Ask me anything about The Engine Room’s Light Touch Support! (16 August, 2019)

Hello everyone, I work at The Engine Room, an international non-profit organisation which supports civil society with responsible, effective and strategic use of data and technology.

At The Engine Room, I coordinate the pro-bono Light-Touch Support (LiTS) program. We are offering light touch support to organizations working on legal empowerment who are interested in using data and technology in their work. This also includes advice and recommendations about approaches that can be taken and sharing useful resources and learnings.

Here in this topic until 2019-08-16T15:00:00Z (that is 17:00 my time in Gaborone, Botswana) I will be glad to answer any questions, share resources or help you think through any tech challenges you may be facing in your organization.

For more information, we recently published a blog post outlining our LiTS support offer for legal empowerment organisations.


Welcome Lesedi and thank you for putting yourself out there for our first ever ask me anything forum event. I look forward to the Q&A occurring in this topic today even though I will be asleep for part of it! :zzz:

The Aspiration Manifesto lays out what I think are some valuable principles civil society organizations should follow when it comes to using technology. The manifesto has been around for a while though… are you familiar with it, and do you think it still has relevance in this age where everything seems to be happening “in the cloud”? What do you say to nonprofits who look to online services for solving their technology challenges but also want to remain in control of their technology destiny?

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Thanks for the question. I am not familiar with the Aspiration Manifesto but I have heard of and discussed similar principles with my colleagues and peers. I believe most of those are still relevant. In particular it is important for organizations to think clearly about their target users and how they will be using any proposed technology and come up with a plan on how to engage those users. The cloud has come to the forefront with technology and it is critical to think about ownership of data and consent from groups you will be sharing data about. At The Engine Room we have created the Responsible Data Forum to help organizations learn about how they can use their data responsibly and ethically


Hey Lesedi,

Thanks so much for giving us this opportunity of asking questions and explore avenues to use data and tech in our work.

My question is related to how to get community involvement in the tech platforms.

I’ve worked with a platform in informal settlements in Buenos Aires that now the team of ACIJ, leading by @pablovitale is improving a lot: Caminos de la villa.

The project has 3 proposes (1) create the maps of the informal settlements using GPS (2) Geolocalizate public works and problems on access to services (3) Track and monitor the advances on those urbanization processes. The platform is working great in the 2 first points. The organization signed an agreement with Google, now the informal settlements are in the maps, they put in the platform all the public information about the works, but in general, is difficult that people in the communities use the technology to track and monitor the process.

In your experience, what kind of strategies and activities could a legal empowerment organization carry on to involve the community in the use of Technology? how to balance the offline/ online work?

Thanks so much!

@exchange_2019guatemala creo que les podría interesar discutir con The Engine Room sobre como usar tecnologia y uso de datos en su trabajo. Si no pueden leer en inglés, recuerden que si marcan el icono del mundo pueden ver el post traducido.


Thank you for the question @lucianabercovich . Its great to hear of the success of your platform. I would firstly recommend collecting feedback from users and finding out what challenges or barriers they may be having with fully engaging with the platform. This can be done in the form of asking questions in community gathering session or through a survey with specific questions. It is important to focus on making it easy for users to find the information that is most relevant to them.

Once you have collected this information, you can think of ways to design and customize your platform to increase engagement and interest from your community. This should be an iterative process and changes and requests from users may come up from time to time. Its great to be dynamic and respond to these and make sure your platform is relevant.

Users are often impatient and its important to make your platform easy for them to navigate and quickly dig into the data they are looking for. I would also recommend talking to an expert who could also help you walk through designing user journeys on your platform and working on the user experience. I hope that helps. Feel free to reach out to me if you would like to chat more about it.


What are the steps organizations should take when planning to use data and technology in their work?


At The Engine Room, we have created Alidade which is an interactive guide that helps social change organisations ask the questions that can help them decide what kind of technology tool would fit with their project. It will also provide a planning document that you can use to share with your team and potential designers and developers.

