2017 The Engine Room Retrospective Supporting social change agents to make the most of data and technology to increase their impact

2017 has been an eventful year, and has inspired all of us at The Engine Room to continue our support work with a growing sense of energy and urgency. From building tools that improve non-profit organisations’ capacities, to advocating for partners and friends on the frontlines of the struggle for human rights, we believe that our work matters now more than ever.

As a support organisation we are always searching for new ways to increase the impact of our partnerships. To that end, we have adopted new practices and systems that enable our global team and network of partners to do their work well. You can read about some of those in the Support We Offered and Building Our Culture sections below. Through 2017, we continued our work with MatchboxEngine Room program offering intensive data and technology project support to partners. partners and forged new relationships with new partners around the globe. We researched emerging technology to explore ways it can power the work of social change. Individually, we learned new skills, welcomed new family members, explored new territories and much more. As we jump into 2018, I am proud of the continued growth we’ve each achieved individually and as The Engine Room team. Here’s to a 2017 of support, learning, and social change, and a 2018 of more fruitful partnerships, equitable innovation, and impact!

- Alix Dunn, Executive Director

Who We Are

As a support organisation, our work centres on our partners and their needs. We combine knowledge of cultural and social nuances, expertise on technology and data, and learnings drawn from diverse sectors and use them to tackle real-world challenges.

Over the years we have refined and defined a spectrum of support formats that range from quick and targeted support, to longer-term research and partnerships. This year, we formalised the support we offer to partners, which you can read about in our What We Do guide. Each stream of work has its own dynamic workflow, has grown organically and pragmatically, and continues to evolve.

Topics we covered

Our Impact

Our work impacts a diverse group of social change actors — from established social change organisations to individuals with powerful ideas; from budding activists, to foundations. We make data and technology more accessible so it can be put to use in making the world a better place. Partners come away with more knowledge and connections, increased confidence in evaluating new data and technology applications, and new ways to do their work. And the social sector grows its capacity to use the tools at its disposal to do even more.

Want to keep in touch with us?

Support We Offered

Quick and targeted support

aka Light-Touch Support (LiTS)

LiTS icon - Three stick figures stacked one on top of each other in a pyramid

Seemingly small interventions can unlock a whole new set of possibilities for a partner, as was the case for over 100 of the organisations we worked with through our Light-Touch Support (LiTS) services. Our engagement took the shape of connections to relevant contacts and curated resources, on-the-spot feedback and more.

For QueerstionNon-profit dedicated to digital activism and celebration of transdiverse identities in Sub-Saharan Africa., we provided concrete suggestions to improve their website design and recommended potential funders based on our research and conversations with them.

For STMA GhanaThe Metropolitan Assembly of Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana. — who were struggling to figure out a way to effectively share data with their constituency — we formatted their budgetary data using the Open Contracting Data Standard and developed a sample website that they could use to display this data.

For Eric King, who wanted to create a website that would catalogue legal challenges of surveillance across Europe - we shared our knowledge of platforms that were doing similar work and a detailed analysis of best practices and useful learnings from these comparable platforms.

For IDL-ReporterosA Peruvian investigative journalism organisation., we provided guidance and a set of questions for them to self-diagnose the digital threats they face when their website experiences performance issues. We also recommended a few trustworthy services that provide support in critical situations, in Spanish.

Map of locations we offered LiTS support in

Lightweight support can unlock a lot of
new possibilities
as it did for over 100
LiTS partner organisations.

In need of some light-touch support?

Project Accompaniment

aka Build-to-Order (BtO)

BtO icon - Four Triangles stacked on top of each other in a pyramid

Sometimes short, targeted support isn’t enough. For partners who are interested in more in-depth project support, we offer a “Build-to-Order” (BtO) process. In these projects, we work with a partner to shape a strategy, and then manage customised technology design and development projects, research initiatives, and community convenings.

Tech product design and development

Many of the tech tools we built this year were built hand-in-hand with the organisations planning to use them:

With K-MonitorHungarian NGO fighting for transparency and accountability., OporaUkranian NGO striving for government transparency and citizen participation in governance. and other researchers, developers and designers, we co-designed and built a technical solution to address a core challenge: reimagining an open source microtasking platform to pull data out of dense PDFs. We re-used a solution that had been effective for our previous partners Quién Compro, and customised it for K-Monitor and Opora’s contexts. Not only was it fun to build, but it worked well, too.

With SimSimNGO supporting and facilitating citizen participation in public affairs in Morocco., we managed the participatory redesign of their civic engagement platform, Nouabook. Together, we conducted needs assessments, UX research, front and back end design and development, and designed a community engagement strategy.

We also built tools for larger communities of practice:

We kept improving Alidade — an interactive guide to the process of choosing a a tech tool for your social change project — based on extensive community input and feedback. We’re excited about the range of positive feedback about the tool, too!

