New year, new SIMLab: what's ahead in 2017


3 minute read

Welcome to a new year, and a new SIMLab. 2017 marks our tenth year of existence as a nonprofit, and our third since we spun off FrontlineSMS. This year also marks the start of an exciting new period for SIMLab. We’ve got ambitious plans for 2017. We’ll be sharing our strategy with you in the weeks to come, but wanted to share a small preview of what we’re working on.

New Focus: Communities in Crisis

Our new focus for 2017 and beyond is helping communities respond to and prepare for crisis.

A crisis, from a large humanitarian disaster to a family breaking down into poverty, exposes a system’s structural inequality. Unaddressed, the cost of this inequality is measured in lives. As the world digitizes and urbanizes, it is more difficult to identify vulnerable populations and reach them with help. Communities in crisis may have poor control over their physical space (living in unsuitable environments; unable to move, or forced to move without control over where or how); may struggle to access and interpret information, temporarily or permanently; and may be underrepresented in digital datasets and spaces.

The solution is empowerment. Bringing information and services to people via the tools and systems they already use can empower them to make independent decisions about their lives, access lifesaving emergency information, hold institutions to account, break out of cycles of disadvantage, and become more resilient against the next crisis.

Empowering communities to take control of crisis, then, means removing as many dependencies as we can: on technology that isn’t fit for purpose and on outside money that comes only after the emergency. It also means ensuring that systems and services that are designed to help actually do so, even though it may be more costly instead of cheap, inconvenient instead of easy, or analog instead of digital.

So what does this mean for SIMLab’s work? In 2017, we’ll place a new emphasis on public learning, so that everyone has access to practical, understandable lessons from designing technology projects. We’ll continue to fight for ethical digital practices, from responsible data use to digital protection issues. And of course, we’ll continue to help organizations develop interaction strategies and tactics that meet the most vulnerable where they are.

New Resources

As part of our commitment to public learning, we’ve launched a new resources page. It’s a modest start, but we’re excited to add resources from SIMLab and others in the coming months, along with better ways to categorize and search for what you need. If you have a resource you’d like to add, or one you’d like to see, let us know. To house all of this, we have a new site, designed and built by District Design Group. You’re on it right now, in fact.

Today, we’re launching two new resources written by friends of SIMLab, and funded by the Hewlett Foundation. “Defining Culture Change”, by Nikki Zeichner, is a reflection on Oakland’s Digital Front Door project, as told by the people responsible for it. “A Good Name is Hard to Clear”, by Jason Tashea, is a national review of local digital expungement projects, and the results they produce (or don’t) produce. We’re thrilled to feature these resources on our site, and thank Jason and Nikki for their work.

Our resources page is also where you’ll find the streamlined version of our course on using SMS in civil society. Originally funded by the UN Democracy Fund, we’ve streamlined the course into a self-paced, email-driven course. Look for an announcement soon about how to build your own self-paced curriculum with our resources.

What’s ahead

Each month, starting in February, we’ll be writing and talking about a new project, ranging from ideas we have in the pipeline to prototypes we’ve built in the basement to funded collaborations.

As we move into our second decade, we’ll continue to fight for the most vulnerable, for people facing emergencies, and those left behind by the next big thing. In other words, we fight not just for a better future, but a better future that’s accessible to everyone, without exception. We hope you’ll join us.