In general there are guidelines to think about when looking for new technology tools

  1. Research the people, the problem, and the technology. Think about what your intended users want and need. Do research and look at different recommended options what technology options are available. Focus on the things you don’t know, and learn more about them. Ask for help to fill gaps in your knowledge.

  2. Think twice before you build. Look for existing tools that can do what you need. Building a completely new tool is complex and risky.

  3. Get a second opinion. Someone else has probably tried a similar approach before you. Find them, and ask for advice.

  4. Always take it for a test drive. Try out at least two tools, with the people you want to use it, before choosing. Trialling highlights problems at the start. It also raises questions you never knew you had.

  5. Plan for failure. You will not get it right the first time. Budget and plan to make regular adjustments to the tool throughout the project.

  6. Reflect on what you’re doing. Keep thinking about what is and isn’t working. Apply what you learn to your organisation’s work, and share with other organisations.


Thanks @lbewlay for this opportunity!

In our Citizenship Program work in Kenya, we have been considering establishing an SMS platform for ongoing communication with current/former paralegal clients and other community members in various parts of the country - as part of a larger movement building strategy towards systemic change over the next two to three years. It would be a way of keeping a conversation going over time and keep people involved.

In terms of content, the use of the platform would be to share legal information (“did you know the Constitution says…”), findings from our analysis of our paralegal case data (x percentage of people in y place experienced arbitrary delays in their ID card application process), and also calls to action (next week, come to a community forum to develop a response to x policy or y bill).

Ideally, the platform could take into account users with a range of phone types (smartphone and not) and would allow some kind of two-way communication - whether people can write back with questions or whether it’s auto-responses based on a menu of choices. Other factors that matter are cost, ease of use in Kenya, etc.

Our two questions at this early stage are:

  1. Are there any recommended platforms to consider (and why)?

  2. What should be kept in mind while choosing an SMS platform and/or establishing such an initiative more broadly?

Looking forward to any insights you may have! :smile:


I am very excited with the discussion. I want to know how grassroots organizations will be able to access the program for their work?


Thank you for the question @lauragoodwin. I agree that SMS is the lowest hanging fruit in terms of being able to communicate with the largest amount of users regardless of their type of phone. Firstly if you would like to setup interactive menu based interactivity with users, you can think about setting up a USSD based application (similar to mobile banking). You would probably need a developer to help with setting up a USSD application. Another simpler option would be to setup auto-responses to questions based on keywords in a message sent by a user. This wont require as much technical expertise and the recommended platforms below will help you do that.

Below are some SMS platforms I would recommend taking a look at:

FrontlineSMS: This has an option to self host or to pay for a cloud hosted option. It has many features including 2-way communication, questionnaires, exporting data and connecting it to other software for more functionality. This software has been used by many civil society organizations who are doing SMS based outreach and communications campaigns.

NowSMS: Self hosted option that allows you to setup a large bulk SMS platform. With this option you would also need backend software to manage the data and send auto-responses. This would be a more complex option, but would be ideal if you are sending large numbers of messages e.g 100,000+ per month.

Clickatell: This is a cloud hosted option with all of the options you would need to setup an SMS campaign and two way communication.

I would recommend firstly looking at FrontlineSMS which gives you both options of self and cloud hosting.

Things to keep in mind are:

  • Cost is an important factor and SMSes can be expensive in bulk amounts. It would be good to explore donations or purchasing a bulk package from your local provider.

  • If you self host the platform, you will probably need someone dedicated to maintaining and monitoring the platform to ensure maximum accessibility.

  • If you would like users to interact more, I would recommend setting up a toll-free number to allow users to respond for free.

  • You will be capturing user phone numbers and other information. It will be important to plan on how you keep that data and ensure its security.

I hope that helps


Hi @alihaji. You can read more about and access our Light Touch Support Program. We provide pro-bono support with the goal to help you use data and technology more effectively in your work. Feel free to setup a call with us using our scheduler.