We redesigned ResponsibleData.io, making sure the process was transparent and inclusive. Thanks to all who contributed, and who keep the responsible data community spicy and participatory!

Research, big and small

Research informs and constitutes much of our work, from introductions to new types of technology to field-wide reviews. Here’s a look at some of the research outputs we released this year:

With the International Committee of the Red CrossOrganisation ensuring humanitarian assistance for victims of armed conflict and other violence., we explored the use of messaging apps in humanitarian crises, and saw how they can play a critical role but also raise data privacy and security issues.

We supported OxfamInternational confederation of NGOs working with partners to end the injustices that cause poverty. to illuminate how responsible data is perceived within the confederation, and how their Responsible Data policy is being implemented.

With Making All Voices CountA programme supporting the development and spread of innovative approaches to fostering accountable, responsive governance., we reviewed findings from more than 70 research reports and practice papers on design of technology for amplifying citizen voices and encouraging government response. We summarised our findings in a dedicated microsite and audio series.

We worked with the the International Budget PartnershipCollaborates with civil society to analyze and influence public budgets in order to reduce poverty and improve governance. to support their technical choices and a plan for migrating their Open Budget survey infrastructure, which they will use to continue measuring the level of transparency of national budgets.

Along the way, we hope to shape not just research findings, but how those findings are shared as well! To that end, our team worked with six different partners to introduce Creative Commons licensingCreative Commons licenses enable the free distribution of an otherwise copyrighted work. into their contracting and procurement process. This is a part of our work to improve the way that licensing and intellectual property contracting contributes to the community’s knowledge commons.

Bringing people together

We believe in the power of communities, diverse collaboration and mission building. We aim to bring people together (both virtually and in-person) to tackle challenges, renew connections and build a shared vision for the future.

In Rio de Janeiro — with a fantastic set of partners and the support of Open Society Foundations — we invited 60 advocates, activists, designers, and developers to tackle shared challenges to transparency and accountability in Latin America. The event was full of vibrant ideas and plenty of dancing [ES].

On the heels of that event, we convened a committed group of investigative journalists, activists, data and policy experts to discuss strategies to understand, monitor, and expose political influence in Latin America. Together, we explored political influence and developed strategies to collaborate on tracking political influence in the region.

We also worked with GONGA Croatian “think-and-do” tank aiming to identify abuses of political power around their country. to help them answer questions and drive decisions about the technology behind their political influence project called the Mosaic of Influence.

Ahead of the Stockholm Internet Forum, and together with MeedanA social technology company that builds digital tools for global journalism and translation., we held a Responsible Data Forum to discuss the responsible data considerations of using open source information in human rights investigations.

Our community calls are back by popular demand. We organised discussions ranging from technology for human rights investigations to the impending effects of the General Data Protection RegulationThe European Union’s forthcoming regulation on data protection designed to give control over personal data back to citizens and residents..

Interested in advice or support on design, strategy, or technical issues?

Intensive partner support

aka Matchbox

Matchbox icon - An Icosahedron, or 20-sided polyhedron

This year, we partnered with five new organisations in Latin America (JapiqayPeruvian NGO combating corruption and impunity. and Causa NaturaMexican NGO dedicated to the sustainable management of natural resources through research, information dissemination, and capacity-building.) and Africa (ACCUAnti-Corruption Coalition Uganda, a national umbrella membership organization fighting against corruption in Uganda., MSME-ASINigerian organisation seeking to improve the climate under which micro, small and medium enterprises operate in Nigeria., and Code for Sierra LeoneAn all-inclusive, citizen-led grassroots movement that is leveraging the power of open source technologies to bring innovations in the public sector of Sierra Leone.), providing intensive support to them to design, manage, implement, and leverage data and technology projects with targeted socio-political aims. We work closely with our Matchbox partners, investing time and energy to leave them with the skills, connections and approaches they need to run their own data- or tech-focused project.

We conducted field research in Uganda to support the Anti-Corruption Coalition of Uganda (ACCU) to develop a safe messaging channel where public officials can access reports on corruption and transparency violations.

Japiqay launched their organization along with their Memoria y Ciudadania platform, which journalists, activists, researchers and government alike can use to explore over 2000 archives related to corruption cases in Peru over the past 40 years. The platform was developed with HURIDOCS’NGO that supports human rights defenders to use information technologies and documentation methods to organize and present data about violations. Uwazi platform, an instance of the cross-organisation engagement we love to see in our support work.

Could your organisation benefit from Matchbox support?

What We Learned

Brakes are in cars so that cars can go faster not slower.

For technology and data to be helpful and not harmful, organisations and individuals need to take a considered approach to how it’s deployed. There was an increasing awareness of that in 2017 — we’re excited to see the responsible data community growing — and we anticipate even more growth in the future. By approaching technology and data with safeguards in place, we can use them as tools for even more productive and important work.

Using systems and processes creates more space for creativity - not less.

