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.

Leveraging New Media and Technology in Nigeria

From February 27th to March 3rd, Reboot will participate in Social Media Week in Lagos, Nigeria. This week-long conference provides opportunities for leading media actors in Nigeria to collaborate, as well as to share how existing and new media and technology can support social accountability and civic engagement efforts. Follow along at #SMWLagos2017.

Working Shoulder-to-Shoulder with Journalists to Reduce Corruption in Nigeria

Reboot is honored to be a grantee of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s $5 million fund for journalism and media to advance anti-corruption efforts in Nigeria. As part of MacArthur’s On Nigeria portfolio, Reboot will support media and journalism organizations in understanding and engaging audiences, developing sustainable business models, strengthening investigative and data-driven reporting, and collaborating with advocacy groups over three years. Read more about the award and other grantees here.

Promoting Service Design in NYC

From February 17th to 19th, Emily Herrick and Lauren Gardner contributed as organizers and participants to the NYC Service Design Jam. Over 48 hours, participating teams researched, designed, and prototyped new services based on this year’s theme of communication and connection. The NYC Jam was only one of concurrent 100 global service design jams aiming to grow the field of service design and customer experience. For a recap of the event see @NYCservicejam.

Improving the User Experience of Civic Technology in NYC

On February 25th, Panthea Lee will serve as the judge for the NYC OpenRecords Virtual UX Hackathon. Contestants will submit ideas for improving the OpenRecords platform, a tool which Reboot helped concept to support the New York City government’s processing of Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. Register here if you are a UX professional interested in improving civic technology and participating in the hackathon.

Elevating Social Agency through Engagement

From February 22nd to 24th, Nicole Anand will participate in Verge NYC, a student organized conference on transdisciplinary design at Parsons in New York City. As an advisory board member, Nicole will lead conversations on Youth empowerment and civic engagement. This year’s conference focuses on how to uncover and disrupt power dynamics with the goal of  illuminating traditionally invisible social groups and environments. Register to attend the event or follow along on with #VergeNYC.

Collaborating for Social Accountability in West Africa

From February 20th to 23rd, Adam Talsma will attend a regional learning workshop hosted by West Africa Civil Society Institute in Accra, Ghana. Adam will share Reboot’s approach to supporting effective local civil society and government partnerships in strengthening accountabile governance. The annual workshop convenes civil society representatives from across West Africa to exchange lessons, challenges, and opportunities for collaboration on social accountability.

Innovating Public Services through Data

On December 15th, Nicole Anand will present a keynote for the Data for Social Innovation conference in Turin, Italy. Nicole will discuss how to extract value from data for improving public services, using examples from our work with Wikimedia and the OGP subnational program to illustrate Reboot’s approach to social innovation. The conference will focus on themes of education, unemployment, and poverty reduction, and you can sign up to attend here.

Open Government—A Means, a Journey, but not an End

The Ongoing Journey of Austin, Texas to Get Equitable Outcomes Through Trust and Connection

Editor’s Note: The City of Austin, Texas was recently chosen to participate in the Open Government Partnership’s pilot program for champions of open government at the state and city level. Reboot is proud to be a fan and supporter of this pioneering team.


These past few weeks following the U.S. presidential election have given us pause as we reflect on the role of civil servants as stewards of public trust. We have seen how, at the macro level, the mere word “government” can evoke compulsive scorn, even as we in Austin have worked hard to build trusting relationships at the local level between civil servants and civil society.

In the years ahead, local governments have an important opportunity—and responsibility—to redefine government. Our commitment to openness matters now more than ever, as we work to renew our social contract, one tangible, human connection at a time.

The drive for transparency and greater citizen participation in Austin isn’t new—we’ve got lots of feathers in our open government hat. Our selection for the OGP subnational pilot program has prompted us to think about how we can build on previous successes, and how we can share those lessons with other governments.


Austin Open Gov Successes

Austin, Texas’ Open Government successes over the last seven years

We’re taking advantage of the opportunity to make OGP commitments that redefine the relationship between people and government as a means for co-creating better outcomes, such as with Ending Homelessness in Austin. This effort departs from the traditional and misguided approach of criminalizing homelessness in cities, which further marginalizes those living on the street, disconnecting people from each other and their government, and deepening the crisis in a revolving door of jails, emergency rooms, and shelters. Instead, through continuous and adaptive systemic changes, the Ending Homelessness Coalition in Austin works to build pathways out of economic and personal crises for residents experiencing homelessness. Together, we at the City of Austin join them to help create equitable opportunities for an entire community.

