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Software Solutions to Four Main Challenges Facing Local Civic Groups

By Guest Writer on August 13, 2014


Civil society groups, political parties and government institutions around the world all face challenges when it comes to organizing and communicating. But in the developing world, many of these groups are locked out of the powerful software that has given similar organizations in more industrialized nations potent tools to overcome these difficulties.

Webapps like Nationbuilder, Salesforce, or Symplicity VOICE make campaigns, companies and parliaments more effective – but these tools tend to be built with first-world concerns and communications channels in mind. Open source software can be just as effective and free, and we at NDI are big advocates – but we’ve found it is far from a panacea.

In the 15 years that NDItech has been implementing tech-empowered solutions to political problems in developing countries, we’ve seen first hand the tremendous challenges to sustainability, particularly when IT is involved. In short, civil society and political institutions in less affluent parts of the world face a serious challenge in what we’ve taken to calling the “geek gap.” Human rights defenders or democracy advocates in the developing world can afford open source software, but they often don’t have the technological abilities to make it work. They got into advocacy work to change the world, not maintain Apache vhost configurations.

DemTools, a new Democracy Toolkit developed by NDI, is meant to help mitigate these challenges. We’ve packaged webapps that resolve four of the most common issues that our partners face and bundled them for ease of installation and use. For NDI partners, we’ve also created the DemCloud Software-as-a-Service system, sparing them entirely from hosting and hacker headaches or Sisyphean software updates.

We have identified four main challenges that local civic groups face and have created or adapted our set of open-source tools to address these problems. This first set of DemTools is designed to solve them.

  1. Challenge: MPs don’t have a way to track the issues their constituents bring to them.
    Solution: CiviMP connects legislators with their constituents.
    Members of the Ukrainian Rada want to track the concerns and resolve the problems of those they represent: better constituent services could lead to better results at the ballot box. NDI is working with these political leaders and the CiviMP DemTool to provide them with powerful, easy-to-use ways to build lists of their constituents, manage the progress of a voter’s issue and analyze the most common problems being reported in their districts. MPs are able to build lists of their constituents and then easily update them with the latest news on their cases via text message, email, or printed letter.
  2. Challenge: Civic organizations and political parties don’t have a way to build and manage their lists of supporters.
    Solution: CiviParty gives political parties and civic organizations powerful mass communication tools.
    Aswat Nisaa has been a powerful advocate for giving women a greater role in Tunisia since the country’s 2011 democratic transition. In preparation for Tunisia’s first genuinely democratic elections in October of that year, the group organized a get-out-the-vote campaign aimed specifically at women with little formal education living in Tunisia’s rural areas. Now the organization needs more effective ways to manage its supporters, communicate with interested members of the public, and organize events. CiviParty is designed for just such needs; NDI is working with Aswat Nisaa to compile its lists of contacts, centralize them, and track their history of interactions.
  3. Challenge: Candidates need ways to share their vision with voters; citizens need answers on the key issues of the day.
    Solution: The Issues DemTool allows candidates to participate in online video conversations on issues. In Belarus, opposition political parties are denied access to mass media and with it the opportunity to share their vision for a different future for the Belarusian people. ePramova, a customized version of the Issues DemTool, has given them that critical platform. Students from the European Humanities University solicit questions on topical issues from Belarusian citizens, and then work with political leaders to help them film brief responses that are shared on a website and via social media. Citizens can then engage in discussions on the responses while candidates gain valuable skills in messaging and communication.
  4. Challenge: To determine if an election is free and fair, domestic monitoring organizations need to collect and crunch huge amounts of data in hours.
    Solution: The Elections DemTool permits sophisticated election monitoring data collection and analysis.
    Independent citizen observation of the 2014 Malawi elections was critical to a peaceful outcome to the most controversial polls in this country’s history. On a short deadline, the Malawi Electoral Support Network (MESN) worked from the existing open source code of the Elections DemTool to customize the system and user interface for their specific needs, getting a sophisticated data management system ready in record time and way under budget. With powerful, easy-to-use modules, including a people manager, form designer, SMS parser, data manager and analysis visualizations, MESN was able to reliably collect, verify, and analyze thousands of reports from its trained citizen observers in the tense hours after the polls closed, establishing that the elections had been largely free and fair.

For fellow geeks, all of the code NDI has developed will be accessible through our GitHub repository. We hope it’s useful for other organizations – and if you find bugs or build improvements, we hope you will share them back with us. Together we hope the ICT4D community can go on to tackle many more of the problems civic groups face around the world.

DemTools was launched on Tuesday, August 12. Please check out our landing page to learn how you can get involved: https://demworks.org/demtools.


Chris Doten is the senior manager for technology and innovation at the National Democratic Institute – a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government. Follow Chris and NDItech on Twitter.

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