From further defining how we think about our support work, to adopting new internal policies, 2017 had us exploring new systems to better serve our global team and partners. Along the way, we saw how these structures can be forces for good, not limiting ones: they can make SlackA cloud-based instant messenger tool. a friendlier and safer space, help us link criteria and chemistry as we pick MatchboxEngine Room program offering intensive data and technology project support to partners. partners, make our hiring and payroll more efficient, and serve as frameworks for making responsible design choices. Our newest processes and systems help us stay organised and flexible in the fast-paced, global contexts we are often in, and we’re all the better for them.

To be successful in the long term, we work to shift power from international organisations to local ones.

The majority of technology support organisations are based in the US or Europe, and are led by individuals with a lot of power, wealth, or privilege. We believe diversity is a competency, so a large part of our work has been to identify, support, and shift equity to local partners, peers and leaders who are often underrepresented. Many of the local organisations we work with don’t have the resources — or access — to certain spheres of influence, so we see part of our role as handing the mic over to them. Sometimes this means referring local organisations for work that we are approached for, or supporting smaller organisations in their grant applications. This might mean they get the funds, not us, and we think this is a good thing. Our goal is to transfer capacity, resources, and power to the people who are best positioned to make the most of it.

Communication matters — about our work, with each other, with our partners.

As with every year, we upped our game to build a remote team environment that works and learns smoothly. Externally, we saw how the value of our research lies in ensuring that organisations who could use our findings have it at their fingertips, when they need it (and in diverse formats like audio series, too). We prioritised engagement and communications – hiring a full-time Communications Coordinator – and will be working more to develop our outreach and engagement with new communities in 2018.

Building A Healthy Culture

We are a team of 16 core members based in 10 countries on four continents. We grew by 5 new people this year, welcoming Nicole Anand, Matt Foster, Laura Guzman, Nonso Jideofor, and Elissa Williams. We said farewell to two team members, Tin Geber and Roz Zavras.

All of the work we do is based on the strong foundation our operations team lays.

In 2017, we wound down our Norwegian operations, and are now solely operating as a US 501c3. We adopted new human resources platforms and practices, too; this might not sound thrilling, but it keeps our team members and consultants working smoothly! Part of this is the release of our roster form, where people interested in working with us can let us know more about their background and interests.

Maintaining a team culture that is kind, supportive, productive and diverse doesn’t happen out of the blue.

This year, our Operations team poured time into policies, events (like our team retreat), and guidelines (like how to give feedback) that centered on the well-being and effectiveness of our team. This made it possible for team members to grow into new roles as they followed their skills and interests.

We encouraged time away for important endeavours.

We believe it's important to support each other’s exciting life events. Taken together, here are just a few things, big and small, we welcomed and accomplished in 2017.

Learned new skills, like how to scuba dive

Got engaged and got married

Encouraged our kids to pursue fun hobbies, like horseback riding

Adopted new dog friends

Took sabbaticals and fellowships

Moved halfway around the world

Welcomed a new baby

Learned from the fight for independence in Cataluña

Became aunts and uncles

Got in great shape

Performed stand-up

Had an electronic music performance

Bought an apartment

Moved back home, from halfway around the world

Map of locations we visited

Countries we visited

Canada, US, Netherlands, Belgium, Kenya, Germany, Sweden, France, Switzerland, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Montenegro, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Serbia, Uganda, Ukraine, Nigeria, Spain, Poland, Croatia, Bosnia, Italy, Botswana, Chile, Mexico, Peru, UK

By The Numbers

love letter
to the engine room
visits across our websites
Paying Partner Projects
Increase in Twitter followers
265 963
GitHub commits
New Library Entries
new desk-based potted plants

Some of our favorite events

Huge thanks to our partners and funders

We couldn’t do the work we do without our partners and funders. On larger projects this year, we worked with:

And with many others on light-touch support.

This year our work was grant funded by:

We had the pleasure of working with fantastic consultants including:

Olaoluwa Akinloluwa, Idil Ali, Jo Barratt, Gabriela Rodríguez Berón, web.burza, David Losada Carballo, Gillo Cutrupi, Gabriela Dena, Lindsay Ferris, Kate Fisher, Julia Kloiber, Jason Li, Catalina Margozzini, Madeleine Maxwell, Andrew McNaughton, Claude Migisha K., Ruth Miller, Ozren Muic, Seember Nyager, Carly Nyst, Robin Pierro, Federico Pinci, Keith Porcaro, Alice Powell, Tamara Puhovski, Gabi Sobliye, Sam Slate, Dimitrios Stamatis, Ramsey G. Tesdell, Chris Walker, and Fernanda Villaseñor.

What's next

Our digital door is always open. If you’ve got technology and data questions, we’re here to help. And if we don’t have the expertise you need, we will do our best to point you to others in our network of excellent allies who do.

Excited to put data and technology to use in your work? We’re here to help.