22 February 2011

Notes From InterAction

I had the opportunity to attend and speak at a luncheon held by InterAction last Thursday in their offices in DC. Being my long-winded self, I prepared far more notes that I was able to cover. So, I figured I might as well share what I wrote down in preparation for discussing the role of social media and specifically lessons learned about aid and development bloggers.

Please note that these notes are really raw and I am asking for a little bit of forgiveness for errors, incomplete thoughts and quick reactions.  I have never thought about the use of social media in a more complete context, so these notes are very much early thought-bursts.  Feedback is very welcome and encouraged.


The limitation of social media must be acknowledged from the start.  The majority of users are those that fall into the donor class.  This group here represents many organizations who are genuinely interested in improving the use of their social media, but we are using the platforms from here and not where programs are being implemented.  The greater the access the greater the influence.  Access to cell phones and internet continues to grow at a rapid rate, but social media is not being used to the same extent. However, there is promise.  People in Nairobi send more text messages sent per day than people New York City.  Reminders sent via text message have shown the ability to improve outcomes.

Benefits of social media:
1.       Storytelling -> Conversation
a.       Social media allows for the movement from telling individual stories to engaging in a lengthy and winding conversation.  Think of going from Aesop to Pluto.  Both provide information, but reveal it in entirely different ways.  Aesop used short stories to highlight a moral while Plato relied on conversation.  Socrates would connect with his audience and move the conversation based on both the questions asked and the direction he wanted to lead his audience.  Social media demands consistency and allows conversation. 
2.       Feedback Loop
a.       Right now I can get feedback from this very talk.  Your tweets can and should be adding commentary to this event.  It allows you to have a set of easily accessible notes, provide me feedback and share what you are learning and how you implement what you already know with your audience.  In addition, if you are following the hash tag, you can see what others are saying.  From there you can retweet, comment and/or converse.  Maybe you have a better idea that you share and someone else likes it.  They respond and the two or more of you chat about it after the conference.  You can then source your audience for questions and ideas surrounding what you have shared or what I have said.
b.      Now, imagine this being used by your staff.  Say you have someone attending the Commission on the Status of Women in New York next week.  That person can live tweet all of the events, which you can be following in HQ and then share via your organizational social media sites.  You then are also able to send them questions that they could ask a speaker or panel.  Or why not source questions from your audience.  Say that so and so is speaking and if anyone has a question that they want to be asked.  Understanding the limitations, this can be applied to community meetings taking place in Tanzania and Peru and Cambodia.  You can be providing immediate information from your programs to yourself and your audience.  Then we start hearing, not the voice of the elite and those removed, but the people that our programs and interventions are meant to reach.
c.       A practical example of this Ushahidi.  Developed in Kenya because of the post-election violence in early 2008.  The tool allows people to make reports using text messages.  InterAction has developed a tool for Haiti where you can go and see which programs are being operated and where.  World Bank has is in the middle of a mobile application contest to use their data in a way which can be easily shared.  Google allowed people in Egypt to tweet through voicemail. In these examples, we are able to track what is taking place where right as it happens and it is not limited to the wealthier.
d.      The feedback, from the programming side, will allow for accountability during the execution of programs.  Since staff will be expected to make regular updates HQ will have an easier time knowing what is happening.  From the side of donors, this is valuable as the growth of a program can be better understood.  This will begin to introduce the work that goes into implementation without having to bore your audience.

Introduce concept and method.
The winners:
a.       Best Picture - Duncan McNicholl
b.      Best Debate - 1 Million Shirts
c.       Best News Article - Bill Easterly
d.      Best in Snark - Aid Watch
e.      Best Twitter - Owen Barder
f.        Best Series - Texas in Africa
g.       Best New Blog - Shotgun Shack AND Find What Works
h.      Post of the Year - Owen Barder
i.         Blogger of the Year - Chris Blattman
Lessons learned from the ABBAs:
1.       Individuals
2.       Experts
a.       Field Experience
b.      Academic
3.       Regular Contributors
a.       Successful users of social media are providing consistent content.   Personally, I have seen a jump in visitors by simply posting every day.  To be more precise, my traffic has doubled since I have made this effort.  I have gone to shorter posts that get to the point and will often just post videos or photos that are interesting with little or no commentary.  Twitter is roughly the same as I would suggest the ideal is to have 5 to 10 tweets a day.  This excludes tweets that promote new content which should be sent out throughout the day to reach people at different times.  The rest of them can be content that is not your own, but people followers will grow if you provide useful information.
4.       Conversational Tone
a.       Posts that are on the casual side are comforting to readers.  It encourages more discussions that are higher quality.  Posts should be written not as if they are the absolute answer, but as a thought of a much larger conversation.   This gives you the room to expand upon the idea in future posts, does not appear confrontational or strident, and encourages readers to contribute and share the post.
5.       Unfettered Writing
a.       In all instances, the winners were able to be honest about their thoughts on subjects.  This can be attributed to the fact that they were either anonymous or an academic, but these bloggers are the ones who have a strong audience and one which makes thoughtful contributions.  It is a model which the Guardian Development site has seemingly tried to emulate since they too can be more direct.
b.      When considering organizations that have been able to use social media well, they generally have individuals who bring personality and strong thoughts.  The Center for Global Development is one which has separate spaces for various experts where they can comment on recent events and their research.  The overall site houses the work and it is then promoted by the individual bloggers as well as the organizational twitter account.  A reader interested in microfinance can connect to David Roodman by reading his tweets and posts which will then lead that person to the CGDev website.  Scott Harrison of Charity: Water serves as another example.  He is a big personality and has used social media to great effect.  Most notably, he makes videos as the wells are being installed in rural communities and has tracks the wells using GPS devices.  The videos are almost immediately uploaded and shared with those whose money made that well happen.  Donors get pictures of the wells and the GPS information immediately.  For the first time, donors can see the impact of their money in a meaningful way without having to leave home.  
6.       Interactive/Responsive
a.       Address reader comments and questions.
b.      For example, Professor Easterly began to have richer comments and discussions as he and other Aid Watch bloggers began to engage in some of the comments, questions and criticisms from readers.
                                                               i.      This then leads into follow up posts, updates, further information and conversation.

Case Studies
1.       Invisible Children
2.       World Vision