It’s my last day at Ushahidi. Even though I will stay on at Ushahidi in an advisory board capacity, this is an emotional moment for me. Working with Ushahidi for the past 8 years has been the honor and joy of my career. Ushahidi brought out the best in me, or at least the most courageous, delivering slam poems at team retreats from Kenya to Bellagio Italy. I remember first meeting Juliana when she spoke at a program in Silicon Valley in the summer of 2011, that was all about how technology was going to help solve the grand challenges facing the world. She, and the Ushahidi story, impressed the heck out of me. I asked a question after her talk that went something like, “it’s clear to me from the growth and use of the tool that you are making a huge impact, but how are you going to make this work financially sustainable long term?” She responded, “that is precisely the question we are working to solve, want to come help us?”

For the past eight years it has been my luck to work with some of the most talented people in the world to solve that problem. I’ve always said, “if we can build financial sustainability while being 1) open source, 2) giving our tools and services away for free to all grassroots orgs who can’t afford them, 3) be committed to privacy and not gathering personal data for advertising, and 4) stay mission driven to serve the marginalized → we will have achieved the near impossible and those will be the hardest, most well-earned dollars in the world.” That has certainly been the case. I’m proud that we have 1) stayed true to those core values and not compromised them, 2) used innovative new models to fund grassroots, open source work, like incubating and spinning out companies like BRCK, and 3) that we have grown our impact and diversified our revenues from foundational philanthropic funding to services, programs, and sales. We have made a heck of an Impact.

I’m proud to hand over the reins of this incredible organization to Angela Oduor Lungati. The founders led Ushahidi for the first six years, I, and others, were able to shepherd us through the following 6 year chapter. And now I have the utmost faith in Angela to lead this next chapter of Ushahidi’s story.

I wanted to share three pieces of advice and learnings about the tech for good/humanitarian tech industry. Over the past 8 years I have witnessed the evolution from nascent to full-blown sector of technology service-providers to the non-profit, humanitarian, and development industries. The same way that tech providers serve for-profit business (Business to business aka B2B), there is now a B2NGO sector. There are amazing organizations like Ushahidi, Datakind, HOTOSM, and countless others who build tools or offer services to support this world with technology designed specifically for them (not repurposed Office and Salesforce ad infinitum). We have emerged from the 2008–2010 timeframe of $250k innovation grants and reached global scale, but there are three huge hurdles that we have yet to overcome as an industry to support and scale this new sector, and I urge us all to reflect and evaluate.

First, our technology procurement systems in the development/humanitarian sector are broken. We are incentivizing “pilotitis.” As the saying goes… if i had a nickle for every-time i’ve seen someone build from scratch putting dots/surveys on a map. Nearly every software (outside of Microsoft Office) purchase happens program officer by program officer. It’s a single line item in a 2 year budget. Then it’s over. Ushahidi has sold nearly 50 of these contracts over the past 8 year of my tenure, to everyone from the Red Cross to World Vision to the UN. But they are not scalable. Project ends, budget ends, contract ends. Program officer moves organizations, contract ends. In the private sector these pilots would be brought to the CIO who would then scale them to the entire organization. This isn’t possible in NGOs because the CIO does not have procurement purchasing power to buy field-level software for the entire organization, further, most NGOs are set up country by country. So if you have a success with Red Cross Nepal, it’s an entirely different organization to reach Red Cross Kenya. This makes it impossible to scale, because it requires having sales people in every country who have experience in every different procurement structure (USAID, World Bank, UN, NGO, DFID, etc.) And there isn’t enough upfront capital in the market to build that salesforce.

Second, funders needs to evaluate the impact of tech providers and platform creators differently, and not expect them to provide RCTs that prove metrics like lives saved that can then be extrapolated to the entire user base. See technology’s primary function is efficiency not “innovation” — we make the whole sector more effective and efficient at achieving their beneficiary level metrics, be it lives saved, human rights abuses documented and acted upon, voter turnout increased, acts of corruption counted and prosecuted, or votes independently verified. Technology providers are by necessity a B2NGO 2 Beneficiary relationship — we serve the implementers, from the UN to a grassroots orgs like Humanitarian Tracker, who in turn serve the beneficiaries. Funders of humanitarian technology need to recognize this and allow for impact metrics that measure this relationship. I have seen so many tech providers to the humanitarian sector who struggle because they are serving partner orgs, and can’t claim clear replicable RCT metrics like “lives saved.” I’m worried that the philanthropic sector has gotten so impact metric crazed that they are missing the forest through the trees.

Further, platforms are awesome, they are what create community-specific, bottom-up, innovation. Grassroots organizations take Ushahidi and make it their own, customizing it to their own unique needs, not prescribed by us from the top down, such as projects from SafeCity or LA Bucket Brigade. But platforms are horizontal in nature, and thus applying clear RCT metrics is extremely difficult. We have had 8 RCTs run on Ushahidi deployments over the years, but we have more than 200,000 deployments. We can’t easily extrapolate the 8% increase in voter turnout due to Ushahidi’s use in the 2011 Nigerian election to the 2017 Kenyan election, because these are different places with different circumstances. There is a need to support this sector of public-good technology providers and value them based on the efficiency and effectiveness they bring to the entire sector, not by the same measures we use to evaluate the implementers on the ground.

I want to end by saying that our sector needs to realize that not every solution needs to have a market-based business model. Some software should just be open source and free. Sometimes it’s important to build tools specifically for non-markets, such as human rights, election monitoring, crisis response, or gender-based violence, and also not assume that we should just repurpose tools from the for-profit sector to serve these use cases. These tools and the organizations that maintain them are like electricity, they power up the entire industry and all the people we serve, and it’s important that we all realize that they should continue to exist. Open Source technology platforms like Ushahidi are a public good. That might mean funding them through a combination of programmatic contracts, earned revenues when it makes sense, innovative models like incubation→ spinout, but most importantly continued community and philanthropic support.

Ushahidi, i’ll always have your back.