There’s an app for that? The need for a shared platform in development

Bill Easterly writes about how much he loves his iPad. This is ironic for the man who sees the world divided between searchers and planners, and who complains about the grip of planners.   The iPad is a testament to control-freakery by one man on a grand scale. Steve Jobs controls the design down to the last detail – some of it sensible, such as the beautiful shape; and some of it daft, such as preventing users from changing their own batteries.  He limits consumer choice – you have to use iTunes, you can only use apps approved by Apple, no USB ports, you can’t use Flash etc – in the interests of guaranteeing what he believes is the best possible consumer experience.  And some consumers – including Bill Easterly, apparently – like to have decisions made for them in return for having something that just works.  Sounds just like Millennium Villages

But Bill Easterly’s post got me thinking. One great thing about the iPad (and the iPhone, etc) is the way it works as a platform for apps.

It is easy to write an app for the iPad or iPhone.  The platform takes care of the complicated stuff – accessing the internet, accepting user input, drawing on the screen – leaving the application developer to focus on the specific functions of the application itself.

Wouldn’t it be good to have a common “platform” in development, on which specific “applications” could be run?   The back office stuff – accounting, auditing, public financial management, rigorous evaluation, human resource management, management of building and vehicles and other resources, information technology, knowledge management and sharing – could all be provided centrally, avoiding duplication and costs.  Specific aid programmes could be run as “apps” on that platform.

We are a long way from that now.  There are 9 separate Oxfams running projects in Ethiopia.  Four of them have offices in Addis Ababa (GB, US, Canada, Spain) and another five run projects in Ethiopia out of offices in other countries.  That’s just Oxfam.  Save the Children has – I think – seven offices in Ethiopia.  That’s before you start with the official donors, each with their own infrastructure, and galaxy of expat staff, offices, drivers, accountants, press officers, and gardeners.  There is no reason for all those functions to be duplicated everywhere.

Aid agencies are on a journey from being primarily administrative organisations – specialists in project management – into knowledge-based organisations.   They should be purveyors of ideas, analysis, evidence and influence, within developing countries, international institutions, and industrialised countries.  To do this, they need to focus more of their resources and management capacity on their core business.  One way to do this would be for them to cut those administrative costs by using a common, shared platform. They can then focus on the apps that go on top.

A shared development platform would reduce costs and waste, and increase the scope for innovation, flexibility and diversity, and it would enable aid agencies to focus on their real value added.  So will it happen? I doubt it.

8 comments on “There’s an app for that? The need for a shared platform in development”

  1. Software platforms are as restrictive as they are helpful, and cookie-cutter aid agencies might not be as useful as they seem.

    In writing code, an expert developer would be foolish to restrict himself to Apple devices: most people don’t use iPads and besides, there are tons of other devices out there.

    Maybe an Apple-analogous platform would be good for NGOs in South America but completely inappropriate for NGOs in sub-Saharan Africa; and maybe a Google Android-analogous platform would work in sub-Saharan Africa but not in southeast Asia.

    So our expert developer charged with maintaining seven Save the Children offices would not rip everything up and start from scratch: he or she would try and smooth out the bottlenecks. Perhaps IT and accounting could be out-sourced; maybe employees could hire taxis instead of drivers; and PR materials could be designed and printed by outside organizations.

    Aid agencies already do many of these things, as do for-profit companies.

    (I’ve written lots of code on lots of platforms, and there’s one constant: around week six of development, any platform transforms from heaven into hell. On the other hand, shared libraries–outsourced tasks, in this analogy–are priceless.)

  2. Owen,

    I’ve been asking the same question re: making businesses environmentally sustainable – isn’t there infrastructure that could be widely used that would make the whole sector smarter and more efficient? I started calling it a “sustainability commons” but think that “platform” might be a better term. Kind of in this realm, the US government is investing in development of open source platforms for health records – pretty interesting. One of their advisers, Brian Behlendorf, talks about “plumbing” – the services that businesses want to have available but don’t want to have to build themselves and are therefore willing to cost share. He did a really interesting conference call with us about this. Here’s the podcast if you are interested – http://blogs.edf.org/innovation/2010/04/11/edfix-call-8-afterthoughts-building-plumbing-for-business-sustainability/

    cheers,
    dave

  3. Bill Easterly writes about how much he loves his iPad. This is ironic for the man who sees the world divided between searchers and planners, and who complains about the grip of planners.

