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5 Additional Ways to Create Digital Development Sustainability

By Guest Writer on December 23, 2021

sustainability ict4d

We constantly talk about sustainability when designing and refining digital solutions, but what do we really mean when we say it? Josh Woodard’s post “Is It Finally Time to Retire Sustainability in ICT4D?” got me thinking about this.

He framed sustainability in terms of financial sustainability, or “viability” – the private sector-oriented idea that over time a digital solution should have feasible revenue streams and a product-market fit, rather than ensuring that it can be sustained and funded over time.

In the context of the work we do on Data.FI, we look at sustainability from a different lens. When we think about sustainability, we are thinking about how the HIV information systems – and the analyses, approaches and tools we are developing to effectively use the data – can be led and managed by government and country counterparts.

There are five key pieces to sustainability, in addition to financial sustainability, that we prioritize:

1. Documentation

Information systems cannot be transferred to full country ownership without transparency on system documentation. That is why on the Data.FI project we track the extent to which the systems we are developing or modifying have appropriate software documentation, and that code is being shared and posted in an online platform like GitHub.

This provides a roadmap for country stakeholders to take over a system developed by an implementing partner, and also provides a quality control mechanism for us as a project to ensure we are building systems with documentation, in line with software development life cycle best practices.

2. Ecosystem Awareness

There is nothing that will threaten the success of a digital solution more than not adequately considering the digital in which it is operating. We are now ensuring that each time we gather requirements for a system we are supporting, those requirements include consideration of the health information ecosystem. We are working to hold our partners, our donor, and ourselves accountable for delivering and doing better on this.

3. Governance

We’ve all heard technology is not the problem or the solution. It is the process of working with stakeholders with overlapping, competing, and evolving interests to build something bigger than any one of us can do individually.

Putting in place long-lasting structures where these discussions and negotiations can happen is a legacy that we on Data.FI constantly strive for. With these governance structures in place, we can feel confident that the digital solutions we are co-creating can be continually adapted and updated in innovative and durable ways.

4. Training and Coaching

To ensure digital solutions are transitioned and fully owned by country stakeholders, it is essential that funds are set aside for capacity building. This means promoting existing training resources, developing needed training materials, and employing approaches to coaching that ensure that capacity strengthening does not end after a training workshop.

This is often easier said than done, as donors and even some government counterparts can sometimes assume that new technical solutions will “run themselves,” that training is merely a “nice to have,” or that training should be funded elsewhere.

5. Transition Planning

As a project, we are increasingly being asked to transition systems we are managing to country governments and partners. Of course, this is not the ideal way of working – ideally, we would like to be designing and building the systems we manage and support directly with government and country parts.

That said, the transition process is one that we want to implement responsibly and well. As such, we are integrating transition planning into work we are undertaking in several countries, like Burundi and South Africa. This enables us to hold practical dialogues with our country counterparts on a timeframe for transition, what the necessary staffing and skills mix might be, long-term funding options, and other important considerations.

This is not something that can be done overnight – it may take two and a half years to make responsible transition possible.

Sustainability is More Than Just Financial

All of us in the ICT4D community want to maximize scarce resources and responsibly use technology to crack the tough development challenges we face. At the end of the day, what I want to sustain more than anything is the way we work together: the coordination and collaboration that comes from creating systems, interoperating them, modifying and refining them.

The ties we forge working together are a big part of how sustainability will come about – and will outlast any individual app or technology solution.

By Nena do Nascimento, a Senior Technical Advisor for Measurement and Learning at Palladium, who leads Data.FI’s Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Unit.

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One Comment to “5 Additional Ways to Create Digital Development Sustainability”

  1. Ed Robinson says:

    Great article, Nina. Another common misconception is that everything has to be a web application on a central server with a relational DB backend, yet those who make these points still likely use spreadsheets daily. At the end of the day, technology has to be appropriately applied, like everything else, use what works. One example I got to see first hand was a small office in Simanjiro district in Manyara, Tanzania where the data manager ran an entire data base of OVCs for the district from a pretty complex spreadsheet. Now in a perfect world, he would be using a shared database and central storage with a web application to manage his data, but internet connectivity wasn’t sufficient. Alternatively a distributed system could be used with a server at each local data office that allowed data to be captured and used offline while synching with a central server – and such a system had already been created – but sadly, it was technically complex and there was only one person supporting it nationally so there was insufficient capacity to maintain it. When it went down, it stayed down for months. As a result, he developed his own spreadsheet – and an impressive one at that – to manage his data. His solution worked for him and was appropriate and sustainable because he could support it.

    In that scenario, sustainability is more about mentorship and training – enabling local staff to manage and support what they have rather than relying on a central support model with insufficient support staff. It may mean using a spreadsheet until capacity to support a more complex system is in place, but building system that is technically complex to support without that capacity in place is a recipe for failure.