iHub Nairobi System Thinking Workshop: Mapping out E-governance

Two weeks ago, I led two system thinking workshops on social enterprise, design, and problem solving at the iHub in Nairobi. One internal meeting with the iHub research group had us brainstorming the flows of open data and government service provision, while the second was a public workshop for the iHub community where we investigated new models for microfinance. In both sessions my goal was to talk about projects, ideas, and technology at the conceptual level. I jokingly called the public session a hackathon with no hacking allowed.

Having worked with a number of technologists, innovators, and international development practitioners in Nairobi and elsewhere–it is clear to me that there is a disconnect http://www.gooakley.com/ in lots of the projects which try to join these fields. And so I set to create a practical, project-focused, program that would get creators to think critically about the challenge before setting down to code and create.

One of the most interesting discussions came from the iHub research group session where we mapped out the mechanisms for government service provision and feedback. Today, a lot of developers, many centered at the iHub and Cambridge, MA, my base, are creating apps and websites for citizen feedback. These systems will ask citizen responders to report everything from corruption to potholes.

Our first step was to list a number of ways that governments and citizens engage with one another. This list ranged from protests, elections, and strikes, to TV, radio, and, of course, Apps. We diagrammed a typical service delivery system, such as roads (transport?).. As we expanded our concept to include service providers and added layers for transfer of money, influence, and communication, and nodes for tools and stakeholders, it was clear that the key point of impact for many of the technologies in citizen feedback are in creating a new connection between citizens and governments. The challenge however is in the interfaces between these new system and the existing stakeholders–citizens and government.

Lots of the focus today is on increasing citizen participation–advertising your platform and incentivizing participation. These techniques can make a site popular and visible. But zooming into the government end it is important to consider who will bother to check out your site or project from that end. This challenge brings about the importance of the wider diagram–this is where you recognize the other stakeholders in the process who might have the influence your project needs–from the media to contractors etc. What if the point of your platform isn’t to have an officer in the government read the reports in the spare time, but instead communicates directly to the contractor to make their maintenance job easier, or straight to the media to put pressure on the politicians come election season.

The goal of these workshops, discussions, and stakeholder diagrams was not perfect accuracy. We didn’t spend hours trying to correctly model the entire system–but instead tried to approximate the systems at work so we could begin to identify new avenues for change and continued discussion. These cheap oakley conceptual discussions are the source of innovation and new ideas. Too often the tech innovators of the world and Kenya are encouraged to sit down and code. Our workshops encouraged our groups to get out, ask questions, and think about where to engage. And then, only if its really the right tool, open up the terminal and get to work.

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