We also have a propeller series for Technology and Legal Empowerment where we regularly share in-depth research in digestible pieces. We share these bite-sized pieces of research over the course of several weeks, making them more accessible and practical for you.


Thank you for sharing your expertise with us, @lbewlay !

The Global Legal Empowerment Network serves legal empowerment practitioners all over the world; we seek to connect them, offer them useful resources, and use our collective voice for causes that we care about. While we do host in-person events, the vast majority of our interactions occur virtually.

The challenge is, our members are not homogenous. They have widely varying capacity and access to technology and the internet. We struggle to find ways to meet everyone at their level. How do we design an outreach strategy that takes advantage of the huge potential of technology for bringing people together and initiating collective action, but remains inclusive and accessible? Do you have any good examples of mixing digital and analog tools for the purpose of reaching and serving diverse, geographically dispersed communities? Thank you!


Hi @lbewlay,

Thank you for making yourself available!

I was wondering if you can give us any good examples of technology platforms being used by organizations in legal empowerment (or other similar civil society organizations)? I believe there are a lot of groups out there who are probably saying “we should make use of new technology!” but not really knowing how to incorporate it. Some inspiration and ideas might be helpful :slight_smile:


@lbewlay thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions. I have so many it’s hard to choose just one!

In my experience I’ve found one challenge to using data and technology is successfully changing the behavior of users. It can be a challenge to transition users away from a reliance on paper-based data collection to using technology. And in my experience can make matters worse when you have somewhat parallel systems going (paper & online), data entry delays, and data quality issues.

What would you recommend to an organization who is mid-way through a process of transitioning to a tech platform, but facing resistance to adoption of the platform?


Hi @lbewlay,

Thank you for offering this space to dialogue about such a relevant topic as is the use of technology and data in our legal empowerment efforts.

Are there any initiatives or projects using technology and data within civil society in a way that inspires you? Do you think that legal empowerment actors could learn from these?

Thanks a lot!


Hi @lbewlay

I’d like to jump in on the SMS platform discussion. Thank you for the good advise. We have an SMS platform already running for people in the rural areas of Northern Uganda and we also have an IVR platform for the same beneficiaries meant to serve those who are illiterate for them to receive audio legal information but also to send us questions through voice messages. One of the challenges we have found however is that usage drops if we do not keep on doing outreaches or making promotions over radio which is quite costly (yet we are trying to minimize costs as much as possible). I’d like to find out whether you have come up with any solutions to people dropping off after about two months from the time when our campaigns are run. Do you know of a way of keeping users engaged (other than sending them regular update SMS’ which helps somewhat, but we still see the gradual drop off).

Thank you.



I’d be happy to share those @mckinleycharles. We have a library entry from our research on technology for legal empowerment where we have a listing all of interesting tools being used by legal empowerment organizations. These are grouped by a particular theme. Please feel free to take a look there.


Great question @abigailmoy! Reaching out to diverse audiences can be quite a challenge and I would say there is not a universal solution that works for all audiences. Some organizations firstly target spaces where a majority or their audiences are. Following this, they think of strategies to fill in the gaps to get to those hard to reach audiences. For example we worked with an organization that designed a strategy to do outreach via WhatsApp where about 80 percent of their audience based in urban areas was located and the remaining portion was based in rural areas and required them to go out directly into community to be able to reach and talk to them directly. So a mix of finding a digital space where most of your audiences are and some on the ground work might be a good way to go about it.


Thanks for the question @miaschmid. I agree that users can be resistant to changing workflow habits that they are comfortable with. You can make users aware of the benefits of moving from a paper based system to a digital system and some of those may be 1). Information can be more accurate and shared in a much more timely manner 2). Users can get feedback and reports from their data much faster 3). There can potentially be costs savings of not having to print out large numbers of paper based forms regularly. Constantly communicating those benefits and showing them in practice can eventually convince users to shift their mindset to the new system. You also need a champion who gets to interact with the users regularly and can talk with them about their frustrations and can talk them through the process of transitioning to the new system. There has to be a clear path that users can see so they know where the new system will take them eventually.


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