Since 2016, NDItech has been jointly implementing the “TechCivica” initiative together with our Latin America team. Funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, the program seeks to bring together representatives of civil society, government, media, academia, and the private sector to discuss common challenges with regard to citizen security, transparency and accountability, and the various ways that technology can utilized to develop solutions. NDI held its first event in Mexico in March and planned the second event for Guatemala, which has emerged over the past couple of years as a hub for tech innovation, anti-corruption initiatives, and government transparency in the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras). For the last three months, the team (including its partners from Habla Centro and NVA Labs) has been hard at work organizing this event in Guatemala City, which is where I traveled to see our efforts come to fruition. The following is a general overview of the conference as it took place.
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Day 1: August 25, 2017
7:00 AM - Up and at ‘em bright and early to get the final details in place, including bringing the “premium” office supplies I brought from DC down to the conference room. Apparently the Post-it™ brand flip chart paper that sticks to the wall is not available down here, and as anyone who has used it can attest - there really is no other substitute. Naturally an attempt to use the hotel’s business office to print out paper copies of our registration forms (created in Google Docs) resulted in needing to convert the file to multiple formats before we were successful. Not sure why it has taken me so long to download LibreOffice for my non-Word capable Mac, but this has now become a priority. Exactly what I wanted to spend 30 minutes on as we’re rushing to get started.
9:05 AM - In true conference fashion, we’re running behind schedule already. One of the key challenges in Guatemala - as in so many other capital cities - is the traffic. So, delayed arrivals could be due to that, or it could be also the political rallies taking place right now related to the President’s controversial attempt while he’s at the UN to fire the head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). We decide to get started though, and the ice breaking activity begins (getting to know your neighbor). The first day today is dedicated to setting the stage for the Design Camp tomorrow, where participants will form teams to work through potential project ideas.
10:20 AM - Thank goodness for the coffee break - especially since it’s Guatemalan coffee and is delicious by default. I sacrificed breakfast earlier this morning to deal with the aforementioned last-minute printing requirements, as well as negotiations with the hotel about the exact number of microphones and projectors we needed (i.e. not nearly as many as they want to charge us for), so the pastries are a welcome sight.
11:00 AM - Time for the speedgeeking sessions! I have been armed first with an alert system consisting of a glass and fork, then replaced with an actual bell proffered by the hotel staff (no doubt concerned about keeping their glassware intact). We launch into rounds of 5 min speed geeking sessions (really only 4.5 mins...shhh). As a non-fluent Spanish speaker (read: I haven’t formally studied the language since the last century), this is probably my best chance to take a visible role in the proceedings. We hadn’t included this component in the Mexico event, but there’s definitely value in having folks be able to move rapidly around the room learning about different projects and keeps the energy levels high. We had initially considered Ignite-style talks instead, but I’m really glad we went with the idea of keeping people moving. As a bonus, with only 3-4 people moving between groups, it’s much more awkward to pull out your phone and do other things when you are only separated from the presenter by a couple of feet or so. :)
12:15 PM - For both the Mexico and Guatemala events, we identified folks up front who could present on different tech-based training topics pertinent to the overall event theme. On the docket today we’ve got a variety of sessions, including those on blockchain, blogging, data visualization and more. Another key difference between this event and the last one was that the trainings this time are much less technical in nature - and more of broad introductions to certain technology themes. In Mexico, participants could do a deep dive into R, but here for example, we’re talking about mapping as a way to publically preserve memories of the past conflicts in Guatemala (see this cool project funded by Deutsche Welle).
1:30 PM - There’s a clear winner in terms of maintaining a rapt audience. Going a full 25 minutes past the point of lunch being served (and others eating around them in the same room), those taking part in Blockchain/Bitcoin session were remarkably dedicated to getting through the presentation in full.
3:15 PM - Second session of trainings is now complete (except for...the blockchain training of course, which continued past the allotted time once again). Now we go into how to a create a problem statement, exploring different themes related to the day’s earlier discussions. Energy waning perhaps a bit after lunch, but some facilitator-led stretching gets them moving again.
5:45 PM - And that’s a wrap for the first day! The hotel is chomping at the bit for us to vacate the room so they can set up for a fiesta tonight, which apparently will include a disco ball. While we originally had envisioned that we’d split up participants among 7 different problems (or themes), folks ultimately ended up coalescing around 4. Like most conferences, continual adjustment to the structure and schedule is necessary (and normal) - the key thing is making sure we’re responsive to the needs of the participants.
Day 2: August 26, 2017
10:00 AM - Design Camp! As usual for the second day of an event (and for a Saturday), folks were slow to roll in. Yesterday we heard that a big protest was planned for this afternoon that many of the attendees were interested in attending. This prompted some discussion about changing the agenda to accommodate early departures, so we decide to cut one of the of the sessions to move the finish time up a bit. It seemed important and relevant, considering that NDI’s whole mission is to promote civic activism and responsive democracy. Today’s “Design Camp” structure has folks dividing up into groups to work intensively through a problem to come up with a potential “prototype” project that they will present to a panel of judges later in the day. We’ve structured it to not simply just dive into the topic, but to proceed through different design phases, such as ideation, developing user personas, and prototyping.
2:00 PM - We’ve got five groups now, working through their potential ideas. In addition to our in-person facilitators, we’ve got another facilitator available on Skype who had planned to attend in person, but wasn’t able to at the last minute. She’s led folks through these types of prototype exercises before (including at our Mexico event) and even though she’s only with us via a computer screen (often carried from table to table), she’s serving as a valuable resource to attendees.
3:00 PM - Prototype presentation time! Wow, we start off with a dramatic interpretation by one team of a poor citizen/government experience, which if nothing else, demonstrates their role-playing skills. Each team has five minutes to present, with time afterwards for questions from the judges. Our Skype-based facilitator is having trouble hearing/seeing the action though, and Google Hangouts is not being particularly cooperative either, but we muddle through.
3:45 PM - Called away to try to take care of payments to the hotel (and to go through a lengthy back and forth about exact # of rooms/nights we were being charged for), I make it back in time to see the end of the final presentation - a proposal for high-speed internet kiosks in rural areas.
4:45 PM - Following another coffee break (yay, Guatemalan coffee) - the judges give their evaluations of the project presentations, which included things as basic as whether they introduced themselves and the name of project to the judges, to more complex elements, such as whether they outlined what a pilot phase would like like, and how would it eventually scale. The kiosk project emerged as the big winner - the top pick of all judges.
5:30 PM - Group photos, clean-up, and a sense of relief! Despite concerns about attrition throughout the day due to the planned protest, most of those who started out with us remained until we finished. There seemed to be a sense of excitement at the end - and promises to remain connected to one another (at least through the group’s WhatsApp channel). My colleagues did an amazing job riding herd on logistics, planning, and organization throughout both the planning phase and the event itself. A key consideration for all events of this nature though is whether you have the ability to follow-up with those who invested their time to come participate. These inter-sector relationships are what we hope to help cultivate though the TechCivica program, but just like a technology-based project, network building requires ample care and feeding to be successful. As we sort through the evaluations from this event and conduct an event post-mortem in the coming week, these are the sorts of issues we hope to address. For now, it’s time to go celebrate everyone’s hard work!