Is “going digital” the answer?

Anca Matioc
Nonso Jideofor

This post was co-written by Nonso Jideofor, Sub Saharan Africa Matchbox lead, and Anca Matioc, Latin American Matchbox lead.

Through our Matchbox partnerships, we have supported many organisations as they tackle the question: “should we go digital?” For some, “going digital” is about moving a data collection system that has been paper-based to an online platform. For others, it’s a question of digitising internal records while addressing concerns around security. It looks different for everyone, but the questions are often loaded with ideas around increased efficiency, effectiveness and impact. Sometimes we find that the answer is “maybe not digital, not yet.” In this blog post, we take a deep dive into two partnerships – one with our South African partner, LAIC, and one with our Paraguayan partner, reAcción – sharing what we consider when grappling with these questions.

When digital systems are redundant

In April 2019, we began working with our six newly selected Matchbox partners, including the Legal Advisory and Information Center (LAIC) in Soweto, South Africa. LAIC provides pro bono legal support to poor and marginalised communities whose individuals are vulnerable to evictions. Since their inception 18 months ago, LAIC has engaged with over 1500 walk-in cases and up to 6000 households living in informal settlements. They’ve provided services related to legal education, litigation and advocacy. They are a core team of three working with 2-5 volunteers at various points in their work, and they have received one grant since inception. LAIC is very resource-constrained and believe that technology can help amplify the impact of their work. 

One of the ideas we discussed early on in our partnership with LAIC centred around using digital tools to help collect or store client data (the idea being that this would reduce the work required of the team). However, when we explored this idea with LAIC more deeply, we found that a fully digital system could create digital redundancy and perhaps only work in a far-off digital utopia. In many regions we serve, including Sub Saharan Africa and Latin America, legal systems are largely – if not entirely – paper-based. The same goes for the court systems in South Africa and the actors with whom LAIC’s clients interact: much of the appreciable and admissible evidence is still paper-based. So, LAIC could choose to digitise materials and records but would still need to print them out for interactions outside of their office. LAIC would also need to continue to be able to incorporate physical materials into client records. For this small, resource-constrained team, full digital migration looks like it could create a significant increase in overhead and the work required to maintain up-to-date records. Ultimately, it may just end up creating a redundant, parallel system.  

When analogue systems help build trust

In Paraguay, we are working with reAcción, another Matchbox partner, in Ciudad del Este, the economic hub of the country. Like LAIC, the organisation is facing real constraints in terms of capacities and finances. The team of five works seven days a week to monitor the national education fund of Paraguay, FONACIDE, to ensure that resources are allocated to – and actually arrive to – the most underprivileged schools. At the same time, they are up against very volatile political systems at both municipal and national levels. 

To verify whether schools in Ciudad del Este have requested and received their FONACIDE funds, the reAcción team manages a small group of high school volunteers who gather data each semester directly from the public school directors. During our initial conversations with reAcción, we learned that this process can be strenuous for the volunteers as it’s quite time-consuming to visit each school and manually collect the survey responses. As with LAIC, one of the initial ideas we discussed was moving from a manual to a digital data collection process for increased efficiency. However, after taking a look at how the process of collecting this data aligns with their mission and their ecosystem, the costs of moving to an entirely digital process began to outweigh the benefits for the reAcción team, especially in the short term. Visiting the schools and collecting data in-person – with hard copy information that can be left with directors and signatures that can be collected – forms an important part of trust- and awareness-building. The existing process is also more lightweight, in terms of training time and hardware required, than a digital process would be at this stage.

In both cases, neither we, nor our partner organisation is saying ‘no’ to digital systems outright. Instead, we are honestly accounting for the impacts that migrating existing analogue systems would have before taking a leap.

What to consider when going digital

With each Matchbox partnership, we begin our support to organisations with a data and technology assessment. The assessment allows us to take a ‘snapshot’ of how our partner currently uses data and technology in their work. We build an understanding of when and how data and technology are influential in their workflows and how they may contribute (or not) to the organisation’s mission. This process gives us some insight into how we could support the partner, starting by highlighting where our partners’ assets, pain points, challenges and opportunities are in their current processes. It’s in these data & tech assessments that we have many “aha” moments, particularly with organizations working on deeply local social issues like LAIC and reAcción. 

Inevitably, as we transition from the assessment phase to research and project definition phases, the question of adopting new technology arises. Though in some contexts moving from paper-based to digital systems may seem straightforward, for many of the organisations we work with it’s a more vexed question (as the stories of LAIC and reAcción demonstrate). Often, we need to make room for the possibility that digitisation may not be the right answer, the feasible change or the most responsible way of moving forward right now. In this context, here are just a few considerations that we keep in mind with our partners at LAIC and reAcción: 

  • Our partners don’t operate in isolation. It’s key to map where the data our partners use intersects with other individuals or organisations important to their work. Ideally, digital migrations take into account a partner’s entire ecosystem. Depending on how the partner organisation interacts with other entities (be they individuals seeking services, school directors, courts and more), adjustments may need to be made to plans for digital tool adoption. For us, that means thinking of the partner processes end-to-end and beyond – what parts of the process can we change, and which can we not? Does our proposed solution take into account the reality of a partner, or would implementing it disconnect the partner from their reality?
  • New processes aren’t without tradeoffs. When prioritising next steps, it’s important to acknowledge the costs of making changes. In an ideal world, adopting a new technology would always make an organisation’s work more impactful and increase its efficiency. However, it’s rarely that straightforward, and it’s important to consider what new processes or tools might imply for the team. Will transitioning to a digital tool eliminate important relationships? Would it create unsustainable amounts of work for the team? Regardless of the tradeoffs, there will always be a learning curve that involves changing behaviour, tasks, policies and resources, and we want to keep that curve as low as possible. To offset this, we evaluate tradeoffs and costs, and we try to build upon existing (non-digital) processes.
  • Migrating to digital platforms and processes isn’t a single event but an ongoing process. The impacts of the decision to adopt a digital tool ripple out far into the future, and it’s important to account for both the short-term impacts and the long-term ones. In this accounting, we try to consider what the immediate impact will be on an organisation’s efficiency from the get-go (e.g. will the learning required slow down their other work to a harmful level?) and balance it with the potential positive long-term impacts (e.g. those gained by having more efficient processes). When considering these together, the decision of whether or not to adopt a particular digital tool might not always be clear. In those contexts, we find it helpful to articulate a clear overarching purpose and to communicate and design around it.
  • Under- or over-counting the level of effort required for digital migrations can complicate the process in the short-term before a tool can take root. There’s a tendency to falsely account for how much work digital rollouts require of an organisation. The false accounting can go both ways – undercounting or overcounting the work required – and may stem from attempts to fit into a preconceived narrative of what a digital solution implies. Accurate and realistic planning is critical for any digital project, and this is particularly important for small, resource-constrained organizations.

Data and technology can help civil society organisations become more efficient and effective as they work towards their goals, which translates to more impactful initiatives. As we have seen with Matchbox partnerships, this is especially critical in resource-constrained environments, where realistic design, planning and implementation can increase the technical intuition of organisations and ensure strategic and agile uptake of data and technology. At the same time, using data and technology strategically is rarely straightforward. In some cases it might mean adopting a new technology, in others, it might mean sticking to analogue processes. 

If you want to learn a bit more about how we support our Matchbox partners, check out our post Supporting with Humility. We’ll also be sharing more about our work with LAIC and reAcción in the coming months. Stay tuned!

Photo by TRΛVELER . on Unsplash

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