To ground our approach in connection, we started the effort with the most humble but vital of acts—listening. After six months of ethnographic immersion, coalition building, and experimentation with cross-sector teams, patterns began to emerge, and possible solutions became clearer.


Austin Street Team

The City of Austin’s Homelessness Outreach Street Team

Based on the lessons learned, the City Council authorized a full year of the Homelessness Outreach Street Team (HOST) pilot to proactively meet the needs of people living on the streets. This initiative brings together the expertise of police officers, behavioral health specialists, a paramedic, and outreach social workers to bridge the gaps between social services and public safety for hard-to-reach clients. In better connecting those experiencing homelessness to services, the team also gives city officials a new understanding of what it means to sustainably work to end homelessness.

Key to our success was our method: human-centered co-creation, which brings together multiple stakeholders—in this case, government agencies, service providers, and community members. Co-creation helps to clarify the problem for everyone involved; at one recent event, for example, these groups came together to co-create a system map of the cycle of homelessness. Just as importantly, it  builds shared understanding and connection.   


Upstream Austin Tweet

Pictured: Jeff Mulhausen from Upstream Thinking helps facilitate attendees at the community event hosted by Downtown Austin Alliance, Ending Community Homeless Coalition, and City of Austin. Photo courtesy of the Downtown Austin Alliance.

For us, the experience of co-creating solutions to homelessness was bittersweet. The intimate and privileged insights people shared remind us why our work matters. The data collected by the ecosystem of service providers reminds us of the scarcity of resources, as well as the great expense to taxpayers when our systems are inefficient. Co-creation challenges us, as every day it reminds us of our limits and constraints to address the raw and real hopes, dreams, and needs of citizens.

Doing this kind of work in areas that touch people’s everyday lives is messy and humbling, and at times overwhelming. But embracing the nuances and digging deeper into those challenges brings about a level of intimacy and trust that is otherwise difficult to foster between communities and civil servants. It also raises the stakes: there is no backing out once this level of connection is established. With so much work to do to serve the needs of the vulnerable while maintaining public order, and with few resources with which to do it, we feel the pressure for accountability every single day.  

Beyond the obvious physical needs expressed by those experiencing homelessness in Austin, many people also expressed a desire for connection. (In fact, we suspect that the desire to connect with communities they’ve built on the streets is one of the reasons why people become homeless again, even after they’ve secured stable housing.)

Downtown Austin Community Event

Attendees at the community event discuss how homelessness personally affects them.
Photo courtesy of the Downtown Austin Alliance.

We all need connection. We have learned through these experiences that building shared understanding through co-creation drives human connection by meeting people where they are, clarifying experiences and facts before taking a stance, and allowing people to be honest and transparent about how their values influence their positions. It supports dignity for all.

We live in an era when it’s possible to live in virtual neighborhoods online but not know the names of one’s physical neighbors. At the subnational level, we have the opportunity to create a democratic, inclusive process that can be experienced in real life. In Austin, we’re rebuilding our local public square as the place where we see each other clearly and forge connections. With that common understanding, we’ll co-create better public policy.

We know that transparency, accountability, and civic participation will grow good government.  But how will we know we have succeeded? If “open government” is our goal, who among us can declare “our government is now officially open and we are done?”

Open government is a means, not an end. We need to collectively change the conversation to governANCE, to acknowledge that any complex social effort worth making requires persistence and maintenance, through the hard work of active listening and ongoing dialogue. We like to say that open governance is a lifestyle commitment, not a fad diet that gets abandoned after the tweets get stale.

Our open government action plan includes listening and milestones that close feedback loops between government and civil society. We hope that what we learn can inform the journey of other subnational and national governments alike, and we invite you to add to this conversation, find us at the Open Government Summit in December, and follow Austin’s progress.

People are ready to join in the journey to opening government, they just need to be connected.

Austin Post-its

Sticky notes from a recent community co-creation event, “A Community Approach to Tackling Homelessness.”

Learn more about our Subnational journey at the OGP Global Summit:

Co-creating for Open Government

From December 7 to 9, Panthea Lee, Zack Brisson, and Nicole Anand will be attending the OGP Global Summit in Paris. On December 8th (9AM local time), Zack will co-facilitate a roundtable where subnational pioneers will reflect on lessons learned from their experience developing open government commitments. Nicole will facilitate a workshop on December 9th (3:30 pm local time) with five subnational government pioneers to share how they co-create for open government. Follow the conference at #OGP16 and #OGP16Summit.

