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Digital Development into Practice: Co-Designing a Citizen Feedback Tool that Makes Sense

Samhir Vasdev's picture
In April the World Bank endorsed the Principles for Digital Development, signaling its intent to support the use of technologies in projects through human-centered, contextually appropriate, collaborative, safe, and sustainable design.
But what does this look like in practice? On the surface, projects that adopt the Digital Principles may not look so different from more conventional ICT4D efforts. Consider, for instance, a new participatory monitoring program in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. MOPA invites citizens to report problems in the waste management services through a digital platform, relaying these problems via an open-source map for the city council to enlist microenterprises to collect the waste. 
Within a six-month pilot across four districts, over 900 problems were identified by trained monitors
This is far from the first community engagement and participatory monitoring program to use technologies aimed at reducing barriers for citizens to more directly inform anything, from budget allocation to policy options to service delivery. And like many other participatory engagement programs, MOPA faced a slew of familiar challenges that have caused other similar projects to stutter, including: In spite of these challenges, MOPA has matured and earned recognition as a program with potential for meaningful impact. The initiative was named a finalist in the Making All Voices Count global innovation challenge as well as in Financial Times’ 2016 Excellence in City-Led Transformation award. It’s already being redesigned and replicated in Tanzania to help an urban water utility address customer complaints more efficiently.
The mechanics of the MOPA program were designed and iterated through a series of collaborative workshops that borrowed heavily from design thinking and open innovation toolkits
How did MOPA achieve this early success and overcome traditional challenges to participatory engagement programs? From inception through implementation, the program was designed with careful consideration of many of the Digital Principles. For example:
  • Design with the user: The mechanics of the MOPA program—ranging from identifying the actionable and specific problem statements to defining the workflow for responding to citizen reports—were developed and iterated through a series of co-design workshops. These sessions drew on techniques related to design thinking, a collaborative problem-solving and prototyping framework that places heavy emphasis on the perspective of the user’s needs, and were facilitated by experts familiar with implementing open innovation and design thinking in development contexts. A diversity  of stakeholders—entrepreneurs, municipal leaders, trash collection microenterprises, urban specialists, and community leaders—participated in various exercises to better understand the needs, pain points, and incentives from the perspective of the beneficiaries.
  • Understand the ecosystem: The task team devoted considerable time to understanding the nuances and political economies of the context surrounding municipal waste management. The insights from this discovery phase shaped the platform’s features and the program’s scope. For instance, this process identified a young and tech-savvy entrepreneurial scene, inspiring the team to introduce an app development challenge that would help socialize the program while catalyzing third-party innovations developed by local talent and adopted by the city.
  • Design for scale: From the beginning, MOPA’s technical infrastructure was designed to be scalable, transferable, and replicable. Despite its young age, the platform has already evolved and stretched considerably, thanks to the lean and agile development processes used to build the tech and manage the project through iteration, adaptation, and short, targeted coding sprints. Most importantly, any scale or replication to other sectors or countries would have low technology transfer costs; the codebase is released under an open source license so that any local organization or partners could repurpose the platform (using open data and standards is another Digital Principle).
  • Build for sustainability: Fostering local ownership was a key objective of MOPA from the beginning. For example, buy-in from municipal leaders and waste collection microenterprises was established partly by identifying quick wins to incentivize participation such as demonstrating a more efficient utility response rate, or by leading to lower costs of complaint management, or by providing the government with information enriched by new citizen-reported data. To secure medium-term financial sustainability, partnerships were formed with mobile operators to subsidize users’ message transfer costs as part of their corporate social responsibility agenda.
To suggest MOPA is a prototypical reflection of the Digital Principles would be an exaggeration, however. As with any digital development project, the MOPA program encountered limitations and failures. For instance, it’s still not clear how privacy and security considerations will develop as the platform’s adoption grows, or what technical debt may have been incurred during the software’s iterative development. And although operating costs are relatively low, the program’s financial stability is too dependent on mobile operators’ CSR agendas. The operational capacity of the municipality to sustain operational responses to citizen-reported issues in a long term and at a wider scale is still to be settled.
Other fundamental questions also remain: how can the World Bank help provide a framework to support the open standards and data that helped make MOPA an initial success? What can be done to ensure that a different project in another country (even one implemented by a different team within the Bank), repurposes rather than rebuilds a similar platform? How should we invest in upskilling implementing partners and donors on collaborative innovation methodsto foster more adaptive, user-centered, and context-driven digital development?
We’ll continue to grapple with these and other questions as our exploration into putting the Principles into practice evolves. But MOPA is a reassuring reminder that good digital development is not just aspirational, but also achievable.

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