Development workers and digitization

Digitalisation is a major topic at GIZ, which also concerns development workers. In December 2017, six teams presented their ideas for digital innovation in a digitalisation competition known as the GIZ Innovation Fund.

Around 10 development workers submitted project proposals. Among the participants whose projects made it onto the shortlist were two development workers from South Africa: Thomas Hellman and his colleague at the time, Johanna Tyrakowski. Together with their national colleagues Matsetsebale Tleane (VCP) and Khotso Lefatsa (PISA), they developed the app YouthActs. We are delighted that Thomas Hellman, who works for the Inclusive Violence and Crime Prevention (VCP) programme, has agreed to our request for an interview. Many thanks to him.

Mr Hellmann, how did you become aware of the GIZ Innovation Fund?

Within our ‘youth bubble’ at VCP, we and a number of other colleagues had been wondering for a long time whether we could use a digital platform to help us in our work supporting organised youth. We already had the general support of the programme for this. What we didn’t have were the necessary resources and expertise. The call for innovation came just at the right moment. The claim that ‘GIZ leaves room for trial and error’ was what appealed to us most, as it allowed us to test things and experiment while developing our project proposal. True to the motto: ‘Think outside the box!’

Why did you choose South Africa and Lesotho?

The Innovation Fund is designed to demonstrate the scalability of digital innovations. We managed to meet this requirement by designing our app to suit the VCP programme in South Africa that I was just talking about, as well as the PISA programme (Participatory Initiative for Social Accountability) in Lesotho, both of which work together with organised youth groups. In Lesotho, the EU project PISA cooperates with Methakas in the field of political education and citizen participation, while in South Africa we work with Youth Desks for the prevention of violence. You could also do the same in Ethiopia, for example, in the field of water treatment or the like. The only precondition is that it involves organised youth groups with some kind of official affiliation that have been trained to use the app.

Together you created the app YouthActs. How did you come up with the idea, and what is the project about?

We work with organised youth groups that are doing what they can to improve living conditions. In South Africa, that means the Youth Desks, and in Lesotho the Methakas. In South Africa, we are working with our partner to try and mobilise young adults aged between 18 and 35 to make their communities safer and to take part in projects that help reduce violence. We want to strengthen their resilience and recruit them as ambassadors for violence prevention. There are many enthusiastic young people out there with positive energy who are really keen to shape their communities and exert a positive influence. Of course, they also see this as a chance to find a job, as in parts of South Africa youth unemployment is as high as 70 or 80 per cent. 

On the one hand, it’s often difficult to create new networks and ensure access to them, which is frustrating for young people and doesn’t help them get very far. They need more support and guidance. On the other hand, the young people of South Africa love technology, and they see enormous potential in digitalisation. To enable the Youth Desks and Methakas to exchange their experiences, they have to record their activities and share them with others. They need guidance in a range of activities along with opportunities to form networks amongst themselves. Through its knowledge hub and by recording activities in photos and videos supplemented by short texts, YouthActs makes all that possible, and more besides.

How did you go about putting it into action?

The InnoFund team gave us a lot of support, with wonderful, structured guidelines, coaching from experienced design-thinking experts, and an array of workshops. We began with a boot camp in Berlin, then checked in regularly via Skype. IDA supplied us with lots of information. We were also appointed a coach, who gave us direct support with respect to the structures, and we stayed in regular contact with coaches in the countries. Our coach came from the Institute of Design Thinking at the University of Cape Town. 

The first rule of play was to ‘do one thing really well!’ – rather than rush into lots of different solutions. That’s something we learned at the boot camp, along with the principles of design thinking. This meant we first had to carry out a lot of user research with young people to identify the biggest challenges facing their communities and find out what would help them the most, as well as the extent to which technologies are used in their communities. Seeing as we work directly with the youth, we already had a lot of knowledge of our own, which proved to be very advantageous. 

After the first design-thinking steps – the project’s ‘discover’ and ‘define’ phases in the form of different events and a design-thinking week in Cape Town – we developed our first prototype and the app’s initial features. To begin with, our prototypes weren’t actually digital apps but rather sketches, role-plays and such like. We attempted to think our way into the users and to create so-called personas – specific descriptions of a typical user – so that in the end we could continue developing our MVP (minimum viable product).

What challenges did you face and what things worked particularly well?

Basically there were four kinds of challenges: technical, financial, geographical and the problem of time. In South Africa, the programme operates in two regions with widely differing technical possibilities – the very rural Eastern Cape and the better developed and geographically much smaller region of Gauteng. Lesotho is rather rural so people have less access to smartphones, tablets and data. Moreover, data transfer is extremely expensive throughout southern Africa. We had to take that into consideration because you need data to use our app. Also, a lot of young people only have low-spec smartphones with insufficient capacity for the app. That’s what the user research taught us. So we had to develop an app that basically works off-line but allows you to upload your work online. 

