Trying to plan or develop policy without good data is like painting in the dark; however good your vision is, without light your ambitions will be limited and the results uncertain.
This is what it’s like for development practitioners and advocates working across Africa, who are held back daily through limited access to the information they need. The information deficit goes beyond statistics and technical data alone: because development outcomes are always shaped by politics and economic factors, that may be highly location specific, people working ‘on the ground’ need to understand the context they are working in, and may need to counter significant inertia and vested interests. To be truly effective they need to understand how the business of development ‘gets done’ and how best to plug in and add value.
Resource rich organisations can get over these constraints one way or another, both in terms of technical data and influence, but for the many ‘ordinary’ practitioners and advocates trying to make a difference they face a double whammy of lacking specific data to build a case for change and limited information to help them navigate and influence existing policies and programmes. This is a profound problem with many implications — not least a highly skewed environment where resources easily become biased towards those with information and access and away from local priorities.
At africapractice we are highly aware of these issues in our work with a range of clients in both development and commercial contexts, so when we got the opportunity to help the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with a new initiative to tackle the problem, we jumped at it.
We knew that simply building a new website was not enough to meet the brief; we needed to think of Takwimu as a service, and design it specifically around users at the sharp end of policy and practice in the health, agriculture, financial inclusion and education sectors. We also knew that to be a genuinely sustainable contribution, Takwimu needed to be well plugged into the existing African tech community. For both these reasons it was a natural step to partner up with iHub, which has an international reputation for bringing design thinking to solve development problems, and Code for Africa (CfA), a hugely respected leader in the African open data and technology space.
The consortium aligned quickly around a high level concept, put simply:
- Make it easy for a range of actors in the African human development space to access high quality political analysis and development data.
- Package this content for ease of use and offer related services to support uptake and build capacity.
- Build a strong user community and plan for the long term.
In the rest of this blog I’ll talk a little bit about how we are going about putting this approach into practice.
The Political Economy of Human Development
The first order challenge was to get on the ground and research how different government systems in 10 initial focus countries go about doing development business. That means who and what institutions are primarily responsible; how are decisions made; what are the main policy frameworks; what budgets are being allocated and who is paying the bill? Over and above this political landscape, what are the economic and social parameters that provide a context and shape development trajectories over time? For more on this read Roddy Barclay’s blog ‘Decoding Africa’s Data’.
Alongside the political economy analysis, the Code for Africa data team was also at work, identifying and cataloguing the high quality original sources of data that Takwimu offers to back up the analysis and provide additional insights.
Human Centred Design
As I mentioned above we are acutely aware that Takwimu won’t be sustainable unless it serves and meets the needs of those working at the sharp end of development. So we have a great emphasis on using a human centred design (HCD) approach — that is to build Takwimu from the ground up around the real world needs, demands and constraints of our prospective users. You can read about our HCD process in detail in this two-part blog by iHub.
From our UX research we learned that there are four distinct kinds of users, we need to serve, that is:
- Government and Investors
- Media and Advocacy Organisations
- Social Entrepreneurs
- Researchers and Analysts.
By providing content and service solutions for these different communities, we aim to foster a mutually reinforcing increase in demand for and use of data driven insights — and build a healthy community to sustain the Takwimu service.
There are challenges here in terms of scope and product design because we know these diverse users have somewhat different needs. Our ‘core’ product of national political analysis supported by cross-country comparative data in health, agriculture, financial inclusion and education, speaks well to our ‘Government and Investor’ audience and to some ‘Media and Advocacy’ organisations. But this product, by its nature, is slow moving. We will need to go further to support users with more granular, issue specific or sub-national interests if we want them to become regular users and Takwimu advocates. We have lots of ideas on how to go about — both for services on our site and based on third party content — and will be introducing these additional user journeys in the coming months.
By May 2018 we were ready to go into detailed design. This was a fascinating and surprisingly challenging period. Our teams were now in an area where everyone had strong ideas and a good deal of creative tension ensued! Fortunately we were lucky enough to work with a brilliant UX design team at Zaang who, with great patience, absorbed and reflected our diverse ideas, added great value along the way and put together a comprehensive set of page designs for the tech team to work off. The end result of this phase was a happy one, but we had to (re-)learn some important lessons about inter-team communications and accountability along the way.
Into the Technology
Here I should really hand over to our technology guru, CfA’s David Lemayian, however at the time of writing I know he’s deep into the code and don’t want to disturb him! As I mentioned earlier Justin Arenstein and the CfA team are leaders in the open data space and we are lucky to be able to base the Takwimu platform on some robust existing open-source technologies where they have deep experience, including HURUMap and the Open Africa data platform. On that foundation, the team has built a robust and flexible CMS and a bespoke UI. I’m really enjoying seeing how the CfA team work and their commitment to open documentation and the open source movement. For the technically minded you’ll the find all the Takwimu code in our GitHub repo here.
So here we are at the beta launch of Takwimu. Right now we have data and analysis up in English for three countries: Nigeria, Senegal and Tanzania. And these will also be translated into French in the next few weeks. We know the data is far from complete and there is further evolution to come, both in the content and the platform features. Over the next few weeks we will be listening to our users and gathering feedback. This feedback will be used to refine our product roadmap for a series of further releases over the next few months, including an additional 7 country profiles and related data.
We are unashamedly ambitious and determined to establish Takwimu as an important new actor in the African human development space — putting actionable insights into the hands of people who can make a difference.
more news on our journey to follow in future blogs….