SIMLab's framework for context analysis of inclusive technology in social change projects

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desk CC 2.0 Roger Spencer

Quick link to editable framework

Preparation and local knowledge are critical to making good design decisions in inclusive technology projects. Whether it’s a program across 11 countries (like SIMLab’s technology in community policing project), or a new program in one organization, a context analysis is essential to understand the environment so that you can eventually make smart and inclusive design decisions. The international development field often overlooks this step, with tangible negative results. Without knowledge of the context, it’s difficult to know which information and communication channels are best placed to solve identified problems. An effective context analysis for inclusive technology requires a framework similar to, but more encompassing than those that already exist.

Without local knowledge it’s easy to rely on assumptions or partial or outdated information. Doing this runs the risk of overlooking certain operational challenges such as intermittent access to power or challenges unique to particular groups, such as women, for whom it may not be culturally appropriate to use mobile technology, for example. Powerful and positive messages such as “smartphones are ubiquitous,” can prevail in lieu of asking tough, culture— and context-specific questions.

Why doesn’t everyone do a context analysis?

There is some resistance to the context analysis process, which needs to be addressed and overcome in order to see better-designed inclusive technology programs.

One is that it’s rare to see funding for an element of design that most proposals claim to already know—understanding the local context. Timing is also a challenge here—context assessments are rarely done ahead of proposal writing, at least by smaller organizations not renewing long-term grants, which means that they can only be funded by core, unrestricted funds. Some funders such as the Humanitarian Innovation Fund offer special grants to support exploration, which can cover a context analysis. Others, such as the Global Resilience Partnership, built context assessment into the grant cycle, which we think is the stronger approach. A welcomed and encouraged norm is for funders to request 10-20% of total funding be allocated to an evaluation, and in time we hope a similar expectation will be true for an assessment.

Another challenge to conducting a context assessment is a very practical one—timing. An assessment should ideally be conducted done prior to project design, so that design can be informed by the findings. At a minimum, we should be prepared to make major adjustments as a result of the assessment, which can be unpalatable for project teams and donors alike. The ‘adaptive programming’ movement seeks to change this mindset, encouraging us to assume complexity and change as part of development work, but it has a long way to go before grant instruments and institutional modalities really reflect this approach.

Additionally, examining the reality of communications on the ground might demonstrate that certain technologies are not appropriate. Where the project is funded to test those technologies, the result of the assessment can be poorly-received. A context assessment builds in hard questions, and we must be prepared to accept difficult answers that mean that our intended solutions are contraindicated. In a sector where organizations are under constant pressure to deliver new and ‘innovative’ ideas it’s not hard to imagine why organizations are keen to overlook vulnerable groups who still rely on old-fashioned, ‘mundane’ technology.

SIMLab’s Framework

We developed this Framework for the same reason that our M&E Framework came into being—we felt that existing resources don’t cover the breadth of enquiry that we think is necessary to ground a good inclusive technology project design. We built our context assessment of inclusive technology with five areas of particular interest; the people directly and indirectly targeted by the project; the community and culture in which they live; the market and technology environment; the political economy; and the implementing organization. These areas of interest overlap to a significant degree, and an analysis exercise may examine multiple areas through the same desk research or fieldwork exercise. However, we believe that considering them in turn helps establish a complete picture. Often, projects are designed based on certain assumptions; that a feedback mechanism that people can use via their mobile phones will improve a service, or that agricultural information via social media or text message will improve yields; and these Lines of Inquiry can be used as lenses through which to critically consider and test those assumptions.

SIMLab’s Framework for Context Analysis for Inclusive Technology Projects aims to guide SIMLab staff in assessing the context and determining the constraints and considerations in place in the region we aim to work. As with all our learning and best practice resources, the Framework is shared publicly for others to read, refer to and use as they find helpful; for external review, and as a contribution to the thinking of the wider sector. We look forward to your critical feedback!

This project is a work in progress that will be publicly available under an open license, and regularly updated and improved with support from the ICT4D, aid and development communities in the hopes that it might serve as a resource for others who are working with inclusive technology.

Review the Google Doc here

About SIMLab

Social Impact Lab (SIMLab) helps people and organizations to use inclusive technologies to build systems and services that are accessible, responsive, and resilient. Until December 2014, SIMLab was the home of the FrontlineSMS project, a suite of software that helps organizations build services with text messages. FrontlineSMS has now spun out as a separate, for-profit social enterprise, and SIMLab continues to focus on solving many of the challenges of implementing projects using inclusive technologies. They support implementation, the sharing of learning and synthesis of best practice, and advocate to decision-makers and donors for policy-level change.

SIMLab defines inclusive technologies as those which embody values critical to truly scalable, locally-owned impact; accessibility, ease of use, interoperability, and sustainability. Mobile is a key example—SMS and voice telephony reach all of the world’s 3.6 billion mobile subscribers—as is radio, a critical technology for broad reach at relatively low cost. We also embrace both ends of the spectrum of inclusive tech—the increasing availability and affordability of cheap web-enabled phones and mobile data make them more accessible for relatively disconnected communities, and more analogue communications technologies, such as public criers, noticeboards and human networks, like religious structures and community leadership, reach into even the most remote and disconnected communities.