You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

NDI Launches Open Source DemTools for International Development

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, August 13 2014

Screenshot of the four tools

Yesterday the National Democratic Institute launched a suite of web-based applications created for their partner organizations, mostly pro-democracy groups and political parties around the world. These “DemTools,” which are ready-to-use but can also be customized, will give organizations in developing countries some of the capabilities that political activists and parties in the United States have had for years. Moreover, since the National Democratic Institute (NDI) is making the promise to host partner organization's applications in the cloud essentially forever, they hope these applications will help usher in a period of more sustainable tech.

Two of the tools, CiviMP and CiviParty, are versions of the open source contact management system CiviCRM, and were designed to help improve communication and organizing channels. Elections is an election monitoring program and analytical tool, and The Issues is a broadcast tool modeled in part off of Google Town Hall.

NDI has been helping partner organizations set up independent election monitoring programs for years, but until now they have had to build each one (as many as six a year) from scratch, which Chris Doten, senior program manager of NDI's tech and innovation team, says is time consuming and inefficient.

The DemTools Elections software will eliminate redundant labor, and cut costs. NDI tested it in Malawi earlier this year, helping the Malawi Electoral Support Network (MESN) conduct an independent, third party check on a contentious presidential election. Although MESN customized the tool a bit for their purposes, Doten says it still resulted in “significant cost savings.”

More generally, Doten sees these tools as a significant disruption in the way NDI and other international organizations work. The traditional model, he explains, is for a large organization like NDI to receive a grant to work with a partner organization on a specific project for a specific period of time. When the time is up, the outside organization—now without funds to continue their work—packs up and takes off, leaving the local organization to muddle on without them.

“This arc works for building a road but not for technology,” says Doten. “Handing it off doesn't work.”

Local organizations, even after training, may not have people with the skills to troubleshoot, update software and otherwise maintain the system. With DemTools, NDI will host the software, troubleshoot when necessary, and automatically push updates to their partner organizations.

Hosting all of this on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud makes all of this possible, and affordable. “Peanuts,” Doten calls it. Even if they have to pay a bit extra in anticipation of traffic surges—in the days leading up to an election for example—the cost of that, he estimates, is no more than USD$20.

Bottom Up Design

Often failed ICT4D (ICT for development) projects are the result of imposing a tool that is not needed or wanted on a community. Each DemTool, however, got its start in a collaboration with a partner organization.

NDI began working with Tim Akinbo, a Nigerian developer and principal at TimbaObjects, in the run-up to the 2011 Nigerian elections. Following that initial partnership, Akinbo became the lead developer on the Elections app. The Issues and CiviMP came out of NDI's work in Eastern Europe, adds Doten, and CiviParties “was originally built for the needs of a set of political parties organizing in an authoritarian society.”

Security Concerns

To launch DemTools, NDI organized a panel of international development and technology experts, including Macon Phillips, coordinator at the Bureau of International Information Programs at the State Department. While addressing the challenges of technology in development work, Phillips expressed the opinion that the trend is to overcorrect in response to security threats.

When asked to elaborate on that statement, Phillips said, “We have to be cognizant that people tend to over-secure...if you secure something too much it loses its value public engagement-wise.”

I was not the only one with questions about security.

To find out more about the security concerns of NDI's partner organizations, I reached out to Doten again.

He wrote:

NDI is very concerned about the security of our partners, and goes through a comprehensive risk assessment process before even beginning tech-related programs in sensitive environments. Drupal and CiviCRM are big, popular open-source projects which have been regularly audited, but new security updates come out all the time. That's part of the power of DemCloud; security updates are a fact of life, but without in-house geeks to manage your systems you're going to fall behind and be vulnerable. DemCloud lets us centralize those hosting and security headaches and push updates at the same time to all of our platforms.

Not a Panacea

“It's worth noting,” Doten says, “that we don't think that this is a panacea. It's not going to work for everyone.”

Doten adds that in many ways these tools could be like training wheels for organizations that grow in capacity and can move on to commercial options.

DemTools are more of a one size fits most than a one size fits all kind of deal; they might not serve an organization's needs forever; and they aren't even introducing new capabilities into the world. So what are they doing? More than anything, it seems like they will streamline the way NDI distributes technological support, and hopefully extend the lifetime of the projects that result from their partnerships.

NDI hopes that they can also be helpful to non-partner organizations, but they have yet to determine how that might work practically.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

For a round-up of our weekly stories, subscribe to the WeGov mailing list.