What I learned at the Transparency & Accountability Initiative’s Bridge Meeting

The Transparency and Accountability Initiative (T/A Initiative) is a ‘donor collaborative committed to strengthening democracy and development through empowering citizens to hold their governing institutions to account.’ The Bridge Meeting is part of their ‘New Technologies’ programme and is designed to foster collaborations between organisations working on transparency and accountability issues with organisations focused on utilising technologies in advocacy work. Fabriders was priviledged to attend the meeting, as a technology resource, that was held in Glen Cove, New York from November 28th to November 30th

The meeting had 50 participants and was facilitated by Gunner of Aspiration Tech, who has nearly perfected a format that drives participant dialogue and small group collaborations. The three day agenda provided plenty of space for sessions to be created on the fly, to assure that participants needs were met along with lots of opportunities for participants to network and learn about each other’s work.

As a practicing facilitator, watching Gunner for the second time in a month (see The Best Social Networking App) was like getting a major upgrade to my skills. His ability to break down hierarchical models that limit the intake of knowledge is incredible. A big ‘aha’ moment for me was watching him break participants up into small groups to come up with controversial statements for the spectogram rather than creating them before hand. This had both the effect of gathering participants’ input from the very beginning and making the preparation for the spectogram so much easier. It’s also heartening to see such freedom in the amount of sessions offered in every time slot. If someone is willing to facilitate a session on a particular topic, it’s offered and participant’s vote with their feet right then and there. Occasionally a session that was offered wasn’t held as a result of having no participants, but with so many great sessions on offer, rarely was a facilitator upset at the prospect of becoming a participant in someone elses session.

I was quite amazed at how open the participants were in sharing the challenges they face in their everyday work. Nearly everyone was focused on engaging citizens in their campaigns somehow, which was evidenced by the popularity of two types of sessions: crowd-sourcing, to engage citizens in gathering data; and visualisations, focused on conveying complex data to citizens. The crowd sourcing sessions ranged from using mobiles to social networking, and unfortunately as a resource person providing expertise on creating visualisations I was largely unable to attend those.

A Decision Cloud for Mobiles

One exception on the mobilisation sessions was an opportunity to co-facilitate a session with Sean McDonald from Frontline SMS called ‘The Mobile’s Decision Tree.’ Basically this was a discussion around how to create a framework for making decisions for deploying mobiles in your campaign. I’ve been involved in an effort with Oxfam on creating a mobiles toolkit for their grassroots partners and as a part of this, flirted with the idea of creating a decision tree – a decision support tool often displayed as a flow chart where an answer ‘yes’ will lead you to go in one direction while ‘no’ will take you into a different direction. Anyways after pondering through all the different factors that are needed when deploying mobile solutions AND how everything is based on the context, culture and infrastructure of the specific location – we decided it was actually more like a decision cloud rather than a tree.

Visualisation Sessions

The visualisation sessions I facilitated at the event focused largely on the starting points for putting visualisations together and pulled from experiences I have had working with Tactical Tech on helping sex worker advocates to create visualisations about data they’ve collected about violence in their communities. I also drew a lot from Tactical Tech’s excellent resource Drawing By Numbers and certainly the introduction of the three get’s: get the ideal, get the story and get the detail as a way to frame visualisations had a lot of resonance with the participants.

Two of these sessions were co-facilitated. One was with Tunji Eleso from the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, who works on a project called ‘BudgIT‘ that creates visualisations about Nigeria’s budget so that citizens can better understand and engage with government spending. The other session was with Nate Smith from Development Seed who’s project MapBox allows you to upload data and then make nifty maps. You can see some examples of maps they created here, including one with case studies on violence against journalists in Afghanistan.

I was also fortunate to run a smaller session on ‘Using Power Analysis to Identify and Prioritise Tech Tactics’ and took two campaigners through a three step process to identify stakeholders, different types of audiences and identifying those stakeholders that have influence on decision makers. I’ll have an opportunity to fine tune this a few more times over the next month and then will work towards producing a version for the Fablog. I am also hoping to have an opportunity to support the two campaigners as they repeat the process with their campaign teams.

Other highlights

  • a session led by Jed Miller from Revenue Watch on “Using Data for Advocacy” which resulted in a ‘data advocacy readiness checklist’ (which will hopefully get put on a blog somewhere soon). Some key questions – do you have the tools and skills you need to turn the data into knowledge, do you know creative ways to package data to connect to stakeholders and is the data dissemination timely?
  • A one on one session with Monika Shepard from Global Integrity where I got to see the workings of Indaba, an online platform to manage transparency projects. Monika and I compared notes on how to keep your tech tool from overwhelming everything else your organisation needs to get done.
  • An indepth conversation over dinner with Miriam McCarthy and Florencia Guerzovich, both from the Transparency and Acccountability Initiative, on technology skills mentorship models that actually work. (Hint: short-term, remote based mentorships are not likely to be of help)

Overall this was a powerful three days, owed largely to an excellent format that provided a foundation for eager participants to share and get to know each other. If anything, it felt too short as we probably could have sustained the energy level and enthusiasm for a few more days.