KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

8 uses for social media in aid work

with 10 comments

As a follow up to my previous post “the future of (aid) work is social”, I wanted to elaborate a little on some of the specific areas where social media and social technologies are being or could be applied in development work. I’ve identified 8 different purposes for which these could be used, some of which are widely applied already, and others where there is much less experience but which I believe have tremendous potential.

It’s worth enumerating these since attention is often focussed on a few of these, especially the first three where there is a lot of information and expertise – but the other uses also important and should be considered by aid organizations who are developing  their social media strategy. It is also important to think about these uses when developing social media policy in order to ensure that the policy allows and fosters the greatest possible benefit can be made of these.

So here’s my list:

1. External communication – getting the word out about what your organization does:, what are the issues you are working on, why are they important, what are you doing, and what are you achieving.

2. Campaigning – taking it to the next level, raising public awareness and engaging them in taking action  about a particular issue whether it be HIV/AIDS, homophobia or child abuse. Many examples of this look at advocacy in the developed world, but there are also notable examples in the developing world too.

3. Fundraising – social media s being used increasingly as a means to raise funds, or as a means to drive people to contribute in more traditional ways.

There are lots of examples of these three uses that are well documented and shared, and there are a large number of consultants, experts and boutique firms (and a few charlatans) that specialize in these, so I don’t have anything intelligent to add to what’s already been said by others on these. They are “bread and butter”.

4. Civic engagement  this goes beyond advocacy to engage people to work collaboratively using social media to take action to improve their lives. This is not just mobilizing people to a cause but also facilitating real participation such that the direction taken and actions pursued are the work of the group, not done at the direction of an outside campaigner. Here the role of aid organizations  is to empower, provide tools, training and support rather than to persuade and direct.  Examples of this are projects such as Map Kibera a community mapping project or Sharek961 (election monitoring in Lebanon).

5. Real time data collection and response  in crisis – this is an emerging field which includes some notable examples such as Ushahidi, but which also has been the subject of some controversy. The UN Global Pulse project has been set up to  develop ways of doing this effectively  – there was a good discussion on this at the recent OpenUN panel during social media week.

6. Knowledge sharing and collaboration –  this takes place within organizations and between them. This is the bit I work on. It’s important to note that this collaboration is between individuals within organizations, not between organizations or organizational units themselves. This is what is often referred to in the private sector as Enterprise 2.0 or social business. Doing this requires a combination of development of single agency or cross agency platforms to support communities and networks, and use of public tools such as Twitter and Facebook. There are numerous challenges including cultural change in getting seasoned aid workers to move from e-mail into using these more open and realtime tools. There are also tensions between wanting to keep discussions internal to an organization in order to allow people to talk more freely and be less worried on how what they say reflects on the organization, and the benefits of being more open and being able to tap into the much wider and deeper pool of knowledge beyond the organizational boundaries. The aim of this work is to facilitate aid work by giving people access to data, knowledge, expertise and advice in real time to support them to do their work. This part is often overlooked in social media strategies which concentrate on bringing in money and keeping the message under control.

7. Creating online markets for common production – using social media to connect together people who can work together, or providing ways to share data, ideas, code towards the common good. Examples of this might be support for open source software development, hackathons, open data, open publishing, open innovation. This is, in a way, an extension of the use for knowledge sharing, but much less directed. Here the results of the collaboration are not just  the support of existing business processes and priorities but creation of new opportunities and tools which go beyond the contribution or intent of any individual or organizational contributor but create a common good to development that others can later adapt and use.

8. Accountability and beneficiary feedback – this is a really exciting, but also challenging application of social media. Many private companies, and also increasingly governments are using social media to get feedback on the quality and relevance of their offerings, to respond to complaints and to crowdsource ideas about how to improve them. But in the aid business this tends to focus on providing feedback and accountability to donors, or the media and to crowdsource ideas from academia or business startups based in the developed world – probably because that’s where the technology is, and where the money is. But what is good for donors and innovators might not be what is needed or what will work for beneficiaries. To ensure true accountability, as well as increasing the likelihood that projects will be practical and respond to real needs, there is a need to find ways to make our work more accountable in programme countries both to beneficiaries and the local partners we work with. This is an area where experience is limited  – but where approaches and lessons from civic engagement and real-time response could be highly useful. This can also be politically challenging as so far the pressures to be accountable to donors are much greater than those to be accountable to those who we are trying to help.

Examples in this area are few – something I plan to research more in the coming months. Do any of you know of any good examples of organizations who do this, or tools and approaches that have been used successfully whether for an organization as a whole, or for specific projects?

I’d be interested to get your feedback on these uses, and whether you think there are any important uses I’ve overlooked.


