Leave Your Potatoes at Home, Pt. III

What we learned

By Maya Ganesh, Beatrice Martini and Dirk Slater

This series began with the post ‘Why We Did It‘, which provided background and context, including a definition of marginalisation, Tactical Tech’s objectives for the project and background on WNU and sex worker issues in Cambodia.  Our previous post ‘What We Did provided details about the steps taken to implement the project, assessing WNU’s use of technology, learning about their advocacy strategies and building their capacity to use data and data visualisations in those strategies. In this post we will present our most relevant learnings focusing on three core aspects of the project:

  • stakeholders engagement, trust and capacity building
  • project design and choices about technology and processes
  • responsible and strategic use of data about marginalised communities

We also present what we consider to be our core achievements in conducting the project.

Stakeholders engagement, trust and capacity building

  • When introducing yourself to the community you’ll work with, be clear about your role and goals. You are not a funder nor a technology provider. You are working with the community to help improve its advocacy power.
  • Support the existing advocacy aims and goals of the community and leave assumptions about what they should be at the door. Marginalised communities can be highly suspicious of the intentions of international NGO’s coming to work with them, and this is largely because they have been taken advantage of.
  • Build mutual trust and respect. Deal with delicate topics and experiences part of the community’s reality respectfully and always focusing on supporting it in accomplishing its mission.
  • There are going to be sensitive topics which will need to be covered, and no level of tact will ever be too much: be prepared, ask advice to professionals who already talk about delicate issues with members of the community you’re working with, be aware of cultural customs, always be respectful, never judgemental.

During most of our project with WNU, we managed to avoid conversations about titillating details regarding the sex workers’ experiences. But for the sake of data, when brainstorming about how to visualise the economics of sex work, we found ourselves in need to ask for the price of the services they provided. We motivated our need to ask in detail (and crossed fingers hoping not to damage our until then fruitful working relationship with this request), and luckily our question was welcomed with a laughter (!). For the record, the services are not priced by the sexual act, but by a combination of other factors, such as duration of the encounter and economic class the client belongs to. The practice of determining rates is not dissimilar to our own as consultants.

  • It’s important to have longevity in relationships with not just the organisations working on the project but with the individuals at those organisations as well. This is not just about building trust, but about working with individuals who understand the project and how it has progressed.
  • Communication is key. Regular and consistent communication is an essential element of remote management, and face-to-face site visits are extremely productive and critical to move the project along (especially when cultural and linguistic differences come into play). It’s also important to have patience and understand when other priorities need to be heeded.
  • Make sure that the data collected are shared with the members of the community you work with. This is extremely important in raising awareness and furthering conversations about the community’s rights.
  • Working with a marginalised community means that emergencies and moments of crisis can and will happen, and will likely influence the work. Therefore, support and allow substantial changes during the course of the project, using an adaptive, rather than prescriptive approach.
  • During our first meeting we asked WNU to draw and visualise their strategies.

    During our first meeting we asked WNU to draw their strategies.

    The opportunity to work with a community on strengthening its advocacy power can offer the chance for institutional reinforcement. This can take the shape of training to: understand and analyse visual advocacy and the use of evidence in campaigns from around the world; map audiences and develop advocacy messages for target groups; develop formats for the visualisations/outputs with the collaboration of an information designer to communicate messages in an accessible visual format. These are all elements of a capacity building approach focusing on giving a community a new perspective on how to improve its advocacy.

