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


4 minute read

desk CC 2.0 Roger Spencer

Review the consultation draft here!

Preparation and local knowledge are critical to making good design decisions in inclusive technology projects. A context analysis is essential to understand the environment you plan to work in, to enable smart, evidence-based and inclusive design decisions. Without local knowledge it’s easy to rely on assumptions, or partial or outdated information. Failing to think through the context runs the risk of overlooking certain operational challenges such as intermittent access to power, or barriers to access to technology that affect particular groups, such as women or the very poor. And it’s important to test assumptions about the ubiquity of new technologies and the extent to which people use certain applications or platforms.

The timing tension

But it’s often hard to fit in this step. When a proposal is being drafted, organizations may not have the time or the funding for an assessment trip. And a context assessment exercise can cause political problems, for example, by demonstrating that foundational assumptions were false, and a planned intervention or technology might not be appropriate. Few donors will allow a proposal to explicitly include an inception phase which intends to substantially shape project design, and not all will allow implementers to ask forgiveness, not permission, and make changes to the plan after award. 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. There are exceptions: the Humanitarian Innovation Fund offers special grants to support exploration, and the Global Resilience Partnership built context assessment into the grant cycle. But this is rare. In comparison, a rule of thumb that specialists hope will become the norm is for funders to allocate 10-20% of project funding to monitoring and evaluation - yet there is no such provision for evidence to inform project design at the outset of a project. Implementers are expected to come to the proposal phase already armed with this insight.

SIMLab’s Framework

In 2015-6, SIMLab developed a Framework to guide its staff in carrying out context analyses, and to support our advocacy for this type of evidence-base in project design. We built on existing tools designed for humanitarian response, adding 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.

The Framework has always been a draft document available for use and comment by anyone. In 2017, we are grateful for the support of the Digital Impact Alliance to finalize the resource and release a finished version in PDF, machine readable and editable document formats. It will be open for consultation throughout November 2017 and will be launched at the Digital Principles event in Washington, DC in December 2017.

Review the Google Doc and leave your comments and improvements 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. We support implementation, the sharing of learning and synthesis of best practice, and advocate to decision-makers and donors for policy-level change.

In 2017, the SIMLab Board voted to transition SIMLab to minimal operations and pay off our liabilities, preparatory to closing in late 2017 or early 2018. If you like our work and want to help us pay our staff, please give what you can. It’s tax deductible in the US!