[Guest blog post by Irene Guijt based on work with Marc Maxson, John Hecklinger, Zipporah Sangiluh and Dave Snowden]

What is SenseMaker?

“Creating security. Many people leaving in slums have lived in fear due to lackof peace and lack of criminal cases many have been raped but to day we can havesomething to enjoy and although there is still little to be said to be add on it. Thereis a certain group in our community called “vijana amani pamoja” (VAP) who havereally provided security among the community they have held different workshop educating people to leave in peace and respect each others property they havealso advise the youths to involve in various money generating activities which will keep them busy and get money to cater for their instead of stealing other people property.”- Original story shared by 16-20 male in Nairobi for SenseMaker pilot project

Imagine collecting thousands of stories like the one above from citizens, community organizers, and NGO staff about what really matters to them … and where change is showing. Now imagine looking through a prism at these stories to find patterns and compare and contrast patterns between community efforts, organisations, burning issues, locations, citizens of different ages, and more. And imagine getting a continuous flow of stories that allows people to see needs as they emerge and act on them. In 2010, GlobalGiving (GG) undertook a pilot in Kenya to see if this was possible.

The GG experience, funded by Rockefeller Foundation was based on SenseMaker , an approach and software developed by Cognitive Edge. It allows organisations to collect andanalyse large numbers of stories, to discuss and act on these, on a continuous basis. This first experience in the development sector suggests that much is possible, in particular to overcome the lack of quick feedback that hinders social justice. Understanding change as it emerges, seeking surprises and making real-time adjustments is key to meeting people’s needs efficiently.

We know that people learn by sharing experiences in many conversations – and they ac ton them. Ushahidi exemplifies this idea. SenseMaker is based on the same idea – that people’s stories matter. Large numbers of lived stories are collected to show a wide diversity of perspectives and their commonalities and differences. In the GlobalGiving pilot, almost 3000 stories of people’s experiences were collected by volunteers over only 10 weeks. For GlobalGiving, an important feature of the approach is that the story owners code their ownstories, but within a shared question framework. The questions that GlobalGiving askedsought to find out if communities efforts were meeting local needs and who was benefitting. The SenseMaker software then allows patterns to be found in the thousands of stories.And then people return to clusters of stories related to intriguing patterns to discuss, make sense and plan actions.

Stories can be collected in different ways from people. In Kenya, we used basic pen and paper with community volunteers of projects on the GlobalGiving web platform.

But stories are also collected through dedicated web sites and trials with smart pens or mobile phoneapplications are underway. But… and it is a significant ‘but’… stories, if not used, are just static. To make the storiesfuel action requires sharing and discussing them. It is also about How can people who took the time to share their stories have access to them? This is where the Ushahidi platform becomes useful. GG has put all its stories on an Ushahidi platform (http://www.globalgivingcommunity.com/kenya). Over 2500 voices from Nairobi slums and rural Kenya can no longer be ignored. Stories for specific locations, about specific topics, concerning specific organizations can be read by anyone. These anonymous stories markthe beginning of a conversation over time of need and change.

Once collected, stories can be shared as they keep coming in. In 2010, we had a one-offround of story collecting but GG is experimenting with ways to keep stories flowing in.Stories have the power to shape actions when, over time, patterns are compared andchanges are revealed.

There is much more to be told about SenseMaker and the GlobalGiving work. And much more remains to be tested. How can stories not only become a record of need and effort butbe used to challenge and refine resource allocation and prioritise activities? How can theybe used for advocacy? 2011 will see more work on these and other questions.The best place for information on GG’s work with SenseMaker is: http://www.globalgiving.org/story-tools, especially the online document ‘The Real Book’ (PDF). For more information, contact Marc Maxson (mmaxson@globalgiving.org) or Irene Guijt (iguijt@learningbydesign.org).