    Ha!

    We are a long way from that now. There are 9 separate Oxfams running projects in Ethiopia. Four of them have offices in Addis Ababa (GB, US, Canada, Spain) and another five run projects in Ethiopia out of offices in other countries. That’s just Oxfam. Save the Children has – I think – seven offices in Ethiopia.

    Wow. Ouch.

  4. As it happens, we at Akvo Foundation are working on a common platform for some of the work that development aid organizations perform. Specifically, the platform is put together to address knowledge management and project reporting. The Akvo Platform is an open source platform that consists mostly of components that we have not built, such as WordPress for the blog or MediaWiki for the Akvopedia. But what people really seem to get excited about are our contributions, which consist of the Akvo Marketplace, a place to showcase projects that need funding; Akvo Really Simple Reporting, web and mobile phone tools for project reporting; and Akvo Widgets, distributed web publishing tools for projects.

    The Akvo Platform is currently being used at Akvo.org to showcase and report on water and sanitation projects involving over 200 partner organizations. But we are looking to extend the platform to other areas, such as healthcare, information and communications technology (ICT) and agriculture during next year, working with the consortium Connect4Change.

    I come from a background in ICT and have worked with inventing and implementing systems in business for more than two decades. It is clear that there is a lot of efficiency and innovation to be found in implementing common systems in the development aid sector, but one should be under no illusion that it is a simple task. In business there are nearly always one or several strong drivers behind every ICT project. Does a project make the business better, faster responding, more effective? Does it introduce competitive advantages? Does it add to the bottom line, i.e. does it increase profits? The bottom line in a development aid organization is harder to measure and it is never measured the same way in two organizations (it seems) and therefor become a lot harder to pin down. So the drivers behind a decision in business to implement ICT systems are very different in development aid organizations, even if they really should be the same.

    Most development aid organizations have very little expertise in implementing modern ICT systems at any scale and this is why we started Akvo. We have the expertise and we are working hard to share this. We are looking to work with organizations who realize that they would be better to collaborate with us, rather than trying to re-invent the wheel, again, again and again, like what is happening today.

    Check us out and don’t hesitate to contact me if what we do sounds interesting.

    Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson, co-director, Akvo.org
    thomas@akvo.org

  5. Interesting ideas as always Owen, though I’d prefer to go open source for a whole host of reasons….and while I’m on line….Your references to Save and Oxfam arent quite up to date. As I mentioned when you were in Oxford last month …Oxfam International will be moving to a Single Management Structure – our attempt at the ‘common platform’ without the ‘cookie cutter’ as a Confederation….we hope to increase efficiency whilst remaining a networked organisation that allows partners and communities to benefit from our diversity of approaches to suit the context in hand in our dynamic, diverse world

    Owen replies: Penny – thanks. You are right, I should have acknowledged that both Oxfam and Save the Children are making plans to address the problem of duplication. But I think they would both acknowledge that progress has been slow and they have a long way to go.

  6. The reason why we are not working with a common back office is in the publication Why do aid agencies exist of Bertin Martens:

    ” Therefore, an NGO’s best bet to enhance its credibility is to vigorously pursue activities that are
    perceived to be in line with its objective(s). Activities, not necessarily achievements,
    constitute the core of an NGO’s business. This vigorous drive may also be the NGO’s
    comparative advantage. For a given budget, NGO’s maximize activities in line with
    “the issue” until the budget is exhausted. Commercial companies on the other hand,
    when faced with a fixed budget, will minimize costs in order to maximize profits.
    These typical characteristics of NGOs make them well suited for the delivery of
    foreign aid.”

    The current aid system has scant incentives getting results efficiently, while there are lots of incentives to be seen busy working on the cause. If value for money instead of inclusiveness or reputation would be the strongest driver for funding, there would be an incentive to outsource the “non core tasks”.

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and