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.

Advancing Learning for Development

In Washington, DC from October 3rd-4th, Panthea Lee and Emily Herrick will speak at MERL Tech, a gathering of development practitioners to discuss the future of technology for monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning. Panthea will deliver a keynote on principles for integrating learning data throughout program implementation, and Emily will co-facilitate a workshop on ethical considerations throughout the data lifecycle.

Designing for Connection

On September 24th, Emily Herrick and Lauren Gardner will join a panel on “Creating Connections Through Design” at the student-led Better World by Design conference in Providence. Under the theme Interplay, Emily and Lauren will share how they facilitated uncommon connections in education and civic engagement.

Envisioning the Future of Aid Data

Zack Brisson will moderate a panel entitled “Development Data Visionaries: The Future of Data Work at Aid Agencies” at Bloomberg’s Data for Good Exchange in New York City on Sunday, September 25th. Merrick Shaefer (USAID), Manuel García-Herranz (UNICEF), Tariq Khokhar (The World Bank), and Molly Jackman (Facebook) will discuss how aid agencies are using data science to meet the growing need of doing development differently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unique Opportunities at the Subnational Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


measuring impact

How We Measure Impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This blog post is based on Zack’s talk at Slush 2015 on building a social enterprise.

Welcome New Rebooters!

Over the last few months, we’ve welcomed several new team members to support programmatic work across our portfolio. Adeola Ojebiyi, Ijeoma Mba, and Tahir Sherriff will lend their combined expertise in journalism, research, evaluation, and development to our West Africa office. Matthew McNaughton, Merlin Chatwin, and Raúl Zambrano have also joined our team to help shape our work with OGP subnational pilots in Ghana, Kenya, and Mexico.

design research interview in indonesia

What Anthropologists Can Learn from Designers (And Vice Versa)

And What Development Can Learn from Both

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

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

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

Webs of Similarities

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

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

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

Drawing Lessons from the Differences

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How to Start Up

Zack Brisson will share the Reboot story with fellow entrepreneurs at a Coworkrs Founders panel on Thursday, July 28th in Brooklyn. He will talk about what it takes to get a bold idea (e.g. changing the status quo of the public sector) off the ground and then grow it into a meaningful business.

people using MyVoice, an SMS feedback system

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

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

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

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

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

My Voice: Incremental and Iterative Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Envisioning My Voice At Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Building Capacity in Big Data

Carrie Oppenheimer is attending the Data-Pop Alliance’s first Global Professional Training Workshop on Big Data and Development at the MIT Media Lab from June 27th to 30th. This pilot workshop will inform a series of global trainings on the implications and applications of big data for development and policy practitioners. Supported by the Hewlett Foundation and the United Nations System Staff College, this training program will blend teaching formats, from instructor-led sessions to a data expedition, covering the context, methods, decisionmaking, and ethics of big data.

people powered media innovation in west africa

Omidyar Network on the Value of Investing in Media

Introducing People-Powered Media Innovation in West Africa

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


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

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

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

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

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


Teaching Tech for Governance

Panthea Lee will co-present a session on governance at Singularity University’s flagship Global Solutions Program on July 1st. The program brings together 80 participants from over 40 countries to learn about and build exponential technologies to address human challenges. Panthea will discuss Reboot’s approach to understanding complex political economies and tackling thorny governance problems, and the role (and limitations) of technology in doing so.

Showcasing Innovation at USAID

On June 27th & 28th, Panthea Lee participate in USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Partners’ Forum. She will co-open the forum’s innovation sessions—which will cover topics including co-creation, political economy analysis, internet freedom, and social accountability—by sharing Reboot’s lessons from designing and implementing democracy, governance, and civic engagement programs around the world.


media innovation in west africa

Keeping the “Interest” in Public Interest Journalism

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

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

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

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

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

Audiences are the Future of Media Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Important Moment for Investors to Step In

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

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

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


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

Accelerating Media Development in West Africa

We are excited to announce the launch of a new report: People-Powered Media Innovation in West Africa. Supported by the Omidyar Network, Reboot researched opportunities for funders to leverage the power of media for government transparency and accountability in Nigeria and Ghana. The report describes how citizen participation in new media is reshaping the dynamics between citizens, media, and government, and highlights two key opportunities for funders: activating audiences and providing sustainable funding. Read the summary or download the full report.

ogp event in tbilsi

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

How the Open Government Partnership is boosting COP effectiveness

Collective Action: A love-hate relationship

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

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

A Testing Ground for New Approaches

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

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

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

Communities for Lonely Reformers

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

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

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

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

Three Principles for Making Intentional Communities Effective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transforming COPs through Smart Community Building

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

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


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


Regional Learning on Open Data for Governance

In Istanbul this week, Nicole Anand and Panthea Lee will join the UNDP’s Data for Development Results  conference to learn and share how open data can address governance challenges in Europe and Central Asia. Panthea will present on smart cities shifting away from dashboards and towards being more citizen-centric in the “Wise Cities are Built around Citizens” session on June 8th. At the “Doing Data Differently” panel on June 9th, Nicole will discuss how new sources of data affect the power distribution between citizens and governments. Panthea and Nicole will also provide closing remarks for the days’ sessions on their respective speaking dates. Follow along on Twitter with #ECADATA16.

media landscape in west africa

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

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

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

Announcing a new report on media and good governance

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

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

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

Despite liberalization, steep challenges for independent media

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

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

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

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

New media drives media innovation

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

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

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

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

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


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