ICT for Democracy? A Review of NDI’s DemTools
Mar 23, 2016
Democracy activists, party workers, and community organizers don’t get into the hard work of political mobilization to sit in front of a computer all day. Their work—and their livelihood—is based in the field. But things are changing. As with many other sectors, the proliferation of technology means that these professionals increasingly encounter, and are forced to work with, technology on a daily basis. In fact, ignoring new communication technologies represents a missed opportunity for both politicians and citizen groups to effectively engage in the process of political reform.
National Democratic Institute (NDI)’s ICT team realized, however, that often (a) the tech tools available to activists, political parties, and citizens in developing countries are rarely good, from a technical or user standpoint, (b) the tools that are good tend to be too expensive, and (c) the affordable tools tend to require a lot of skill to deploy. To address these gaps, NDI developed version 2.0 of its DemTools suite, which it launched last December. The six tools in the DemTools suite cover a range of functions to facilitate democratic processes between political agents and constituents:
- Civi: A contact management system for organizations to store, track, and engage their constituents.
- DKAN: A data collection, management, and visualization platform.
- Elections: A database tool that allows civic groups to monitor elections to ensure they are run freely and fairly.
- FixMyCommunity: A tool to crowdsource public services that need to be fixed or delivered.
- Issues: A tool that creates a way for citizens and politicians to engage in a two-way dialog on issues.
- Petitions: A tool to allow citizens and civic groups to create and build support for petitions to their government.
NDI Tech is also working on a tool called PolitiFilter, which helps users “visualize, sort, and scrutinize political speech across several social media platforms.”
DemTools in action
Some of the tools were initially developed locally to tackle local challenges. The Nigerian organization TimbaObjects originally developed the Elections tool for the 2011 elections in Nigeria. In 2015, Nigeria’s Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) used the tool again to gather statistically representative data to verify the country’s election results. TMG’s observers leveraged the Elections tool to collect 125,000 data points on election day via coded text messages. In Colombia, legislators, their staff, civic leaders, and students used the Issues tool to discuss community concerns via online videos, in a twist on the old town hall approach to exchange between citizens and elected leaders. In Ukraine, members of Parliament have used the Civi tool to store contacts, categorize them, track engagements, record issues, and assign staff to respond.
What’s new in version 2.0?
Placing a renewed focus on scalability, NDI reworked its existing set of DemTools (which previously consisted of only Civi, Elections, and Issues), adding new applications to the suite and tackling maintenance and sustainability burdens to make it easier to deploy them for various purposes and by various organizations. NDI offers the code for free on GitHub to individuals and organizations that can host the web-based tools on their own servers, along with extensive documentation. For those without significant technical skills or hosting capacity, NDI also offers hosting for standardized versions of each tool online via their DemCloud Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform, also for free, albeit to partner organizations and individuals who meet certain criteria. This combination of partnered hosting arrangements and open source code allows would-be adopters a quick and easy way to deploy the tools regardless of technical capacity. The approach reflects the view that access to user-friendly technology is a foundation for civic engagement and democracy promotion in the 21st century.
There is little doubt that DemTools have great potential, and the absence of a price tag and availability of source code makes them accessible to and customizable for the widest range of actors. This free and open source approach is likely to drive adoption. However, navigating the DemTools website left us with a couple of questions:
One, how do I obtain access to the cloud-hosted apps? Demos for the tools are offered via separate log-in credentials on separate pages, and to gain access to full tool functionality on the cloud, sign-up must be requested on a page not directly accessible from the homepage. Presumably, credentials for each tool will then be provided at some later date. Additionally, the criteria for the granting of full access are not clear.
This also led us to some questions about branding, since most of these tools appear to be re-purposed versions of tools developed by other organizations. To be fair, NDI is fully transparent about these partnerships, but it all gets a bit confusing when there’s no single log-in or access point on NDI’s website. To compound this confusion, a Google search for a tool (e.g. “CiviCRM”) reveals links to a completely different organization. Whose tool is it, anyway?
Presumably, NDI has put these mechanisms into place to properly vet organizations to which it offers a cloud-hosted capability, each of which might only need access to a subset of the full suite. But, overall, prospective users would probably prefer to have a single log-in that allows them to explore the all the demos in one place before requesting full access.
Finally, if it’s not a feature already, we’re hoping that version 3.0 builds in some interoperability between tools. For example, is there any connection between the people who are tracked via CiviCRM and those who sign on to Petitions or report issues on FixMyCommunity? If not, these are the kinds of features that would likely move DemTools from a simple suite of disparate tools to a powerful Google-style conglomeration of tools that can conceivably be the basis for a profitable SaaS spin-off (DemTools for Enterprise, anyone?)
DemTools represents an important step for democracy promotion and the development field more broadly. It moves us all in exactly the right direction—towards the creation of a technology development expertise within our organizations, so that we can all design, build, and deploy our own technology to meet the the specific needs of our constituents. Congrats to NDI on its huge step forward!
Have you worked with good open source tools within ICT? Is there a product you’re eager for us to review? Give us a shout on Twitter at @DAIGlobal or #DigitalDAI, or comment below!
Links to user guides and other useful material
DemTools 2.0: The website of NDI’s DemTools Suite Sign-Up: The request form to get access to the DemCloud-hosted DemTools DemTools Guide Book: A guide to the rationale for tools, tool features, and use cases NDITech: The official blog of NDI’s ICT team Technology: A Planning Guide for Political Parties:NDI’s new resource for political parties