Two years ago, in pre-pandemic times, we gathered for the last in-person MERL Tech conference in Washington, DC. During that conference, the idea was born to create the MERL Center — a community that would collaborate to develop resources about the intersection of MERL and open source.
Since then, a vibrant community has coalesced under the leadership of Mala Kumar, GitHub’s Director of Tech for Social Good. More than 40 members from five continents contribute through the community, coalescing around content that draws from their global professional experience in disciplines such as international development, public health, and education. Many MERL Center community members have come from the MERL Tech community. Collaborating via the MERL Center has enabled MERL Tech practitioners of all levels of technology capacity to engage on GitHub and break down professional silos.
This week, the community launched its new MERL Center website, which houses a range of content at the intersection of MERL and open source. Users of the site can filter MERL-related content by workflow or task (e.g., data visualization) or by content type (e.g., guides and case studies). Guides discuss important topics related to MERL and open source, such as the pros and cons of open data. Case studies outline specific examples of using open source solutions for MERL purposes, or MERL aspects of open source solutions. The site links out to the MERL Center repository on GitHub as well. It will eventually include a “project bank” of work that is ongoing and needs community support.
We’re excited to share this important resource with the wider MERL Tech community, and we hope that you will check it out, get involved, and let the MERL Center know what other content or guidance would be helpful for you in your work!
Update, 26 August 2020 – The new deadline to submit an RFP for the websites development is now end of day, Sunday, 13 September 2020. The application for the MERL Center stipends is now closed.
Post by Mala Kumar, GitHub Social impact, Tech for Social Good
Over the past year, some of you may have seen previous posts here on MERL Tech about a new, highly collaborative effort called the “MERL Center.” A joint effort of the GitHub Social Impact, Tech for Social Good (formerly Open Source for Good) program and MERL Tech, the MERL Center is creating case studies, beginner’s guides and more to support practitioners determine if, when and how to use open source software, tools and data as part of MERL solutions. Since launching at the MERL Tech DC conference in September 2019, we have grown to 30+ Working Group members.
We’re now actively recruiting for two PAID opportunities that will help take the MERL Center to the next level, as outlined below!
MERL Center Working Group Stipends
We are offering 15 stipends of US $500 to MERL Center Working Group members who are willing, able and qualified to commit to set deliverables in support of the MERL Center (for example, supporting with writing on case studies or developing guidance).
Existing Working Group members and new members are welcome to apply. Five stipends are reserved for new professionals with less than three (3) years of experience, including internships. Five stipends are reserved for applicants from low- and middle-income countries. The remaining five stipends are open to anyone. For now, the stipends are a one-time annual payment, though we hope to fund additional stipends next year.
Please note it is NOT required to apply for a stipend to join/continue with the MERL Center as a Working Group member. Email Malaif you wish to get involved without receiving a stipend. Stipends are funded by GitHub and will be distributed through MERL Tech (via Kurante).
By Mala Kumar, GitHub Social Impact, Open Source for Good
I lead a program on the GitHub Social Impact team called Open Source for Good — detailed in a previous MERL Tech post and (back when mass gatherings in large rooms were routine) at a lightning talk at the MERL Tech DC conference last year.
Before joining GitHub, I spent a decade wandering around the world designing, managing, implementing, and deploying tech for international development (ICT4D) software products. In my career, I found open source in ICT4D tends to be a polarizing topic, and often devoid of specific arguments. To advance conversations on the challenges, barriers, and opportunities of open source for social good, my program at GitHub led a year-long research project and produced a culminating report, which you can download here.
One of the hypotheses I posed at the MERL Tech conference last year, and that our research subsequently confirmed, is that IT departments and ICT4D practitioners in the social sector* have relatively less budgetary decision-making power than their counterparts at corporate IT companies. This makes it hard for IT and ICT4D staff to justify the use of open source in their work.
In the past year, Open Source for Good has solidified its strategy around helping the social sector more effectively engage with open source. To that aim, we started the MERL Center, which brings together open source experts and MERL practitioners to create resources to help medium and large social sector organizations understand if, how, and when to use open source in their MERL solutions.**
With the world heading into unprecedented economic and social change and uncertainty, we’re more committed than ever at GitHub Social Impact to helping the social sector effectively use open source and to build on a digital ecosystem that already exists.