The financial challenge was the EUR 20,000 we had to develop the MVP, plus our coach. Of course, that’s not much for a digital application, and it meant we had to be very creative. The challenges also included the fact that we four colleagues were based in three completely different locations, and we had to coordinate meetings and Skype discussions between our team and our coach, on the one hand, as well as the check-ins with the InnoFund, on the other. At the beginning we had check in every six weeks, but towards the end it was more flexible. But that was really necessary, because without the pressure we would certainly have achieved less.

Going through the whole process was an extremely positive experience, not only because of the regular exchanges within the team, but also because of the enormous learning effect thanks to all the practical support, from Head Office, from the InnoFund and from our coach. 

After our first prototype, we organised a 36-hour hackathon, which saw various teams of creative specialists working to develop our MVP further. Every one of us experienced some really great moments there. Above all, the young people’s motivation and their keenness to get involved in the process right from the get-go was something we found very enriching.

How was YouthActs received in South Africa and in Lesotho?

There was a lot of positive feedback from the youth. The human-centred design places the user at the heart of the experience and makes the development very exciting for everyone involved. The only critical voices came from our partners because we couldn’t involve them in the entire process. Since this was a GIZ process based on trial-and-error, we wouldn’t have been able to promise them a good result like we do with our projects. It was somewhat easier in Lesotho than in South Africa, because PISA is an EU project with fewer ties to political partners.

How has YouthActs developed since the award ceremony in Eschborn?

In our hackathon, we had a number of expert teams consisting of four or five young people fresh from college or university who tried to evolve a prototype. At the end, our GIZ programme selected a winning team – the one we believed would provide the most support to the youth groups. This team was effectively a start-up. Due to the lack of financial resources, we handed the MVP’s ongoing development over to this team. This turned out to be difficult because in the end they faced problems that they couldn’t solve for themselves. That’s why initially we failed to achieve our own objective of having a useable product in time for the final pitch.

Winning the ‘Steepest Learning Curve’ gave us access to another EUR 200,000. This allowed us to employ an expert service provider to develop the app further and make it useable. Today YouthActs is available in the Google Store and can be used free of charge by all Youth Desks members. 

We had planned to take the next step in February and split Youth Acts between Lesotho and South Africa, since the two different youth groups work in entirely different areas. However, it was good that VCP and PISA submitted the project together and, in the InnoFund, jointly demonstrated its scalability within GIZ. 

From the outset, we wanted to develop a reward system as an incentive – a kind of points system to get certificates, discounts or vouchers, for example, and to get the private sector involved. That’s the aim of our next update. One final challenge does remain, namely to decide which partner should take over the project with its upkeep and updates, etc. because the VCP’s current phase is scheduled to come to an end in mid-2019.

Your project won the prize for the ‘Steepest Learning Curve’. What does that mean?

I think the InnoFund team and the jury noticed how much enthusiasm we brought to the project. We knew that it would benefit the youth in the end, and that we’d be contributing to the success of our VCP and PISA programmes. They recognised that we’d conducted a huge quantity of user research and workshops. In one of our videos (Link), we also managed to document the great feedback we got from the young people as well as our partners’ strong interest.

This year the GIZ Innovation Fund will be held once again. What advice can you give to the participants?

I think it’s important that the selected project is also relevant to the programme. That results in more ideas being developed and motivates people to work on the project. Ultimately, it also serves to justify it too. For us as VCP/PISA, it was extremely helpful that our project was embedded in the programme.

What contribution can development workers make to digital innovation projects? How important is digitalisation for their work? Was your role as a development worker an advantage in terms of implementation?

Our great advantage as development workers is that we cooperate very closely with our partners and have direct access to our end users, but we remain independent and flexible nonetheless. We can build bridges between civil society and the government, and essentially act as intermediaries between the different political levels – between the national, provincial and local levels. Digitalisation means transforming analogue values into digital formats, which of course is very beneficial and useful for us as development workers. It means we can learn more quickly, and then make use of the things we’ve learned. As we work directly with the end users, we have access to local expert knowledge on the ground. 

I was able to integrate the young people’s knowledge very convincingly into our prototypes’ development. And if we can drive digitalisation forward at the local level, we can work a lot more effectively. We can then take what we’ve generated at local level and feed it into the development of policies and strategies at the national level. So, yes, digitalisation is highly significant for the activities of development workers.

The interview was conducted by Annika Hornberger, an intern in the EH group

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