The Engine Room 2018 Retro­spective

2018 has been a year of transition at The Engine Room, not only in leadership, but also in how we work as an organisation. Our focus was on strengthening our foundations, including by completing a smooth leadership transition, and I’m proud that we’ve done that in many different ways.

We ended 2018 as a team of 16, with staff based on five continents. Together, we sharpened team and organisational strategies, honed internal processes to support well-being and built solutions to challenges. We hired our first team member based in Asia, developed an organisation-wide learning strategy, produced research on how data and technology can be used effectively and responsibly and provided direct support to more than 100 organisations.

As we grew, we reflected on how our evolution as a remote, international team has shaped our core values and how to hold ourselves accountable to these values. This year’s retrospective is shaped in large part by our organisational values, and we’re proud to share them publicly for the first time!

As I evolve in the role of Executive Director, I am constantly reminded of how much we owe to those who came before us and who support us externally – former team members who contributed with their hard work, co-founder Alix Dunn who shaped this team into who we are today with her intelligence and vision, and our wonderful partners and funders who trust and support us.

As ever, our digital door is open, and we all welcome your thoughts, comments and questions.

- Julia Keseru, Executive Director

A note on our values

In the sections below, explore the work we did with partners in 2018 as it relates to our core values of:

  • Make space
  • Think critically and act intentionally
  • Embrace complexity
  • Hold everyone high
We are excited to publically share these values for the first time. Each one shapes the work we do, and this year they shape the stories we’re sharing as we look back at the year.

Make Space

We support emerging leaders, fight systemic inequities, balance humility with celebration and create structure to leave space for serendipity.

Organisational security through dialogue

As attacks against civil society increase across the globe, it is becoming more important that activists can defend themselves and their work. A SAFETAG fellowship gave us the opportunity to work with partners to improve their organisational security and emotional well-being. Through the work, we learned that organisational security audits are most successful when there is trust between both parties and when the whole organisation recognises the need for support.

We again saw how security is about more than protection. The partners we worked with adopted better security practices when they were also able explore the emotional aspects of their work, too, connecting organisational well-being to healthy growth. We learned so much in supporting our partners that we were inspired to lead a holistic organisational security session at our own staff retreat.

Monitoring political influence

As political corruption takes on new forms, civil society needs new tactics to fight back. Together with Ojo Público, we convened corruption experts from Latin America to discuss political influence and explore investigation methodologies and advocacy tactics. Supported by the Influence Mapping group, we created a space where participants exchanged ideas and built a shared understanding for future work around political influence. Together we created four methods to monitor politically exposed personsIndividuals who have access to state funds and may be prone to abuse of power. and use data for advocacy and communication. Participants and partners have shared and used these methods and are also training journalists covering political corruption using the same facilitation approach we designed with Ojo Público.

Making space by saying farewell

This year, we practiced making space in another big way, saying farewell to our former Executive Director and co-founder, Alix. When answering the question of why Alix was stepping down, we think her words put it best:

“For two main reasons. 1) We have considerable momentum and a bright, effective, and committed team in place that is well positioned for a transition; and 2) I believe that this community needs new (and more) leaders – and a primary way that happens is if people in positions of power move out of the way.”

Practicing what she preached, Alix made the way for new leaders to step up within The Engine Room and for us to continue growing.

Think Critically and Act Intentionally

We tackle problems first (tech second), achieve excellence through hard work and creativity, use methods that support our mission and are critical optimists.

Evaluating risks of biometric technology

When we began working with Oxfam on a responsible approach to biometric technologyTechnical systems to collect biometric data (such as fingerprints, face prints and iris scans) for authentication or identification of an individual., the organisation was coming to the end of their self-imposed moratorium on the use of biometrics in their programming. We interviewed experts from humanitarian agencies, academia, civil society and the private sector, and we organised a community call to gather opinions from the responsible data community. We found that there is widespread use of biometrics in development and humanitarian contexts, with diverse systems among different agencies, organisations and pilots. Ultimately, the clear, definite risks and inconsistent benefits of using this type of technology in humanitarian work convinced Oxfam not to deploy biometrics, except in some very clearly-defined use cases. Oxfam’s existing responsible program data policy also acted as a good guide as they made this decision.

