[picture by Janellie, on Flickr]

As big development agencies and national governments continue to fund development projects around the world, one of the main obstacles they face is how best to meet the needs of local populations. In many cases, the problems faced by rural populations are overlooked due to a lack of communication and accessibility.

Rural communities are so far removed from decision-makers, that their needs simply go unnoticed and unrecorded. This means that the money invested into these countries in the form of development aid often misses the mark, as projects are implemented that are deemed irrelevant by the most disadvantaged communities. However, technology is slowly beginning to play a role in addressing this issue. 

Non-governmental organizations are increasingly using open source technology to communicate with rural communities and map their needs. Once a NGO has the data necessary to paint a clear picture of the issues faced, they can implement projects that are relevant and work to hold politicians accountable, effectively bridging the gap between disadvantaged communities and policymakers.

Jonne Catshoek and Mark van Ebden from ELVA

Jonne Catshoek and Mark van Ebden from ELVA

ELVA, a start-up non-governmental organization based in Tbilisi, Georgia, is an example of just such an organization. Founded in 2010 to map the needs of local communities living along the Administrative Boundary Line that separates Georgia proper from the disputed region South Ossetia, ELVA is an open source platform that will soon be aiding communities across Europe, Asia and Africa.

A few weeks ago, I sat on the floor of the central Tbilisi flat of the two men responsible for ELVA. Keen to delve into the details of their work in the South Caucasus, I was struck by the unique ability of this organization to tailor a useful took to the diverse needs of communities around the world. Below is an excerpt from my conversation with Jonne Catshoek and Mark Van Ebden from ELVA, a word that means lightning and express message in Georgian.

An interview with ELVA

Cristina: What motivated you to develop a mobile phone platform to map local needs and advocate change? Were there specific needs that you felt were not being met?

Jonne: We realized there was a need for collecting citizens’ feedback in a more cost-efficient and regular manner in 2010. Following the war with Russia in 2008, there were still a lot of community safety issues, but they were hard to monitor because the communities are remote. We realized that if we could get in touch with those communities frequently through SMS, we had the potential to get good data and information from them. We developed an SMS questionnaire that allowed communities to respond to up to 40 questions in the space of one SMS. Later we added mobile apps and a web component as well.

Cristina: Is it necessary for people using the ELVA platform to be in direct contact with you first? What is the process one must go through to use the platform?

Jonne: Usually organizations get in touch with us and we start the project for them, but we believe that realistically within the next 6 months organizations and community groups will be able to sign up and start their own projects without any help from our side, the same way you would open a Gmail account. Their data will then be stored within the platform. We deliberately built this as an Open Source platform because we want to make it fully available to everyone. People can set up their own projects directly on the website. We don’t have a copyright and it’s free of cost. The data, of course, is separate from that. Once an organization has realized its project, the data is their property, they can choose to do whatever they want with it, distribute it to the public, make it free online etc.

Mark: For example, we are currently monitoring waste collection in Bangalore. This can be monitored without any support from ELVA, but bigger, more complex projects will need help with project design and will need more tailored support with regard to project management and citizen engagement.

Cristina: So how do you stay in touch with the communities and engage a wide range of citizens?

ELVA Community Safety Network

ELVA Community Safety Network

Mark: One example was when our partner organization Safer World went into communities and asked them to tell us about the most common problems they are facing. They came up with a list of about 25 issues ranging from very serious issues to more trivial ones that still have an impact on the community’s sense of security. These issues weren’t being addressed originally, not due to a lack of will, but because it’s very difficult to collect good information about local needs given the remoteness of these communities.

During this specific project, we provided the platform and the people from Safer World went out into the villages to make contact with community representatives and explain to them how to work with ELVA and how to keep in touch with us. That is the model used for many of the projects we work with. It won’t just be ELVA implementing the whole thing, there is often an organization using ELVA to implement its projects, to monitor its projects, to communicate with its beneficiaries etc.

Cristina: Who have you found is most likely to use the platform? Has it been citizen journalists, professional journalists, is there a professional class that tends to monopolize its use?

Jonne: So far we have worked with a handful of civil society organizations that have subsequently set up a project that either works with a predefined group of reporters, or that will allow any group of citizens to use the platform. How well the project works depends very much on how skilled the organizations are in citizen engagement.  We ourselves have collected a few lessons learned in best practices, we have figured out how to best engage local populations to make us attractive to them. For example, aside from just asking community members to report to us, we can also send messages to them. For instance, we set up a system that sends weather reports to local farmers who can then share the information with their neighbours.

Cristina: So how do you work to bridge the gap between the communities and the policy makers residing in the capital?

1471173_10153638327115381_1788765680_nJonne: Our role as an organization depends very much on the specific project. For some projects we are completely hands-off and the organizations run the whole project, and there are projects during which we help with both citizen engagement and communication with politicians. To best engage policy-makers, the best strategy is engage them upfront and make sure you have them on board before you start a project. You can collect the best data in the world but if no one is looking at it or interested in it, your project won’t be successful. What we do is try to ensure that decision-makers are fully aware of the need for this process and are enthusiastic about the idea of engaging citizens to better measure local needs and to respond to those.

Cristina: Have you had a lot of success in Georgia getting policy-makers involved? 

Jonne: For example with the Community Safety Network, before we carried it out we had extensive conversations with local communities, local police, and members of the international community in order to make sure everyone was on board. Most of the issues being reported in this project need a response from the local police because they are the most important security providers in this region, and that has been successful beyond expectations. In terms of national decision-makers, we monitor trends in local needs by collecting in-depth information on a regular basis and that information is extremely helpful to politicians.

Mark: Another project that really allowed us to connect with communities was My World, which we implemented with UNDP –Georgia. This project allows people to vote for their priorities for the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals. It was a nationwide campaign that used public broadcasts on both TV and radio.

Cristina: What are your plans for the future?

Mark: We have three main directions for the future: conflict management and humanitarian action – which is what we started out focusing on, election monitoring, and project monitoring and evaluation, which can be broad with regard to policy areas. ELVA will soon be expanding to Kenya, Kosovo, and possibly Turkey.

This is a non-profit explanation.

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