The Engine Room 2019 Retro­spective

Over the past decade, we at The Engine Room have grown confident that resilient civil societies have huge potential to make the world a better place. They can disrupt unfair power dynamics and protect the fundamental rights of vulnerable communities. They can achieve a fairer distribution of resources, privileges and opportunities.

But as we go into 2020, the social sector faces ever-larger threats. Nonprofits operate in competitive environments with limited resources and are under continued attack around the world. They often fall prey to unhealthy work cultures and struggle with burnout and misconduct. In recent years we have also witnessed how technology has become part of the problem itself by reinforcing injustices and wasting limited resources, while facilitating new avenues for systematic abuses of power. Trust in the idea that technology can support the fight for social justice has eroded greatly.

In 2019, we set our minds on two big goals. First, to help civil society embrace the complexity of working with technology. Second, to contribute to building a resilient civil society through promoting healthy work cultures. And while we’re only at the beginning of our journey, we made some great progress.

We worked with over 100 partners to help them identify the opportunities–and avoid the pitfalls–presented by technology. We started unpacking complex concepts and ideas like what it takes for nonprofits to reuse existing tech solutions and what the lived experience of digital identification systems actually is. We explored the complexity of consent in the digital age and the impact of data protection regulations. We began working with six new partners as part of our Matchbox programme, which offers intensive support.

To practice what we preach on resiliency, we designed policies that prioritise our staff’s wellbeing as a political act and embarked on an experiment to shorten our workweek. We introduced new avenues of cross-team collaboration to ensure that the complexity of the problems we face is addressed through diverse perspectives.

We were honoured to share our year of learning, growing and supporting with a diverse group of partners, allies and friends, and look forward to what this year brings!


Our Work

Our Work - Illustration with a photograph of picture frames being filled in by drawings

How to re-use existing digital tools


We believe in supporting civil society to reduce digital waste, which could involve re-using existing solutions instead of building new tools from scratch. In 2019 we sought to understand what conditions and contexts favour the successful repurposing of existing technologies and explored the topic of re-use in two different areas.

Through the Digital Sparks project, we researched how UK charities re-use existing digital tools for service delivery. We found that while re-use isn’t necessarily always the best option, in many cases it can enable quick testing, make it easier for organisations to kickstart their entry into designing digital services, increase a team’s confidence and positively impact attitudes towards digital tools more broadly.

We also researched tool re-use within open contractingOpen contracting is the publishing and use of open and accessible information on government contracting. initiatives, supported by the Open Contracting Partnership (OCP) and the World Bank. Certain factors came up as significant contributors to success in re-using existing open contracting tools, including in-person support (from tool authors or support providers), training, clear and thorough tool documentation and the simplicity and adaptability of tools themselves.

The lived reality of digital ID systems


When it comes to digital systems, we believe it’s just as important to understand the contextual realities as it is to dig into the technical functionalities. In a year-long research project (our largest research project to-date!), we investigated the lived experiences of people in five regions where digital identification systems are being implemented: national systems in Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Thailand, and humanitarian systems in refugee camps in Bangladesh and Ethiopia. We worked with in-country researchers in each location and co-developed participatory research methods that would respect contextual differences and explore related themes. We found that though digital ID systems provide important benefits, such as access to services, they also consistently raise challenges, particularly for the communities whose rights are already being denied. Some of these challenges included low levels of public and civil society involvement, barriers to use, lack of informed consent and concerns about data protection.

We hope that our findings can help push for more context-respecting digital ID systems around the world. To enable this, our findings can be accessed in a thematic report and five country case studies, all available in English, Spanish, French and Arabic. (With an advocacy toolkit coming soon!) The country case studies are also available in the respective languages of the site they cover–all in all, that totals to 15 different languages!

Deepening our regional support

Regional Support

Through our Matchbox partnerships, we work alongside organisations as they implement projects. We provide context-specific, holistic support on how to effectively and responsibly harness data and tech. This year we welcomed six new Matchbox partners from five different countries.

Latin America

One of our partners in Latin America is the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), an Argentinian organisation known for its work documenting human rights violations. We are working with CELS to improve the databases they have created to document cases and to help them draw out advocacy targets from their data. Also in Argentina is the Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y Justicia (ACIJ), a civil society organisation promoting access to information, transparency and government accountability. We have been collaborating with ACIJ to update their Budget Monitor platform, designed to flag government budget reallocations, which can indicate misspent funds or corruption. In Paraguay, we're working with reAcción, an organisation conducting citizen-led monitoring of the country’s public education fund.

