSW in March 2018.
And to that end—we hope you’ll vote for our panel, From Publishing Data to Solving Problems, too. Reboot has gathered an amazing group of New York City leaders for a conversation about how New Yorkers can use city data in their lives. Our co-founder Zack Brisson will join 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 and Femmetech. We’ll discuss new user research and share tales from the trenches on how real people are using the City’s wealth of free official data to shape their city.
See you in Austin!
Tweet this: How is open data changing lives in New York City? Vote for @theReboot’s #SXSW2018 panel to find out: http://bit.ly/2iqHpje
Tweet this: These #SXSW2018 panels on #cityinnovation deserve your support. Register and vote today http://bit.ly/2iqHpje
In partnership with the MacArthur Foundation’s On Nigeria program, Reboot will host Nigeria’s leading media practitioners and experts in Lagos for a 3-day workshop on August 16th, 17th, and 18th. The bootcamp-style convening, featuring pitch competitions, ecosystem mapping, and master class sessions, seeks to build a practitioner community focused on covering corruption in Nigeria’s power and education sectors through an ecosystems lens. Follow along at #AABootcamp
Asch Harwood will be a lecturer for TechChange’s online course Mobiles for International Development. The course, held from August 14th to September 8th, explores successful applications of mobile phone use that facilitate economic transactions, support public health campaigns, and connect learners to educational content. Learn more and register to take the class here.
Reboot will be at the Africa Open Data Conference in Accra, Ghana. Chioma Agwuegbo will lead a discussion among pioneering African investigative journalists, including from the Wole Soyinka Center for Investigative Journalism, Premium Times, and Tiger Eye Media. And as part of a session on empowering communities using data, Adam Talsma will share lessons from Reboot’s open government work in Sekondi Takoradi, Ghana; panelists include Code for Nigeria, Data Zetu, Development Gateway, and Open Institute. Get updates by following #AODC17.
Today the NYC Open Data team released their annual progress report including a plan to release all remaining public data sets by the end of 2018. The report, created with support from Reboot’s design team, features Reboot’s research into existing and potential users of open data, and highlights ways New Yorkers are already using data to solve problems in their communities. Find out more at the NYC Open Data Summer Updates event at Civic Hall on Wednesday July 19th, or watch the livestream starting on Wednesday at 6:30pm ET. #OpenDataForAll
African Newspage, an online, Nigeria-based newspaper, covered a roundtable discussion in which Chioma Agwuegbo and Rufai Isah discussed Reboot’s research on improving citizen engagement and accountability via social media. The roundtable, held in Kano, Nigeria was convened by the Department for International Development’s Partnership to Engage, Reform, and Learn (PERL) program.
On June 13th, Emily Herrick and Marielle Velander will lead a workshop for the NYC Sustained Global Impact Community of Practice on applying design thinking to policy and service design through design research. Emily and Marielle will share examples from Reboot’s projects and lead exercises designed to help participants apply methods and tools of design research to their own work.