DemTools Through the Ages
I’m delighted that the NDI DemTech team has hit another major milestone with a fresh iteration of the Democracy Toolkit, DemTools. For anyone reading this blog, it’s probably self-evident that we live in an increasingly digital world, and for an expanding majority of humans everywhere on Earth being able to engage online is a requirement to make best use of their abilities and maximise their impact. International development organizations like NDI are focused on supporting civic and political organizations globally in their missions to drive positive social change, and have decades of experience in providing organizational skills, comparative best practices, and practical advice in that quest.
But it’s the internet age – and if we’re not training our partners on how to engage in that domain as well, many of them will be working toward more just societies with one hand tied behind their back. The challenge is that telling people about cool digital tools isn’t enough. When I first started at NDI, I participated in a number of political party trainings where we’d show off powerful organizing tools like NGP VAN, used by the U.S. Democratic Party.* When they’d clamor for access, NDI would regretfully say it’s just an example of what one could do. Could they buy it? No, sorry. Could they buy something else? Um, no, not given your pocketbooks. Basically unless you were an oligarch able to hire a top U.S. or U.K. political consulting firm, you were on your own.
There’s great tools out there that don't cost a dime – free, open source software that can fill many of the needs for partner organizations. Sounds great! Problem solved! But there’s a catch there too: you have to be a techie super nerd to be able to launch and use these tools, and most of the time folks who are fighting for positive political change are not Linux systems administrators and web developers. Seeing this gap was the core insight behind the launch of the initial release of DemTools back in 2014. Over the next years we saw that for most partner organizations hosting their own software was proving to be a huge challenge – but software scales. For a handful of popular, frequently used tools, NDI built the DemCloud hosting system to provide easy, secure software-as-a-service offerings. With NDI taking on the burden of managing hosting, hundreds of partner organizations have been able to use these tools to organize, monitor elections, or help their constituents.
Now we’re entering into a new phase of DemTools and taking a broader view to share more of the wide range of tools available. Not just software, either: manuals, guides, training materials, evaluation tools, and more have a home on the new DemTools site. This database is far from comprehensive, of course; we are focusing on tools and resources that NDI’s DemTech team has found useful and trustworthy. We’ll be adding to this – and welcome your suggestions! – but we have built this to be a cross section of proven software and useful manuals rather than being a list of everything everywhere.
This is also the first step in our new DemUX initiative – attempting to build a better user experience (UX) for democracy and human rights-related software. We’ll be working with open-source software developers and grassroots organizations to try and get across that “last mile” of getting some of these tools in the hands of people who can use them – and helping them be successful with these new capabilities. We’re excited to continue NDI’s mission of supporting and strengthening civic and political organizations around the world and across the internet.