Adapting Health Services with Real-Time Data

On December 7th, Adam Talsma will join a webinar panel hosted by Health Communication Capacity Collaborative on real-time activity monitoring and reporting. Adam will present on My Voice, an SMS-based, patient-feedback platform, to show how Reboot built real-time data into institutional decisionmaking processes to improve primary care services in Nigeria. Register here to attend the webinar at 9am EST.

Using Citizen Data to Evaluate the SDGs in Nigeria

On November 30th in Abuja, Ijeoma Mba and Adam Talsma will lead a workshop at the SDG Conference 2016, a national conference on evaluating Nigeria’s advancement toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Ijeoma and Adam will use Reboot’s My Voice project as a case study to show how collecting citizen feedback can help institutions better measure their progress toward meeting the SDGs and adapt their programs responsively. Follow along at #SDGNigeria.

Training Data Enthusiasts in Nigeria

From November 22 to 23, Nonso Jideofor joined the Open Data Party, an initiative of Connected Development [CODE] and eHealth Africa, in Kano, Nigeria. Nonso led two workshops: on using the design process to implement open data programs, and on using mobile phone surveys to make data current and compelling in service design. Check out the Party recap at #OpenDataParty.

Doing Development Differently in Open Government

On November 17th, Panthea Lee will speak at Doing Development Differently: Two years on, what are we learning? convened by ODI and Harvard University in London. She will discuss applying DDD principles in open government programs, policies, and operations alongside Duncan Green from Oxfam, Taylor Brown from Palladium, and Jonathan Beloe of the IRC.

A line of hurdles across the stars and stripes

Understanding Who Makes Democracy Work: A Call for an Ethnography of our Poll Workers

In the April primary, it took me four long hours, three ill-informed election workers, two crowded subway rides, and one Board of Elections judge to vote.

It started at my local polling place, where I walked in and discovered that I was not on the voting list. Slightly peeved, but prepared, I asked two different poll workers for a provisional ballot. The first hesitated and said, “We don’t have those;” the second directed me to the Board of Elections (my first subway ride). There, I was met with more confused looks and pointing fingers. After waiting with relentless patience, I ended up sitting before a busy Board of Elections judge, who told me I needed an affidavit ballot—a type of provisional ballot—available back at my local polling place (my second subway ride).

Now, I am pretty into democracy. I am that friend who wears campaign buttons during primary season and who preaches the importance of voting in local elections. I also have the motivation, determination, and flexibility to do what it takes to ensure I can cast my vote. So as I moved through my day of voting hurdles, from one set of contrasting instructions to another, I kept wondering—how many voters would have given up after the first confused poll worker?

As citizens, casting a ballot is one of our foundational rights. We need to start reversing the status quo of laughably low voter turnout—not just in crucial presidential elections, but all of the primaries, midterms, and local elections in between. With so much at stake, each vote is indispensable. We cannot continue to discourage those who show up to be counted with our poorly managed polling places. It is time for us to rethink the voting experience. That starts by understanding why polling-place hiccups like mine are so common.

Our inability to run polling stations is not a new problem.

Following most elections a familiar batch of articles, highlighting long wait times and mismanaged polling places, appear on our newsfeeds. It seems like everyone has experienced a slow-moving or rude poll worker who makes voting more complicated than it has to be. But ineffectively run polling places not only cause headaches; they have huge effects on our democracy.

Research shows that voter confidence is significantly influenced by interactions with poll workers. If you have a terrible experience, you are less likely to vote again. And worse—poll workers have discretion to interpret complicated voting laws at polling places, and ill-informed decisions have consequential effects on our election systems. For example, changes to the provisional voting law in Colorado led poll workers to mistakenly withhold provisional ballots from qualified voters. (Sound familiar?)

But we cannot blame poll workers for these problems, because the system pushes these volunteers to fail. A comprehensive 2014 report from the National Election Administration outlined the challenges that face polling places. For starters, it’s hard to recruit enough. Those that volunteer are expected to work for 16-hour shifts, with little training, and deal with increasingly complex technology—most poll workers only sign up once.

We need better policy, right?

Sincere policy changes at both the national and local level have tried to tackle the woes of our polling places. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), a response to the 2000 Florida fiasco, continues to help local authorities upgrade many aspects of their election procedures, including voting machines, registration processes, and poll worker training.

But many of these well-intentioned steps have one big flaw: they are created without consulting actual poll workers. For example, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s 16-point plan for voting reform focuses on enhancing existing incentive structures, with little proof that they are currently working. The plan put forth less-than-inspiring ideas, like raising the poll worker stipend from $200 per day to $240.