Thanks to our wonderful working group members, the MERL Center has identified its target audiences, fleshed out the goals of the Center, set up a basic content production process, and is working on a few initial contributions to its two working groups: Case Studies and Beginner’s Guides. I’ll announce more details in the coming months, but I am also excited to announce that we’re committing funds to get a MERL Center public-facing website live to properly showcase the materials the MERL Center produces and how open source can support technology-enabled MERL activities and approaches.
As we ramp up, we’re now inviting more people to join the MERL Center working groups! If you are a MERL practitioner with an interest in or knowledge of open source, or you’re an open source expert with an interest in and knowledge of MERL, we’d love to have you! Please feel free to reach out me with a brief introduction to you and your work, and I’ll help you get on-boarded. We’re excited to have you work with us!
*We define the “social sector” as any organization or company that primarily focuses on social good causes.
by Mala Kumar, GitHub Open Source for Good program
My name is Mala, and I lead a program at GitHub called Open Source for Good under our Social Impact team. Before joining GitHub, I spent the better part of a decade wandering around the world designing, managing, implementing and deploying tech for international development (ICT4D) software products. Throughout my career, I was told repeatedly that open source (OS) would revolutionize the ICT4D industry. While I have indeed worked on a few interesting OS products, I began suspecting that statement was more complicated than had been presented.
Indeed, after joining GitHub this past April, I confirmed my suspicion. Overall, the adoption of OS in the social sector – defined as the collection of entities that positively advance or promote human rights – lags far behind the commercial, private sector. Why? You may ask.
Here’s one hypothesis we have at GitHub:
After our team’s many years of experience working in the social sector and through the hundreds of conversations we’ve had with fellow social sector actors, we’ve come to believe that IT teams in the social sector have significantly less decision making power and autonomy than commercial, private sector IT teams. This is irrespective of the size, the geographic location, or even the core mission of the organization or company.
In other words, decision-making power in the social sector does not lie with the techies who typically have the best understanding of the technology landscape. Rather, it’s non-techies who tend to make an organization’s IT budgetary decisions. Consequently, when budgetary decision-makers come to GitHub to assess OS tools and they see something like the below, a GitHub repo, they have no idea what they’re seeing. And this is a problem for the sector at large.
We want to help bridge that gap between private sector and social sector tech development. The social sector is quite large, however, so we’ve had to narrow our focus. We’ve decided to target the social sector’s M&E vertical. This is for several reasons:
M&E as a discipline is growing in the social sector
Increasingly more M&E data is being collected digitally
It’s easy to identify a target audience
Linda is great. ☺
How We Hope to Help
Our basic idea is to build a middle “layer” between a GitHub repo and a decision maker’s final budget. I’m calling that a MERL GitHub “Center” until I can come up with a better name.
As a sponsor of MERL Tech DC 2019, we set up our booth smack dab in front of the food and near the coffee, and we took advantage of this prime real estate to learn more about what our potential users would find valuable.
We spent two days talking with as many MERL conference attendees as we could and asked them to complete some exercises. One such exercise was to prioritize the possible features a MERL GitHub Center might have. We’ve summarized the results in the chart below. The top right has two types of features: 1) features most commonly sorted as helpful in using open source and 2) features potential Center users would actually use. From this exercise, we’ve learned that our minimum viable product (MVP) should include all or some of the following:
Use case studies of open source tools
Description of listed tools
A way to search in the Center
Security assessments of the tools
Beginner’s Guide to Open Source for the Social Sector
Installation guides for listed tools
Aggregation of prioritization exercise from ~10 participants
We also spoke to an additional 30+ attendees about the OS tools they currently use. Anecdotally, mobile data collection, GIS, and data visualization were the most common use cases. A few tools are built on or with DHIS2. Many attendees we spoke with are data scientists using R and Python notebooks. DFID and GIZ were mentioned as two large donor organizations that are thinking about OS for MERL funding.
In the coming weeks, we’re going to reach out to many of the attendees we spoke to at MERL Tech to conduct user testing for our forthcoming Center prototype. In the spirit of open source and not duplicating work, we are also speaking with a few potential partners working on different angles to our problem to align our efforts. It’s our hope to build out new tools and product features that will help the MERL community better use and develop OS tools.
How can you get Involved?
Email firstname.lastname@example.org with a brief intro to you and your work in OS for social good.