Sharing funder data responsibly

Funders often want to be transparent about the programming they support, but in a climate that is hostile to civil society, publishing grantee information can turn organisations into targets. So, how can funders share grantee data responsibly? We worked with Ariadne and 360Giving to explore answers, and we published the resulting conversation guide in October. Geared toward funders and grantmakers interested in taking a responsible approach towards grantee data, Sharing data responsibly: A conversation guide for funders addresses data collection, storage and sharing and the challenges that doing these responsibly can bring. We’re happy to see that the guide is already being put to use by consultants and funders alike!

Upgrading our support, pinpointing impact

One of the key ways we provide support to partners is through Light Touch Support (LiTS)Quick, targeted support to social change organisations looking for answers to specific questions or input on data and tech projects.. In 2018, we offered targeted support to over 80 organisations looking for help on everything from implementing a tool across global offices to surveying schools in rural East Africa. We also were eager to create new internal documents to help us deliver LiTS even more effectively. We developed a set of guides and templates to help The Engine Room team members carry out LiTS and upgraded the way we ask for feedback. We also did a deep dive on impact, developing a framework that looks at the value of our support within the broader chain of impact that our partners already produce.

Embrace Complexity

We build strength through diversity, know that expertise comes in different shapes and sizes, believe everyone is an expert of their own experience, and prioritise impact over ease.

Co-creating a grounded programme strategy

At their most useful, strategies can connect broad programme goals to on-the-ground needs. But crafting a strategy that can actually respond to expressed needs isn’t a linear process. When we started working with Hivos’ Digital Defenders Partnership (DDP) to develop their next four-year strategy, we dove into this complexity by using participatory research methods. We didn’t only consult stakeholders, we also tried to make sure they were part of the production itself, creating knowledge that was useful for their own work. We worked with in-country researchers and at-risk communities in addition to working with DDP, striving to create a process that was useful and productive for everyone involved. Engaging such a diverse pool of collaborators allowed us to both create a targeted strategy and create value for everyone involved along the way.

Delving into digital security

Technology gives us superpowers – but it is also our Achilles heel. That’s why, together with the Ford Foundation, we took a close look at how civil society can strengthen their digital security practices, with a special focus on where grantee-funder relationships have room for conversation and improvement. We were excited to present our report on the findings of many months of research, and we also introduced a new format for sharing research findings: the Propeller Series. In the Series, we distilled the report into six easy-to-read emails that were sent over the course of six weeks. So far, more than 200 people have signed up to receive the emails, and it seems like our readers have loved the format!

Broadening our direct support

This year, we started strategising and planning for a new round of MatchboxThe Engine Room program offering intensive data and technology project support to partners partnerships, expanding our programme to include not just organisations working strictly on transparency and accountability, but those improving their social and political contexts more broadly. Expanding our call in this way was fruitful but not without challenges. It meant improving on our pipeline to guide applicants who may have been new to processes like these and creating an evaluation structure that was flexible across diverse contexts. We received nearly 100 applications from organisations in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, and we are eager to welcome six new partners into our next cohort. Congratulations to CELS (Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales), reAcción, and ACIJ (Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y Justicia) in Latin America and LAIC (Legal Advisory Information Center), KCSPOG (Kenya Civil Society Platform for Oil and Gas), and PPDC (Private Public Development Center) in Sub Saharan Africa!

Hold Everyone High

Creating responsible data policies

Over the past few years, as responsible data approaches have spread, we’ve seen more organisations move towards institutionalising their approach by introducing responsible data policies. This year, we supported Open Tech Fund and GIZ to develop responsible data policies. In both cases, we worked with their teams to build a picture of their current behaviours and biggest challenges regarding data. We were reinforced in our belief that for such policies to be successful, they need to be rooted in an institution’s existing values – so we made sure to frame key points around their respective values. For GIZ, we developed Responsible Data Guidelines – to support their global staff to work with their partners in a more responsible way – and a toolkit of practical materials to help with implementation. For Open Tech Fund, we produced an internal responsible data policy.

Fighting for migrant worker rights

Migrant workers around the world operate in contexts full of power asymmetries: between their recruiters, employers, various intermediaries and other migrant workers. Together with researchers Bassina Farbenblum, Laurie Berg and Angela Kintominas, and supported by the International Migration Initiative at Open Society Foundations, we examined the role that new technologies could have in the fight for rights and justice for migrant workers. Our focus was on the role responsible data has to play in this context. Ultimately, we identified several responsible data issues at play. From managing user expectations, to the importance of informed consent and sustainability, we saw echoes of our research findings from other sectors.

Balancing transparency and data protection

Beneficial ownershipBeneficial ownership is when the entity or individual that benefits from owning a company is different from the one listed on the legal title. can be used to hide illegal activities, through the use of opaque shell companies that make it hard for anyone to identify the ‘beneficial’ owner (or the one who benefits from ownership). The Engine Room partnered with OpenOwnership and The B Team to address how to balance beneficial ownership transparency and data protection. For example, given that beneficial owners are sometimes in different jurisdictions than their companies, disclosing personal data about the owners can violate data protection laws. Our research used a rights-based approach and tackled questions around ways to publish beneficial ownership data while mitigating potential impact to privacy. It was a challenge to find this balance, but we see it as critical for tackling illegal financial activity in a way that recognises responsible data principles. We presented the early findings at the International Anti-Corruption Conference in Copenhagen in October 2018, and the report will be out in early 2019.

Illustration of where we traveled this year

Who, what and where of 2018

This year, we traveled to 28 different countries (check out where above) and went to dozens of events. We ended the year with a core team of 16, based on five continents.

Peek into what our year looked like below!

🕸 70,000
website visits
🐦 40%
more Twitter followers
🗣 17
languages spoken
📝 61
blog posts
☕️ 5,000+
cups of coffee
📚 300+
new books acquired
🌱 120+
new plants
🐕 1
new pet
🥔 250
potatoes harvested

This year, our work was grant-funded by:

Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Oak Foundation, Omidyar Network, Open Society Foundations, Sigrid Rausing Trust and Yoti Foundation.

We worked on projects with:

NRGI, Betterplace Labs, Oxfam, Rainforest Foundation Norway Radio Free Asia, Open Technology Fund, SAFETAG, Ariadne, Columbia Law School, GIZ, The B Team, the ONE Campaign and, among others.

And we collaborated with many wonderful consultants including:

Alice Powell, Ana Carolina Lourenço, Ángel López, Carly Nyst, Catalina Margozzini, Chris Michael (Collaborations for Change), Ed Rekosh, Fieke Jansen, Fundacion Acceso (regional team), Gabi Ivens, Isabel Ann Castro, James Middleton, Jonas Voigt, Juan Arellano Valdivia, Kate Fisher, Keith Porcaro, Laura Walker McDonald, Leticia Santanna, Luti Guedes, Madeleine Maxwell, Mario Felaco, Olaoluwa Akinloluwa, Ozren Muic, Regiel Arcon, Sarah Aoun, Swati Mehta, Tahir Sherriff and Tom Parker. Special thanks to Dimitrios Stamatis for illustrating this year's retrospective.

What's Next?

I am excited to lead this team into our next phase as we explore new ways to create a more open, equitable and just world. With civil society under attack across the globe, we will focus much of our work on improving organisational security practices to help activists strengthen their operations. We are eager to work hard to increase technical intuition among our partners around when and how to apply data and technology in their work.

- Julia Keseru, Executive Director