Policy recommendations have to be grounded in an understanding of the experiences of government employees on “the front lines” of polling places. If you ask them, I highly doubt that solutions like increasing poll worker stipends by $40 would be on the top of anyone’s list. This type of top-down policy has been proven ineffective time and time again because it is not designed with potential users in mind.

Design to the rescue?

When we see policy falling short, designers often step in with our box of “user-centered” tools. But our bias for cutting-edge or tech-based solutions can lead us astray, too. For example, IDEO recently collaborated with Los Angeles County to “define a voting process that feels familiar to voters” and launched a new ballot machine. It’s an inventive step forward, but IDEO’s definition of the “voting process” starts and ends with voters in a voting booth, not when they walk through that public library or local elementary school, ready to cast their ballot. IDEO has focused only on the technology solution, isolating the controllable digital experiences, and ignoring the people (poll workers) and processes (policy and regulations) those products live within.

So as designers, we too miss the mark. We tend to think of design for social innovation in terms of products and services, and promise the social sector a magic bullet that will neatly solve their problems. But, these shiny objects don’t really address the election system’s messier context to include people, processes, protocols, and policies.

The good news? Design for social innovation is not a static product or “thing.” It’s a process—one that anyone can learn. It’s a way of solving problems through first understanding the needs, contexts, motivations, and incentives not just of “end-users” (in this case, voters), but all users in a system (policymakers, election administrators, and poll workers) before proposing a solution.

To start changing the status quo frustrations for voters at the polls, we have to start by understanding the experiences (including the frustrations) of the poll workers who serve them.  

It’s time for a design approach to policymaking

The gap between top-down policy and tech-centric design shows up in many other systems with chronic problems, too. Just as voting interventions often skip over poll workers, education interventions often miss teachers’ voices, and government reform proposals skip over government employees. We need to design human-centered policy—with designers and policymakers not only working together, but grounding their collaborations in the experiences of these front-line workers.

And there are examples of policy solutions that do. In 2014, the Center for Civic Design collaborated with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to understand the challenges of how electronic poll books are currently being used in the polling place to inform usability improvements. And in 2013, Reboot teamed up with the voting advocacy organization Turbovote to conduct an institutional ethnography of elections administrations throughout the United States which led to the development of a ballot tracking tool for the 2016 election cycle.  

These examples illustrate how design doesn’t just inform an end product, but can build understanding into a policymaking process. Each uses institutional ethnography to ground solutions in empirical evidence based on users’ experiences, and sets government agencies up for success—rather than condemning them for not getting it right the first time.

This kind of design can help more people to feel confident casting a ballot. It’s also good for policymakers and elections boards who want to avoid those headlines every year about polling place dysfunction. If poll workers have the support and structures they need to make the voting experience seamless, it would be just one less excuse not to vote.

Promoting Data-Driven Journalism in Africa

From November 13th to 15th, Zack Brisson will attend Bloomberg’s Africa Business Media Innovators conference on inclusive and successful journalism throughout Africa. Held in Naivasha, Kenya, this year’s gathering of global industry, data, technology, foundation, and new media leaders focuses on data. Specifically, they will explore how access, analysis, and distribution of public data in business and financial journalism can support open governance, business development, and social and economic growth. Follow along at #ABMI2016.

Welcome Erin Wispelwey!

Erin Wispelwey joins the Reboot team as a communications intern. She brings a broad range of international development, public health, and communications experience, as well as an MSc in research methods in political economy and development from the University of London- SOAS. Prior to graduate school, she did community health work as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia, and used design research methods to connect newly diagnosed patients to care at the University of Virginia’s HIV clinic. Erin looks forward to learning more innovative ways to address structural injustices through human-centered design and communicating these innovations to others.

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.

Practical Lessons for Closing Feedback Loops

On Friday, October 28th, Zack Brisson will speak on how feedback can be used in open government and adaptive management at the Feedback Summit in Washington, DC. In the “Feedback Ninjas” breakout session, Zack will join a panel of subnational open government champions from Austin, TX and Elgeyo Marakwet County, Kenya on reframing participation within and outside government. Zack will also share insights from our research with USAID on decisionmaking for adaptive management at the plenary session “Adapting Beyond the Status Quo.”

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.

Strengthening Media for Governance in Nigeria

In Abuja on October 19th, Reboot and BBC Media Action will host a dynamic conversation with media, development agencies, and donors on the role of media in Nigeria’s governance. Moderated by radio host Affiong Bassey, “Talk Your Own: Media for Governance” will explore how Nigerian media can better engage audiences, provide trustworthy information, foster public dialogue, and contribute to development. If you’re interested in attending, email us at talkyourown@reboot.org.