Project design and choices about technology and processes

  • The project should begin with a proper assessment relating to the use and application of technologies to the community’s goals.
  • Sketch out the scope, scale, geographic coverage, and comprehensiveness of the data collection initiative that you are planning.
  • Identify as early as possible the technology which can most effectively and sustainably help the organisations you work with achieve their goals. Groups that adopt technology platforms and devices without reviewing and stringently assessing their overall approach to working with information, often find themselves struggling to manage their technologies instead of leveraging their information.
  • Examine the appropriate role of emerging technologies with communities lacking a proper strategic foundation to them effectively.
  • Don’t bring in new technology if not necessary, and incorporate processes, systems and platforms that will enable, support and help process their information needs in a way that has a strong impact on the community’s core objectives.
  • But also: support grassroots communities to leverage social media technologies to convey their messages. Digitally-enabled activism has become a strong factor in global politics but many smaller groups are being left out primarily due to infrastructural limitations (from poor bandwidth to lack of multi-language platforms). Basic digital advocacy trainings can be useful for grassroots communities in leveraging their information more effectively.
  • Design implementation projects that integrate self-reflection tools. Active, participatory reflection on process can be very useful if it is integrated with the project activities and simultaneously develops strong monitoring and evaluation methodologies and feedback loops.
  • Participatory action and research can greatly help the community think more strategically, and with a better analysis of their own context.
  • Produce draft visualisations of the data that the organisations collect early as this can lead to a turning point in the way that the organisations understand how data can be used in advocacy.To be done as early as possible in the project to start showing how powerful it can be.
  • Focus on replicability. Identify aspects of the intervention that may have relevance for the community you work with in the future, as well as for other similar marginalised communities.

The WNU secretariat applying self-reflection methodologies and discussing their outcomes (here displayed on the ground).

Responsible and strategic use of data about marginalised communities

  • Data and evidence about marginalised communities are often collected by outsiders and the ownership of the data is rarely with the communities themselves. Therefore, support the community you work with in understanding how to aggregate different kinds of data as evidence about their issues, and how this may be visually represented, and equip it to take on further advocacy projects and develop its own materials in the future.
  • Data collection efforts are extremely beneficial to the community, not just in terms of their own projects and work, but in building confidence and skills. Always put the community at  the centre of the data collection process as well as the discussions and decision-making around what the data would be used for.
  • Focus on the risk of unsafe exposure, the tension between damaging visibility and participation. It’s essential that activists working with marginalised communities are fully aware of this aspect and how to responsibly deal with it, making sure not to harm the vulnerable individuals involved.
  • Identify what the best means are for working with data and evidence from an action and advocacy perspective – as opposed to a more academic approach, fairly common in NGOs, which translates the data collected in detailed theoretical research, which can be helpful for documentation purposes but does not help towards the most tangible action-focused needs of grassroots communities.
  • Community-based groups could be supported to use different kinds of open data that do exist in order to develop their advocacy materials. If more public data was open, more grassroots groups could learn to make use of it to contextualise their advocacy, and open data platforms could be useful for advocacy across the social justice spectrum.
  • There needs to be a greater connection between open-data movements and grassroots advocates to ensure accessibility and usability of data released by public institutions. The kinds of knowledge created by grassroots groups also needs to find greater connection with the kinds of knowledge developed by more well-resourced and powerful groups such as research institutes. Essentially, an open data approach to community owned and community based data could be extremely beneficial to advocates.

What we achieved

The project was a significant step in implementing and learning from ground-up evidence-based advocacy.  In terms of capacity building of a marginalised community to use data in an advocacy context, we saw:

  • a significant shift in the partners’ advocacy strategies from reactive to proactive methodologies;
  • improvement in their human rights documentation processes, now including evidence gathering, data analysis and how to work with visualisations;
  • development of skills applied to the effective collection and use of data for advocacy;
  • new skills in analysing data resulting in a clearer understanding of the threats faced by the community;
  • increased awareness about the importance of effective information management in digital documentation;
  • development of integrated self-evaluation tools;
  • deeper connection of the partners with the needs of the communities support and the variety of stakeholders they want to engage;
  • contribution to the scholarship on violence against sex-workers and advocacy for their human rights.

They sink further into poverty

In conclusion

The opportunity to work with and for a marginalised community is an exceptional chance to impact many people’s lives profoundly thought the collaborative identification and creation of technology solutions which can equip them to achieve their goals.  Capacity building and strategic advocacy can help their experiences become visible, injustice evidenced and called out, their rights reclaimed.

In conclusion, summing up the most fundamental advice emerging from our case study, we recommend to:

  • listen to and learn from the community, keeping assumptions at bay;
  • give ownership of the work to the community itself;
  • build capacity tailored to its needs and abilities, accessibly and sustainably;
  • provide it with the tools and methodologies which will equip it to work independently on more successful initiatives in the months and years ahead.

We hope this write-up will be helpful to others working on similar projects and we’ll be glad to hear your thoughts and feedback on it in the comments below.