Written by Ian Thorpe

March 14, 2011 at 2:50 pm

10 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Hi Ian,
    Again a well researched list. My first reaction was, ‘geeeh, where to find the audiences?’ and then ‘but they are all about money’; even when free the consumer has to pay (for the connection). And then I re-read especially number 6: quote “This part is often overlooked in social media strategies which concentrate on bringing in money and keeping the message under control.” I thought underlined my point.
    Today I heard on a TV show twitter was faster to warn for the Tsunami in Japan than the warning systems and probably saved lives! I guess that is a non-planned use of Twitter…
    Altogether, as for an aid organizations developing their social media strategy, before jumping to applications as you mention, I advice to forget about ‘keeping the message under control’, hire some enthusiasts and embrace the IT supported communication complexity; it will not go away!
    To keep it running good content – a good message – , also next month / year will be decisive for success.
    Best, Jaap

    W.J. Pels

    March 14, 2011 at 3:47 pm

  2. Ian, this is really helpful post. It makes much more concrete and therefore understandable the otherwise (for me) rather bland statement that “social media can help”.
    I could nod my assent to all eight potential uses, but with a big caveat: social media are – at least in developing countries, but I suspect everywhere – mostly accessible and used by the better off (in some countries a small elite).
    If you are in uses 1, 3 and some of 5 (and some of 2), then that’s fine. And if your “beneficiaries” from whom you want feedback are, indeed, donors and (I suppose) media than it’s OK. But the beneficiaries, the development partners on the ground, especially the most disadvantaged (on whom UNICEF concentrates) are precisely the people who will not be tapping into Facebook or tweeting. This is, I suppose, part of the issue that the person whose blog you linked to (I can’t find her/his name) had with Ushahadi.

    The other area of knowledge sharing and – ultimately – collaboration (I think you’re right they are a continuuum), does hold potential but is – as you point out – very hard to get going. Whilst appreciating the sentiment of your previous respondent, as you know I feel strongly that we can’t just “work out loud” – our contervailing blog posts have that discussion. We do need a “safe” inside environment (although even ‘inside’ is not always ‘safe’), as well as a broader communication and collaboration. That’s why (perhaps?) you hve internal and external blog posts (though I bet your external get more traction)!

    Mark Hereward

    March 15, 2011 at 1:54 am

    • Mark – thanks for the feedback.

      I agree that use of social media to interact with beneficiaries is the most challenging, especially when trying to reach the most marginalized. That’s one of the reasons why there are few examples of it. There are some people trying to do this using a blend of different technologies such as SMS and free call hotlines and combining these with internet and also possibly offline more traditional approaches – but this area has a long way to go. Doing this kind of thing with local partner organizations to get their feedback on our work is more feasible though if we can devise simple ways to do it.

      On internal versus external knowledge sharing – while you know I advocate for a “live out loud” approach we are not there yet and people generally feel much more comfortable sharing internally. I think in the beginning at least we need to foster both. There are also discussions which might be more appropriately done inside an organization because they are internal issues which aren’t relevant for others and to which the knowledge is in house, or more rarely something that really needs to be kept more private. I do think that right now the balance is too much in the favour of caution, and that many internal discussions could greatly benefit from outside expertise. That’s exactly why I have an internal and external blog (whose contents are remarkably similar!) and yes, I do get richer interactions on my external blog, sometimes even from people in my own organization 😉

      Ian Thorpe

      March 15, 2011 at 6:52 am

      • I am quite excited about the idea of using SMS technoglogy (which is quite widespread) to hear from people. I liked the first applications I heard (tracking bednets and monitoring nutritional status) but haven’t found a good place to apply it in my work. I will keep cudgelling my brain on that one

        Mark Hereward

        March 15, 2011 at 9:38 am

  3. […] 8 uses for social media in aid work – Google’s quest to build a better boss – […]

    • Hi Ian,
      Thank you very much for this valuable list. There are many aspects which could be discussed. Let me focus on one, the “real time” issue:
      Under no.6 you say: “The aim of this work is to facilitate aid work by giving people access to data, knowledge, expertise and advice in real time to support them to do their work.” My questions might seem a bit heretical but I think we shouldn’t be afraid to pose them: What is the real gain of “real time” in this context? What would real time social media provide that classic phones in combination with email could not?
      Similar under No.8: Why is “real time” important “to make our work more accountable (…) to beneficiaries and the local partners we work with”?
      Here you’ll find an example how simple sms technology can be helpful: I know you are not saying that social media is the solution for everything. But this example shows that what is intended through social media can be done through much simpler and easier accessible technologies.

