Lightweight support, big picture learning

Lesedi Bewlay

At The Engine Room, there are many different ways we strive to support our partners – our intensive Matchbox partnerships are year-long, dedicated collaborations, and our research work can take many shapes from helping build an organisation’s responsible data guidelines to conducting targeted field scans.

Our Light Touch Support (LiTS) work, though ‘lighter’ in duration (as the name implies), can take many different shapes, from working through theory of change exercises to connecting organisations with resources and networks. Last year, our LiTS programme supported nearly 100 organisations in 38 different countries. These organisations worked across diverse sectors like human rights, transparency and accountability, open data and gender equality, and ranged from large international NGOs to small community groups.   

In this year of LiTS collaborations, we learned more about:

  • What it actually means to think about data and technology critically (hint: it’s not just about data and technology)
  • What effective support looks like (especially in resource-constrained environments)
  • What tools and trends are on organisations’ radars at the moment.

As well as seeing LiTS as a particularly impactful and valuable way of providing on-demand tech and data support, working with such a broad range of organisations and individuals helps us keep abreast of key trends and challenges to inform the rest of our work. We’re sharing these learnings here because we think they’re useful both for organisations providing similar support and those seeking support.

When do we think about data & tech?   

For organisations and individuals working in civil society, incorporating data and technology into our work is an ongoing process that is deeper than just choosing a platform or cleaning a dataset. In our LiTS work this past year, we noticed several points along an organisation’s overall journey that are valuable places to insert conversations and strategies around data and technology. These include:

  • When defining theories of change. Often, organisations that come to us have very ambitious goals for the role of new technology in achieving their mission, despite feeling like they lack the in-house technology ‘expertise’ they believe they need. By taking the opportunity to examine the organisation’s theory of change – whether it’s explicitly documented or implied – and collaborating with them on simplifying and sharpening it, we are often able to find more sustainable paths forward that integrate technology rather than relying on it.
  • When tackling internal challenges. Some organisations come to us not with questions about technology’s direct impact on their high-level mission, but about how to use technology in their day-to-day operations. With organisations in this stage, what at first glance might feel like a technical question often points us in the direction of exploring their existing workflows and users first. In these cases, we share tips and resources to help them pursue solutions that are focused around what they’re already doing and encourage them to see what other organisations are currently doing to tackle the challenges we identify together.
  • When planning for sustainability. Many of the conversations we have are around planning for long-term growth, network-building, funding guidance and matchmaking with other experts. These conversations have demonstrated the importance of considering the role of data and tech when discussing existing and future plans.

What are organisations thinking about and grappling with?

Over the past year, some of the most common themes that have arisen as we support LiTS organisations included:

  • Making decisions around technology tools for projects. Whether it’s considering a new tool, revamping an existing one or just feeling like they “should” be using technology differently, these decisions weighed heavily on many LiTS partners. We often recommended Alidade – an interactive guide to help organisations ask questions that can help them decide what kind of tool would fit with their project – as a starting point to their discussions and ultimate decisions.
  • Collecting data in resource-constrained settings. This continued to be a common theme, especially in situations where an organisation might not have the financial resources for the mainstream solutions that exist. We frequently talked about Open Data Kit as a possible open source tool that could be easily setup and configured to work particularly well in resource-constrained settings.
  • Getting creative with data that’s already been collected. Many organisations are still thinking about data visualisation and infographics. In some cases, the question could be taken more deeply (why data viz, and why now?) and in others, organisations were simply keen to hear about tools that are quick and easy to learn (we found that Infogram was a popular one).
  • Finding similar work. More and more, organisations come to us curious about similar work and contexts. We usually turn to the Civic Tech Field Guide as a resource in our own research and recommend it to others, too.
  • Building organisational security capacity and understanding. Resources around security – writ large – are myriad, but we often found our conversations about security started from questions about topics like how to use two-factor authentication, how to travel securely and what encryption is all about.

So, what’s next?

As this year continues, we’re excited to continue supporting partners through LiTS, expand the ways we work with them and continue to share trends and findings, enabling others to replicate this kind of work.
If you think you or your organisation could benefit from a LiTS, schedule one here! You can also learn more by contacting lesedi@theengineroom.org.

Image by Scott Trento via Unsplash.

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