How to: choose the right civic tech tools

Don’t sabotage your success by choosing — or building — the wrong tech. Alidade offers a free step-by-step guide to choosing tech, and creating a civic tech tool project plan.

It is critical to the success of a project to choose the most appropriate tools. Picture: PEXELS

If you are embarking on a civic tech initiative sooner or later you are going to have to make some important decisions about what technologies to use or what technologies to build. Researchers working in Kenya and South Africa have found that more often than not, this process did not go well, with widespread disappointments with the tools that were developed or chosen and frustration with the process of developing or adapting them.

It’s this problem that the Alidade tool from The Engine Room, Pawa Initiative and the Network Society project aims to help solve, by guiding organisations through a tool-choosing process, and producing a printable project plan for internal team and external tech partners.

Alidade.tech

Beyond the research

Alidade grew out of a research project, undertaken in 2015–16 with support from Making All Voices Count (MAVC).

Rather than leaving it at the production of a research report, the group decided to give transparency and accountability initiatives and others working in civic techs a guide for choosing tech or briefing technology partners. The result is Alidade — named for a common early navigation tool. “An alidade,” explains The Engine Room, “is a cross between a telescope and a compass — something that lets you decide where you want to go, and helps you navigate to get there. Just like the navigational instrument, Alidade aims to help you focus on what your project needs to do to reach its goal.”

What is it?

Alidade.tech is a website, hosting a step-by-step guide to choosing technology. At the end of the process, it produces a briefing document built out of your inputs and choices, and this can be used to guide a team in choosing a tool or even to brief an external technology partner.

Paul McNally, the founding director of the Citizen Justice Network used Alidade in choosing their citizen reporting project tool. He says: “[Our users]were activists who had to become radio journalists in a relatively short space of time. They needed to learn how to record and edit audio, take photos and find their way around email and messaging. The platform was incredibly intuitive and helped organise our thought processes around what we truly needed from our technology. It guided us to ask and address the difficult questions, the potential shortcomings of the project and what we could expect from our activists-turned-journalists in terms of how may they interact with technology. It is a tool built with the practicalities of technology in mind, rather than the showiness.”

How does it work?

Alidade has four sections, each with their own set of sub-sections and questions.

  1. Understanding your needs: This helps you clarify your project’s objectives, and prompts you to consider what your users want
  2. Understanding the tech: This section helps you establish your requirements, and offers guidance on researching what options already exist
  3. Trying it out: Here Alidade covers planning a trial of the tools you’re considering (an important step that the research revealed was often not taken by organisations with new tools but that proved decisive in improving outcomes)
  4. Getting help: This section helps you assess what kind of technical support you might need to implement or manage the tool chosen, and offers guidance on accessing this.

Alongside many questions, Alidade provides examples and case studies to guide users in how to answer each question. For example, “What is your project’s objective?”

For some context-specific or very open-ended questions — such as “What projects have used technology to do similar things?” — Alidade does not provide examples, but ‘tips’ instead. These offer guidance on where to find information and what to consider.

Each section also offers a “Resources’ list for further reading. If a user is uncertain how to answer questions, the extra reading under these headings provides background and guidance. This is particularly useful for those operating outside their area of expertise, such as when a project planner within an organisation needs to make firm and actionable decisions about technical requirements, such as in the image below:

In the third section, Alidade helps users plan for trialling their tool — how to structure and conduct a trial, and what questions you want your trial to answer. This includes a reflection section where you include what you learnt during the trial, allowing room to adjust your technology tool plan based on the outcomes of the trial.

At this stage, Alidade reminds you of your answers from earlier sections and gives you an option to change these.

At the end of section three, Alidade produces a downloadable PDF document covering all your answers to that point. This can then be used to brief internal and external teams on the project as necessary. It is also a useful document for funding proposals and report-backs.

Finally, section four is designed to help organisations find and work with technical partners, deciding what kind of help they need, and how to make the most of a relationship with a tech partner.

A note on usability

The site is capturing information from you as you go, so use the page menu on the left hand side to navigate backwards if necessary. Clicking ‘back’ on your browser could produce an error that would have you start from scratch. If you want the ability to dip in and out of the process, registering and logging in will let you save your work at each stage.

Also, although the tool is very useful in guiding you through a thought process, it certainly doesn’t remove the hard work aspect of the process: you will still have to give extensive thought to your desired outcomes and process, and — significantly — do you own analysis of the range of competing, similar or applicable tools. This latter element is a time-consuming but necessary part of understanding whether you can use existing tech or need to brief a developer of your own.

Final word

Alidade is smart and thorough, but it is not a magic bullet solution. It will guide you through the concepts and provide real world examples which really simplify the process. You must still do you own “homework” though, but with the supportive framework of Alidade to spur you on. The printable PDF project plan, however, is a real win: it will be useful for winning over and briefing both internal and external team players.

A non-interactive version of the process is also available as a public Google Doc.

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