Should local NGOs use information system developed by international counterparts?

When I attended a meetup in London early of this year, I had a discussion with colleagues who develop an information system for global communities. In sort, they endorsed that local NGOs (in this case Indonesia) to adopt and use their system. Part of the arguments was the system is available for anyone for free. Presumably, instead of reinventing the wheel, why not use the existing system?

Whilst I agree that adopting the system could be beneficials for an organisation (i.e. cost, time, usability), particularly for a local NGO with limited resources, I wouldn’t advice using a system simply because it’s free. Hidden and intangible costs should be taken into account.

Looking back from my experience working in Indonesia, I advised my organisations to use both options – depending on circumstances. Here are some considerations that can help you to decide whether developing or adopting an information system.

  • Ownership — The big Q whether an organisation should develop or adopt (e.g. purchase, use FOSS) is who will develop, manage, use, and own the system (including the data). Stakeholder analysis can help to understand and map out political situations of involving actors (e.g. within the organisation, partners, and target users). If decided to use existing system hosted abroad, stakeholders need to be aware of the practice and consequences. What information is being collected, does privacy and data protection taken into place, and what is the national regulation about privacy and data protection — if any?
  • Suitability — The introduced system needs to meet with organisation requirements, resources, and objectives. To add, it is worth to check whether the system has been used in real world situation, in what scale, which country, and what are the results. Sometimes, the shinny new systems developed in Western World does not fit well because some basic constraints: high speed Internet requirement, unsupported technology, or duplicating (or competing?) with existing system.
  • Technical support — Availability of technical support, internal and/or external, is to ensure that the system is well-maintained, updated and bugs free. Ideally the organisation can train or recruit locally hired staff for day-to-day operational support. Relying completely on system provider or volunteers, who live thousands of miles away, in the event of technical glitch can be frustrating. Unless one-to-one technical support is included in the service, project team will struggle with issues like time difference and delayed response. For a local NGO in Indonesia with 7 or 12 hours faster than UK or US, it means one day work or more of waiting time.
  • Local translation— As for Indonesians, the system usually stores and presents information in local language, and whenever possible, with English as additional feature. Available in English only system is problematic for various reasons: trigger users resistance, contribute to misinterpreted information, create confusion, and disconnect target audiences.

I’d be interested to know your views. Do you agree for local NGOs to not develop their own information system? Feel free to comment below.

I initially published this article on Medium, 28 March 2016