Sub-Saharan Africa

The Legal Advisory Information Center (LAIC) is an organisation seeking to make land tenure and rights more inclusive, just and equitable through their legal empowerment work. With them, we are exploring how data and technology can amplify access to justice to unserved communities in South Africa. We have also been working with the Kenya Civil Society Platform for Oil and Gas – a coalition that advocates for transparency and accountability in the Kenya’s oil and gas sector–supporting them to develop a system that aggregates otherwise siloed datasets on oil and gas contracts. We also teamed up with the Private Public Development Center (PPDC) in Nigeria, who work with open contracting tools to improve procurement governance.

Supporting young feminists to use tech that matches their politics


For our partner FRIDA, 2019 was a year dedicated to identifying opportunities where they could use data and technology more intentionally and in-line with their values. As an organisation that supports women, girls and trans* youth all over the world, FRIDA wanted to ensure that the way they choose and implement technology matches their political views. To support them in doing this, we worked with FRIDA’s team to identify steps they could take, processes they could implement and goals they could define. We took stock of what they had already and where they wanted to go, and we collaboratively developed a roadmap for the future. Keep an eye on our blog for tactics and tools you can use to do the same in your organisation.

Transparency & privacy in beneficial ownership


In different parts of the world, governments and institutions are taking action against the abuse of anonymous company ownership by requiring more transparency around who actually owns private companies. (The individuals who own some kinds of companies are sometimes called “beneficial owners” and are afforded a great deal of anonymity in many jurisdictions.) By making this kind of information transparent, it’s easier to track illicit flows of information and, potentially, corruption. While increasing transparency is generally a positive move, in the case of beneficial ownershipRegisters that include information, which is often otherwise kept hidden, about the owners of private companies. registers questions about data protection and privacy have been raised. Supported by OpenOwnership and The B Team, The Engine Room learned that public disclosure of information about beneficial ownership is a reasonable measure to increase transparency, but governments should be mindful of privacy when implementing it.

On-demand digital security support in Chile

Technology Regional Support

In Chile–as in many areas of the world–the end of 2019 was marked by protests and calls for social change. What started as a series of protests against an increase in public transport fees in Santiago has grown into a broader movement denouncing increasing levels of inequality, expensive healthcare, low levels of education funding, and violence against women and LGBTQI people. Across the country, diverse groups are uniting to call for a more just future, demanding reforms to the constitution, a relic from Chile’s pre-democratic past under military leader Augusto Pinochet. The government has responded with force and violence–in the first weeks of the protests there were over 2,300 accusations of human rights violations. Within this context, we provided security support to feminist groups, citizen journalists, gender activists, artist collectives and others. We supported some organisations to set up more secure communications channels through VPNsA VPN, or virtual private network, can obscure certain information about your internet connection in order to add a layer of privacy to your online activities and information you send over the internet. and secure messaging. Together with journalists, we explored ways to keep mobile devices more secure. We also offered guidance around ways to plan ahead for internet shutdowns and what could be done if and when they happen.

Refining our light-touch support

Technology Regional Support

Alongside our ongoing work in providing light touch support to activists and civil society organisations that reach out to us, in 2019 we proactively identified spaces where our knowledge could be particularly relevant. This led us to support over thirteen organisations working on legal empowerment, such as the pro-bono arm for the legal practice DLA piper.

We also supported Sekondi Takorandi Municipality in Ghana in improving their municipal budget transparency. By creating more user friendly visualisations of their budgets, they were able to share information with local communities. With Haqdarshak, an organisation based in India that uses a platform to help citizens benefit from welfare schemes, we worked to improve user design and experience, while considering responsible data practices. We also supported Trocaire, a non-profit that fights against human rights abuses and gender-based violence in 17 countries, in improving their processes of data collection and case management software.

Reflections and Learnings

Reflections and Learnings - Illustration with a silhouette thinking in front of a mirror, with cogs and gears outlined below it

We need nuance between tech-solutionism and tech-pessimism

Over the years, we’ve seen a common narrative shift from seeing tech as a silver bullet to tech as the root cause of endless social problems. But it has never been just about the technology, it’s also about the societal and political structures in which technology finds itself. What people decide to do with tech and data can put others at risk–as we, and others, wrote about upon hearing about the World Food Programme’s agreement with Palantir earlier this year. But focusing solely on critiquing instead of constructing leaves us reacting to other people’s visions of the future, instead of making our own. In the spirit of exploring the nuance at play here, we kicked off a series of Responsible Data Reflection Stories highlighting how people use data protection legislation to strengthen their work, and we supported organisations like FRIDA to create internal structures to enable the futures they seek.

Hype can misdirect our collective attention away from what matters

In the past, we’ve seen many smart civil society leaders get caught up in the hype of technology. At The Engine Room, we regularly get asked for advice on AIAI, or artificial intelligence, is broadly used to refer to a computer or a software that can do tasks requiring "intelligence," like recognising text, identifying what is in an image and more., and we invariably end up asking questions to understand what’s actually behind that desire. What we find is that more often than not, the building blocks of clear information management, well-understood and operationalised responsible data policies and solid judgement of what’s possible with tech are missing. We’ve seen over and over again how hype can catch people’s attention. For our part, we see real dangers in focusing too much energy on technologies that use the past to predict the future–what we want to do is learn from the past, not have more of the same. We aim to support civil society in integrating emerging technologies into their work in a way that enables us all to create the futures that we want.

Investing in infrastructure can be a radical choice

Infrastructure–the often unseen structures that shape the systems sitting on top of them–is often only noticed when it breaks or when something goes wrong. Investing in and prioritising infrastructure (before it breaks) can have huge benefits and can drastically change how an organisation works for the better. We thought about this as we discussed the community infrastructure required to keep the responsible data community healthy and as we designed participatory research structures to centre the voices of our researchers and their communities. This year we began to work more on digital infrastructure, too. As disillusionment in Big Tech came to a head, it was clear that many groups want to take back control of their own infrastructure in a sustainable way (or at the very least, make more informed choices about how they use tech). After all, our technical choices are political, too.

Prioritising well-being is necessary for resilient civil society

In the face of attacks on the work of justice-seeking civil society, building our own resilience and a strong institution is more important than ever. We’ve experimented with different ways of doing that this year, knowing that our own support work is stronger if we ourselves feel supported and trusted. We’ve tested out a four-day workweek, a change inspired by increasing evidence that shorter workweeks increase performance, commitment, motivation and work-life balance–all of which resonate greatly with our values. We’ve also developed a Team Handbook with our core policies and a Programmes Handbook to make the most of the diverse ways we do our work. We were also thrilled to receive a BUILD grant from the Ford Foundation to help us continue to strengthen our own institution over the next five years. Self-care is not a one-off checklist exercise, but an ongoing process that is critical to doing our work well and taking care of each other.

People & Places

Places - Picture of a person holding up a globe in front of their face

Between attending eventsSome of our favorites included, RightsCon, IFF, REALML, Forum for Internet Freedom Africa., meeting partners from different parts of the world, going to our staff retreat and co-working weeksCo-working weeks are weeks where a smaller subset of our team (anywhere from two to about six of us) get together to work in-person., our team travelled to 15 countries–outside the ten we’re scattered across–this year: Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Hungary, Kenya, Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, UK, USA.

Our collective year was also filled with personal accomplishments. Some of us experienced the joys and challenges of parenting, like attending school events, sports competitions and balancing our work while also taking care of loved ones. Some of us welcomed new additions to our families, with recent marriages and births of nieces and nephews. Some moved to new places or travelled to beautiful places (like the Balkans and Patagonia). We tried new things this year, too, like attending a writer's residency for the first time. Many of us made great connections throughout the year and we got to meet incredible people (like Chimamanda Adichie!).

Peek into what our year looked like

💻 65,000
website visits
🐦 1,160
more Twitter followers
📣 5,940
hours of calls
📝 41
blog posts
☕️ 5,280
cups of coffee
🌍 15
countries explored

This year wouldn't have been possible without...

Wonderful consultants like Alan Zard, Alice Powell, Alma Rangel, Althea Balmes, Angel Lopez, Anna Colom, Bailey Maddison Cordrey, Berhan Taye, Carly Kind, Charlotte Andersson, Chris Michael (Collaborations for Change), Chuthatip Maneepong, Dimitri Stamatis, Gabriela Ivens, Grace Higdon, Isabel Castro, James Middleton, Juan Arellano Valdivia (Casa Digital), Julia Saw (Little by Little Studios), Kendra Watkins, M.A., Koliwe Majama, Lorraine Chuen, Natja Carli, Nkechi Coker, Oscar Montiel, Paula Alzualde, Precious Ogbuji, Salam Shokor, Sarah Aoun, Sharid Bin Shafique, Slammer Musuta, Sophia Swithern, Stacy Ewah, Tom Walker and Viktoria Vass-Bryan.

Funders such as CAST, Ford Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Hivos, Internews, Oak Foundation, Open Society Foundations and The Sigrid Rausing Trust.

And fantastic partners including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y Justicia (ACIJ), Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), Digital Sparks, University of Essex, FRIDA, GIZ, International Federation of the Red Cross, Kenya Civil Society Platform for Oil and Gas (KCSPOG), Legal Advisory Information Center (LAIC), Open Contracting Partnership, Private Public Development Center (PPDC), reAcción and many others!