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Leaping into the Principles for Digital Development

By Guest Writer on March 7, 2016


On Leap Day, Feb 29, over 260 people, representing more than 150 organizations participated in a Digital Development event held at FHI 360. It was an effort to celebrate the newly published report, From Principle to Practice: Implementing the Principles for Digital Development. The report is based off the Principles for Digital Development, a set of best practice guidelines for development programs that utilize technology to increase impact and social change.

The agenda was jam-packed and the room was abuzz with participants from sectors in civil society, health, education, technology, government and private institutions. And as the day progressed, we quickly learned that the principles can apply across all these sectors.

There were many themes and takeaways from the day. Below we highlight just a few.

1. Using existing “rails”

In the opening keynote, Ann Mei Chang, the Executive Director of the U.S. Global Development Lab at USAID, spoke of the incentives set in place in the technology industry where people are awarded for innovation. “Seeing the number of organizations that are engaging the Principles for Digital Development gives me hope” she said.

To date, 50 organizations have officially endorsed these Principles. She provided an example of a social puzzle game launched in 2012. This game was built off of existing app technology to become what is today a multi-billion dollar empire: Candy Crush.

Yet, in global development, what happens is that we end up building something over and over again instead of using already existing “rails”. There is often no focus on scale, but on very specific one-off opportunities. This results in wasted time, money, and resources, as was the case in Uganda, where 80 different mHealth pilots were implemented between 2008-09.

This situation, where many NGOs are funded for relatively similar, but isolated, pilot projects, is often referred to as “pilotitis”. Her example highlights the importance of Principle 9: Be Collaborative. The development sector needs to better coordinate our efforts so that we are not recreating the wheel.

2. Does it have to be digital? Keeping the users in mind

In a plenary session, a panel of development practitioners discussed their perspectives about the nine Principles of Digital Development. One of the panelists, Mark Frohardt of Internews, commented on the need to expand our understandings of “digital” and “technology”. He provided insights on how the principles are not only applicable to digital development but to development in general. In fact, it may be more appropriate to refer to these concepts as Principles of Development in the Digital Age.

Technology should also be thought of in a broader sense, specifically focused on use of existing technologies like radio, television, and even paper and pencil. Magda Berhe Johnson of Spider, noted that digital technologies such as computer, internet, or mobile, may be flashier and more attractive, but may not always be appropriate to meet user needs, especially when designed thousands of miles from their use environment.

3. Reuse and improve with open resources

Several breakout sessions were based on the tensions that can inherently exist between different principles. For example, how can one design with the user in mind while also design for scale? How does open data complicate privacy and security standards?

Nonetheless, among these tensions, two principles stood out as beautifully complementary: Be open and reuse and improve. There is a huge opportunity in existing content and resources, which we should use whenever possible. So rather than recreating the wheel, the development world needs to develop processes for digitalizing, packaging, and distributing services or products using open source information.

In fact, there are even opportunities for development organizations to engage with government agencies such as NASA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Department of Defense, and the Office of Naval Research. Many of these agencies may be very open to repair U.S. public relations, and partnering with NGOs and development agencies can help them return in the public’s good graces.

4. Following through

Jacob Korenblum of Souktel gave a lightning talk regarding adoption and enforcement. Take the Principles, for example, how can we ensure that the excitement that existed on Leap Day can carry through? He suggested some things we can potentially do, including having annual membership reviews, rotating leadership/knowledge management roles, and recognizing individuals for their achievements (i.e. The “Diggies” Awards).

Frances Sibbet the DFID Digital Service Lead, announced that they will be releasing a digital strategy this summer which includes their process for ensuring vendors work in support of the Principles: put in in their contract. Impressively, DFID requires suppliers now to adhere to these principles, and tie phased delivery of service, as a best business best practice.

To that end, moving forward, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), as led by Kate Wilson, formerly of PATH, will help steward the Principles community by shaping an action framework, seeding efforts to realize the Principles, and sharing the principles and evidence more broadly. We look forward to hearing more from them as DIAL gets off the ground!

Heidi Good Boncana co-leads the Global Digital Health Network (formerly the mHealth Working Group)!

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