      Tobias Dierks

      April 4, 2011 at 4:26 pm

      • Tobias – thanks for the reply. glad to see work colleagues are also reading my blog!

        In terms of 6. knowledge sharing – the advantage of real time is that I might have limited time to make important decisions and it’s very useful to be able to get data, advice and guidance in order to make better informed choices and plans. Telephone and e-mail obviously help in this circumstance, but only if you know exactly who to ask and if you don’t want a multi-party discussion about it. If you use e-mail it naturally excludes who ever is not on the e-mail chain in the first place or whoever gets dropped from the chain mid discussion, and keeping track of the various threads afterwards and making sense of it can be extremely difficult. With a phone call – again it’s limited to whoever is able to join the call at whatever time you schedule it. In practice you often need knowledge – but you don’t know exactly who has got it and is willing/available to share it with you.
        Social media trumps mail/phone in that you can get access to a much wider range of expertise and you can have a dynamic exchange about it – but without annoying people through mass e-mailing. Think about this comment thread. It’s much more dynamic and open than if you had just sent me an e-mail, and may potentially get inputs from unexpected sources – and to think if I’d e-mailed it for comment I might have missed you from the distribution list!

        In terms of accountability: you are right that social media is not the only means of holding governments and aid organizations accountable to citizens. My point was that it holds a lot of underexploited promise for this purposes. SMS based technologies are important in this respect – but what is really interesting is when SMS collected data is aggregated and adds or links to social features – in particular so that people can not only contribute but also see and react to the contributions of others or connect together with other contributors. The important part about accountability for me is external accountability i.e. that citizens can report on the quality/relevance of services and also see and react to what others have reported – and also giving staff of organizations direct possibility to interact with beneficiaries about their projects in a more spontaneous way that through focus groups or planned meetings. This is also much more transparent than bilateral phone calls or e-mails since people can see which are the hot issues and how well the organization has responded to them. SMS (and phone help lines or helpdesk e-mail boxes, suggestion boxes) can be a great way of collecting feedback but they don’t give the same degree of interaction unless the collected information is publicly shared and responded to – and social media is a way of both speeding up the data collection – but also making this into a conversation rather than the usual collect data- analyze data – write report- respond to report cycle.

        Ian Thorpe

        April 4, 2011 at 5:03 pm

  4. Hi Ian, this is an awesome list, which clearly shows how much room for improvement there is for development organizations to leverage social media for their work, beyond the obvious bread & butter applications.One item I might add (although it closely relates to item 7) is the future potential for crowd-sourced markets, not necessarily for targeted production of a specific outcome, but for leveraging ideas and input for decision making in the development world. This could be a “development version” of Q&A websites like or, but also internal Enterprise 2.0 mechanisms such as idea markets or prediction markets within or across large organizations. We haven’t even come close yet to realize the potential of asking the crowd for input to management or policy decisions.

    Johannes Schunter

    April 6, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    • An excellent list indeed, thank you Ian. It’s very useful to disaggregate types of uses into categories that are easy to understand, which among other things encourages advancing on some of those uses that a person, dept or organization may find applicable (and feasible!) to their work. I guess I have a kind of engineering mind-set, but it’s nothing serious … 😉

      I’m particularly interested in efforts to improve collaboration in development cooperation work, a kind of ‘intelligent collaboration’ if I can say so, taking advantage of any possible resources and bits of process know-how possible (including, certainly, an optimum use of ICTs). In my research about network cooperation there are strong links to most of the items above, and in particular to 5, 6 and 7. In particular, I´m finding that development networks that focus on enabling collaboration among their members tend to be more effective than those where a coordination unit (or a strong node) centralize a lot of the network-related activities.

      And while we are talking about innovative ways to take advantage of collaborative products, I’m gradually introducing fora threads like this one, with well reasoned to’s and fro’s, in the class materials I provide to students in a couple of Masters on Development where I teach. If it’s ok, I´ll introduce this particular thread in 2011-2012 classes, and thank you to all the contributors to it 🙂

      Manuel Acevedo

      Manuel Acevedo

      August 9, 2011 at 9:21 am

  5. […] An area that is only mentioned in passing in the report is the use of social media (outside use of SMS based systems). I’m not sure whether that’s because few of the organizations they looked at are using them. Use of social media tools to get feedback on products and services is now widely practiced by companies and more and more by developed country governments – but aid examples are still very thin on the ground – in part no doubt due to the fact that most of the we hope to hear from don’t have access to social media – but perhaps also because aid organizations have yet to embrace and seriously experiment with this approach. It would be great to see more organizations experiment with this, particularly in middle income countries where usage is growing, and to document and share this experience. (see my previous post  8 uses for social media in aid work) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: