(And what we learned from them.)
As a Societal Platform, Reap Benefit aims to bring about systemic change at scale. What is the Societal Platform approach to change?
‘Imagine an environment where actors from civil society, government and markets can combine their efforts towards a unified purpose. And as they co-create diverse and sustainable solutions, they add to what is a dynamic, ever-evolving resource base. In time, the solutions and knowledge assets diversify, as their impact grows exponentially.’
Over the years, Reap Benefit was intuitively aligned itself to certain core principals of Societal Platform Thinking. From activating young citizens with the skills and inspiration needed to become local problem solvers, to using technology to co-create, build and share solutions to building a supportive eco-system around them consisting of partner organisations, local government agencies and civil society at large.
However, over the last couple of years as we have become a Societal Platform mission, this thinking has found more nuanced and sharper expression in our work, especially in the way we use technology to amplify our efforts.
Reap Benefit’s tech team talks about the organisation’s tech origins, evolution and future plans, and how our tech platforms strive to reflect the core values of Societal Platform thinking.
What’s been the role of technology at Reap Benefit?
As an organisation, we believe in engaging youth to solve local problems with the vision that they are the local problem solvers in their neighbourhood. We believe technology is a great enabler in building what we call the civic muscle of the young people we work with.
Technology has helped us bridge gaps, scale and amplify work and create a network of stakeholders who can interact with each other.
Bridging gaps When we first started working with young people we noticed that there was often an aspirational gap, a knowledge gap and/or a big picture gap amongst youngsters. A young person may not understand why they have to solve a problem, how they can solve the problem, what they have to do to solve the problem or even what the impact might be in solving the problem. Technology has helped us bridge these gaps between mentors and mentees and even acting as a running mate to mentees in their problem solving journey.
Amplification of work Technology has allowed us to amplify the work of our problem solvers and scale across geographies. Anyone, anywhere can replicate solutions to problems in their community by seeing what someone somewhere else has already done. Why reinvent the wheel when a functioning solution exists?
Nurturing networks Thirdly, we use technology to allow multiple stakeholders within our network to interact with young problem solvers and each other. When you have a digital platform, it opens up the scope for partners, other nonprofits and government to engage with youth.
Over the years we have invested heavily in leveraging technology for solving real world problems.
How has Reap Benefit’s use of technology evolved over the years?
We first started using technology to keep in touch with the young people we worked with so that we could continue to engage with them, keep them updated about what was happening and encourage them to continue problem solving within their communities.
However, as we communicated with our young problem solvers (called Solve Ninjas), we realised they would often come back to us with questions which opened up the opportunity to further empower them. For example we would say ‘Tomorrow is World Water Day. Do you want to do something?’ or ‘It’s October 2 can we do something together as a group or class?’
As our Solve Ninjas started responding to these nudges they also started sharing their actions with others. This was in line with the second S of our problem solving technique DISS — Discover-Investigate-Solve- Share.
We realised that communities and knowledge bases were forming, but we had to build a more scalable knowledge and mentoring asset through technology.
So we built the Solve Ninja App.
While the Solve Ninja App did help Solve Ninjas crowdsource local data, solutions and campaigns, we realised it had a few shortcomings.
The Solve Ninja app enabled great community interaction however it did not do enough when it came to one-on-one engagement either in terms of providing the next set of steps to be taken by a Solve Ninja or nudging them to follow up. Also, everything on the app was in the public domain. There was no privacy between a mentor and mentee.
The other challenge with the Solve Ninja app was that it was a new app which had to be installed on devices. We found that in many cases the youth preferred to use something already on their parents device like Whatsapp to engage with us. This also made sense as Whatsapp is already on a majority of mobile phones and that would make it scalable in the future when we want to work with anyone in this country using youth as a foundation.
We also realised that as a Societal Platform, we needed to bring other stakeholders like Sarkaar, Samaaj and Bazaar onto the platform. It was this societal mission thinking along with otherthat nudged us towards building an open civic platform.
What is the open civic platform?
The open civic platform comprises of a WhatsApp chatbot, a web app and a civic forum.
The chatbot allows one-on-one interaction for first time users who are just about to embark on their problem solving journey. We give them challenges, inspiration, tools and tips to start solving problems. The chatbot also provides a safe space where they can ask questions without wondering what the larger community might think.
The web app will bring communities together around centralised issues with more nudges for action taking, with case studies built in and skill set certification in place to measure what is happening at the individual skill level. On the web app, other organisations and partners can come on board and engage with youth in their specific domains of expertise.
The civic forum will act as a digital space where citizens can come to learn from others about citizen engagement strategies, tried and tested solutions to problems and public policy. You can read more about it here.
This is how tech has evolved over the years.
We see it evolving further into multi channel engagement where content generated on the Whatsapp chatbot can also be viewed on the Webapp or forum or any other future tech that comes up.
Tell us more about the chatbot.
We hope the chatbot will achieve two things: for the first time user a set of simplified steps and for repeat users a variety of challenges that are engaging and fun. (Read how we used the WhatsApp chatbot on Independence Day 2020 to gamify problem solving.)
Secondly, it allows massive amount of decentralisation and communitisation so that anyone with WhatsApp has equal access to information as long as know how to write certain key words.
Currently the Chatbot provides challenges, inspiration, mentorship in a safe space for any youth. In the future we want the chatbot to be smart enough so that once someone starts using a set of keywords it guides the conversation.
For example, someone wants to report a pothole.
Chatbot: Hi whats up?
User: I want to report a problem
Chatbot: What’s the problem?
User: A pothole
Chatbot: Do you have a photo?
User: Sends the photo
Chatbot: Can you share the location of the pothole?
User: Sends the location.
Chatbot: Have you or anyone else been affected?
User: Me and my mom were on a scooty on a dark rainy night and we rode over the pothole. I thought we would have an accident.
The chatbot can then generate a report that goes to the local government representative and agency who can look into the matter.
What are Reap Benefit’s next plans with regards to technology?
We will be launching the webapp soon which will
- enable citizens to report local assets and any sort of solutions, ideas and issues.
- It will engage communities to create solutions to the problems they face and allow them to read up on what others have done with the power of tech.
- It will also enable users to link to the chat bot and get one on one mentoring
- It can direct them to the forum for expert mentoring
- Query data and view analytics.
What have been the challenges in getting stakeholders on board?
Getting Samaaj, Sarkaar and Bazaar onto a platform is complicated because they all have their takes on what is the cause of a problem and what the responsibilities of different stakeholders in the ecosystem are. Each has their own set of expectations.
For example, Samaaj may say here is a problem we need you to fix. Imagine if you’re a citizen there’s a good chance you just want your problem solved. Nonprofits may want the government to make policy changes to ensure a problem is solved. The government may say why don’t you figure out your own way of crowdsourcing to solve the issue?
However situations in which stakeholders work collaboratively to solve problems are there. During the initial Covid19 lockdown there was a gap in rations. Nonprofits did investigative studies to look at why this was and it emerged that those with cards had already bought their rations so the shops were closing early. When this was discovered, the government changed the policy to allow those without a ration card to also purchase from he ration store.
Previously, while the government amplified the work we did (for example, the BBMP retweeted the eco Ganesha dashboard Pranav and Shriya built which led to more people using it) of late there has been more give and take. For example, with the chatbot the government shared details of fever clinic locations with us which we put on the chatbot.
We also foresee scenarios in which government agencies will be able to login to our platforms and leverage solve ninjas in their own communities by creating their own hyperlocal challenges.
What tech mistakes has Reap Benefit made along the way ?
Well, we thought a mobile app was a great place to start but a website may have been a better choice. If we had started with a website that showed users how to report issues, create campaigns and make suggestions around ideas and solutions that would have been more powerful.
Plus, we went wide and had many features but didn’t go deep with one feature. Imagine if we had a powerful reporting system with built in nudges for reporting problems. If we took reporting and built a community around it it would have been a better approach to feature building than how we did it, which was many features.
We also didn’t focus enough on the UI. If we had made it feel easy and look good we would have attracted more users on all sides.
Also we made a classic rookie mistake of not creating an admin user panel so that different stakeholders could log in and see the dashboard based on their role and needs.
What can technology not solve?
For nonprofits especially, technology cannot help beyond a certain level when it comes to engaging all stakeholders. A person still has to create the content that engages users and that’s a manual process. While a chatbot can sustain engagement and interest for short periods of time human interaction is evergreen. The empathy and skills that ninja mentors bring to their sessions with young Solve Ninjas is very special and really important. Tech cannot replace that.
Also technology cannot build the different linkages behind scenes. To make links between 3 different stakeholders on the platform someone needs to bring them onboard, and assign the different roles and responsibilities that keep the relation fluid.
Technology is a great facilitator and enabler but it is not magic wand and cannot solve all problems automatically.