Open development: sci-fi or opportunity?

«It is indeed hard to pick a good definition for this term. However, open development is a reality already, and many more opportunities are yet to be discovered». So what does open cooperation means in the context of the development? Pelle Aardema, a Dutch “technology evangelist” for nonprofits will explain just that as he is among the organizers of the Open development camp taking place in Amsterdam next October.

[Serena Carta – from the ICT4dev column]

«Did I talk sci-fi?» I asked this very question to a voluntary worker during the  ICT4D workshop organized by the Think! Foundation after I wrapped up my intervention about the future of voluntary work within the open development framework. «Not at all – I was answered – however, those things might be impossible to implement in Italy.»

“Is it really so?” – I immediately wondered.

Is the field of voluntary work in Italy ready to embrace the open culture? We are talking of advocating the free exchange and circulation of knowledge, data, contacts and resources by means of the web, so to foster and speed up participation, transparency, and the inclusion. In all likelihood, we are not ready in fact, given that we still have no Italian example to illustrate this concept (in case I am misinformed, please, correct me). This fact, however, will not prevent us from talking about it, discovering more and taking a hard look at what is happening in countries endorsing change as opposed to boycotting it. Hopefully, we will learn one thing or two.

Because I wanted to learn more, I approached Pelle Aardema, a Dutch consultant for nonprofits using ICT for social change. He also is the co-founder of Open for change – a network connecting foundations and social enterprises promoting transparency, collaboration, and innovation within the context of international voluntary work for development. Given that Pelle defines himself an advocate of openness, I went to him for help in defining the elusive “open development” concept.

«Above all, open development is a cultural disposition, a way of behaving and relating – he says – and it stems from sustainable development. As such, it reinforces bottom-up dynamics, well known for respecting the needs and features of local communities. But do not forget how open development also is the direct consequence of the networking of private and public organizations bound to work for the common good. In this respect, whoever receives public funds, and grants should not have issues with being accountable for the way they disburse them».

If he were to explain open development to a person who has never heard of it, Pelle would do so via five key concepts:

1.Inclusion and involvement of local partners

Thanks to ICT, visualization strategies, and storytelling, local partners can send first-hand information in “real time” , without the need for any middle process – or person. In this way, they can play a very active role in managing the project. The software tool known as AkvoRSR – Simple Reporting, is a good example of supporting such processes. It makes it simpler to visualize projects involving NGOs, all the while allowing the sharing of field updates by way of a microblogging network. Another poignant example is the Dutch NGO Cordaid (here you can download their open development policy). Active in sub-Saharan Africa, Cordaid can analyze the results of its medical project efforts and share them with institutions and local press by way of the open source platform Open RBF which gathers citizen reviews on the services they receive. Despite increasing the prominence of the individual, it improves the monitoring and implementation of the various activities. 

2.Model of business aligned to future challengesBe_responsive


Organizations become lean, flexible and networked. They rely less on staff and more on a network of consultants and professionals coming from diverse sectors and geographical areas. They collaborate on individual projects so they can develop strategies, actions, and contents within a multidisciplinary framework. «Rather than squandering resources to keep NGO headquarter bureaucracy and staff, they can be re-routed toward research and innovation» Pelle pointed out.

3.Not just open data

Open knowledge is paramount. According to Pelle «there is a huge lot of knowledge available, just think about all the country-specific reports filed by NGOs before, during and after accomplishing their missions. It’s an information mine closed up in the lockers of the capitals in the North. The sharing of such information would allow us to know what has been done, what works, what doesn’t and it would be way easier to outline effective programs for development». What about open data? «I can see more potentiality in the coordination between different players. Transparency at all costs is not always useful and impactful, not to mention that people are not interested in knowing all data, but only the ones affecting their lives. Personally, I would rather focus on why and how public funds get spent and with what results. In order to track the money flow (also known as follow the money), one needs to understand the context behind it. Sometimes projects fail because a conflict starts within that region, not because the money got used unwisely. At any rate, the final goal – beyond interactive maps – is to facilitate discussion of policy makers within and beyond institutions, among congresspeople, as well as citizens, ». For this reason, data representation in and of itself has very few benefits. In fact, you also need to tell the story of those numbers, and only the collaboration between voluntary workers, journalists and project managers can effectively do that. «Transparency is great only insofar as it fosters knowledge.»

4.Open source technology

Open source technology means using open, low-cost hardware and software. Transparency and cultural revolution happen through working tools as well.

5.Human relationships at the center

Aside from technology and web services, open culture requires face-to-face meeting and exchanges. Pelle suggested setting up and participating in festivals, summer schools, workshops, conferences as a way to get out of the cubicle and mix up with citizens.

«The philosophy behind open development can but reinforce the work of voluntary workers for international cooperation – our expert sentenced – even the ones resisting this idea the most need to surrender to the evidence. The cooperation of the future is going to go open, and this is a historic moment to ride the wave and meet change by getting ready, studying up and connecting to the Internet».


Read the presentation – Pills and examples open development


**Le immagini inserite nell’articolo sono frammenti del video Riding the wave realizzato dall’International Civil Society Centre




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