Meet DemTools: Closing the Geek Gap

By Chris Doten | August 08, 2014

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In the last few years, powerful, cloud-based web apps have revolutionized the way business, civic groups and governments engage with citizens. Online campaign management systems helped empower Barack Obama’s supporters to organize their communities on the way to victory; sophisticated customer relationship management (CRM) systems help businesses effectively push their wares; online communication platforms connect marketers with the populace.

Human rights and democracy advocates in the developing world have been left stranded in this leap to more effective tools. There’s a new form of digital divide that’s emerged: call it the geek gap. There are a lot of sophisticated open source software systems out there, but free software is a bit like a free puppy: the problem ain't the initial price, it’s the care and feeding over years. In low-infrastructure societies, there just aren’t a lot of people with the sophisticated systems administration skills to set up a Linux server, configure Apache, set up MySQL, and install a web application like Drupal. While there are great commercial options, struggling human rights organizations often can’t write the checks to keep those services running.

NDItech has been working on technology for development for over fifteen years, and we’ve seen the same problems manifest repeatedly. Sustainability in development is hard, and when it comes to tech it’s harder. Keeping the lights on - and web sites running - years after a project ends just doesn’t happen very often.

We're attempting to cut that Gordian knot with DemTools: the Democracy Toolkit. We’re launching with a set of four web apps that solve some of the most common problems our global network of partners have experienced. DemTools development was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

  • CONSTITUENT OFFICES MOVE ONLINE with CiviMP, a customized version of the popular open-source contact management system CiviCRM. Members of parliament (MPs) can keep in touch with constituents, listen to their concerns, and help solve their problems.
  • ORGANIZE SUPPORTERS with CiviParty. Also based on CiviCRM, CiviParty allows civic organizations to organize events, contact or survey supporters via SMS, reach large audiences via blast email or printed mail merge, and track engagement.
  • LEARN WHERE CANDIDATES STAND with The Issues, which presents candidates’ positions on the hot topics of the day via recorded YouTube videos and allows citizens to ask them questions directly. Citizens can engage in dialogue and share statements via social media, connecting voters directly to their political leaders and opening new avenues of communication.
  • ANALYZE ELECTION INFORMATION with the NDItech Elections system, which can convincingly demonstrate the veracity of official results. NDI’s election data management system aggregates and manages reports submitted by text or telephone from trained observers at polling stations across a country. By analyzing the data instantaneously, election experts can spot trends, flag potential problems, and maintain easy, direct communication with observers in the field.

We’re making these tools accessible in three different ways for different audiences.

For the geeks, any source code we’ve written or modified will be available on our GitHub repository. Fork it, download it, do what you want with it. NIDtech will be watching the issue queues and forums and joining in the conversation. We hope that groups which find the systems useful will improve them and share them back with the community.

For groups who want to manage their own systems, we’ve got bundled packages with straightforward instructions. Civic organizations can easily use these tools on their own servers, rather than going through the painstaking customization process of compiling packages and configuring for their needs.

Most excitingly, we’re proud to announce DemCloud - software-as-a-service hosting for the democracy and human rights community. Each of these four apps will be available to NDI partners gratis: no hosting headaches, no software updates. The hardworking activists and organizers didn’t sign up to be computer geeks - and now they don't have to be.

RSVP now and join us August 12th to meet our new friends in person!