Are you just starting out with the development of a new project? Did a pilot phase not run as well as you had hoped and the project needs to be adapted accordingly? Does an existing project need to be implemented in a different context?
In these and similar cases, one thing is true from the planning phase through to the implementation: an initial comparison with the dos and don’ts for digital projects presented here can help to avoid major errors!
Start with the problem and not with the (technical) solution
Digital technologies are a means, not an end, yet they are often used as a start ing point. Buzzwords like e-participation, mobile learning (e-learning), mobile reporting, big data, text message-based health apps (e-health) etc. frequently feature in IT project development, and delivering these concepts can sometimes end up being considered the primary objective. However, digital tools are merely a means of achieving targets and should not be regarded as targets in themselves. At the outset it is vital to define your project goal and then decide which digital technologies can help you to achieve it. The provision of technological components is often the least significant aspect of successful project design.
Other important points to consider include the following:
- Instrument-focused rather than goal-oriented projects can overshadow the causes of the existing challenge.
- The most appropriate solution for a specific context is often not the latest technology that is currently in vogue. Successful digital projects usually comprise a blend of analogue and digital media (see the principles at the beginning of this section).
- One size rarely fits all: Different problems require different solutions and digital tools. For example, a telephone helpline might be the best approach to support survivors of domestic violence, whereas a crowdsourcing platform (i.e. a system that seeks public input) set up to enable anonymous incident reporting may be better for developing strategic and site-specific preventative measures.
- Remember – ICT tools automate processes. They may not bring about automatic change, however. In other words, the existence of a digital tool alone does not mean it is known; the awareness of a tool does not neces sarily lead to its use; the use of a tool does not automatically bring about change.
The relationship between technology provision and project development
Digital technologies cannot replace what is not available, but they can accelerate transformation processes
Example of a partner country with weak governance structures
Possible causes of a lack of citizen participation include: insufficient clarification of rights, (state) oppression of civil society actors, cultural challenges, political disenchantment and an insufficient sense of self-determination with regard to political participation, etc. These kinds of factors will make the deployment of an e-participation tool more problematic. However, the situation can be improved if the tool is carefully developed in collaboration with state and civil society actors.
Example of how varying levels of access to digital technologies and mobile communications technologies impact on the health sector (e-health)
Use of and access to mobile phones can vary radically between countries, regions within these countries and individuals. While an e-health campaign for young people might make sense in tech-savvy Nairobi, conditions in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh are less conducive. A key issue is that the Khmer alphabet is not supported by all mobile phone providers. However, this problem can be partially mitigated by the increasingly widespread.
The focus is on the users of digital technologies
If a digital project is to be successful, it is essential to clearly identify not just the underlying causes of the present challenges in digital deployment, but also the actors and contexts involved. This is the only way to identify suitable digital tools for each group of actors.
Digital technologies offer a wide range of tools. However, not all technolo gies are equally available or useful for all areas or target groups. Therefore, decisions on what combinations of digital technologies to use must reflect the individual scenario in which they are being deployed.
Bear in mind that introducing new digital components can, in the early stages, make processes more complex. However, well-chosen digital applications will quickly facilitate existing processes and enable decision-makers to take more informed decisions, managers to ensure greater oversight and administrative staff to carry out their work more efficiently, etc.
If the project is to be a success, it is crucially important to develop a user experience (i.e. the digital work environment and application interface) that is appealing, clear and intuitive.
Lessons learned from project practice
- Take needs and contexts as the starting point. Co-create, do not dictate. Work with relevant target groups to identify the digital behaviour of users.
- Engage in an ongoing dialogue to understand needs, (communication) habits and risk factors and to ensure a maximum level of ownership among target groups.
- Communicate with target groups using the media that they most commonly use and are most comfortable with. Do they prefer email, newspapers, radio, social media, etc.?
- Do not expect target groups to seek out information or engage with con textually inappropriate communications channels/digital technologies.
- The ways in which people communicate and use tools can vary greatly depending on the message they want to convey. Many civil society actors share thinking and information with their peers using digital media such as through blogs and will only use public service broadcasters to complement their digital communications. Social networks and open and closed online groups are often relevant channels for experts in partner countries who wish to discuss topics and share expertise. For rural populations however, exchanges at the local marketplace are still often the most important source of information. Needs differ – make sure you identify the most appropriate channel for your target group.
Availability ≠ accessibility
On their own, mobile phone user rates are not a reliable indicator of the relevance of incorporating mobile phones in a project. Even if there is a high rate of mobile phone ownership, not everyone may have unrestricted access to one. For example, it would not be appropriate to open up a telephone helpline for women in places where the majority of mobile phones are controlled by the male head of the family. This could expose them to further risks. In such cases, it is better to focus on approaches that involve face-to-face contact in the community. This will enable women to obtain information and advice anonymously and discreetly.
While social media are often suitable for organising civil society engagement, they can easily be monitored, exposing activists in sensitive locations to high risks. They are therefore often avoided by many such activists.
Digital technologies make “glocalisation” possible
Digital technologies have given rise to an unprecedented array of ways to collaborate. In situations where an inadequate market or lack of expertise has made it impossible to provide IT services, → cloud-based services can be deployed to meet local needs. In cases where international IT providers lack local expertise, they can work together with local companies to ensure better results. It is therefore useful to trial different forms of collaboration that are tailored to and appropriate for your target users.
Don’t give up – have the courage to give it a go
The use of digital technologies is a new phenomenon in many places. Al though things are changing quickly, little supporting data on user behaviour is available. That’s why many digital projects fail to get past the pilot phase. Simulations or prototypes can, however, be used to cost-effectively trial digital solutions in advance. So, before drawing up large tenders for technological solutions, make sure you test them first. Do not commit to a specific tool too early, and keep in mind that the tool is not an end in itself. It is only a means of achieving a goal. When planning and comparing different digital technology alternatives, remember to include a realistic estimate of maintenance costs and support – i.e. the ‘total cost of ownership’.
Not ‘either-or’ but ‘both’: Mix different media to get better results
Blending different media can help maximise the impact of your communications. In radio broadcasts, for example, you can refer people to websites or on your websites you can provide links to podcasts, etc. Look for interesting and intelligent ways to combine old and new media in order to enhance the range and resonance of your communications.
Digital technology helps communication, but it does not communicate itself
When a new digital tool is introduced, it is essential to promote it among target users. Options include viral marketing campaigns planned and delivered by digital advertising agencies or promotion on existing channels like radio or television. People who are just starting out using your digital tool will often need support in the form of information and possibly training.