I’ve been working for JumpStart since 2010, when I first came JumpStart was purely involved with mapping and was called Open Maps Caucasus (OMC), we mapped the entire country. And I was coming from a background recently working with Transparency International Georgia and before that media organizations. When I joined JumpStart it was because of the technology and community approach the organization was involved in; I thought it was brilliant this idea of community mapping.
However, when I joined the mapping came to an end, and JumpStart sort of was in a crisis mode. We had all this capacity, technical capacity, but we didn’t know what to do. We weren’t funded to do mapping. We had a pretty long transition period for about a year and a half. We worked from project to project to make ends meet, which I hated, because I don’t think organizations should exist to put food on people’s table. An NGOs job is to put itself out of business.
A lot of the old staff left. During the mapping period we had around 1000 people, directly or through community involvement, to rely on and we went down to 5 or 6 people. Which was interesting.
But in 2012 this idea popped into my head. This was the result of mapping. Mapping is the ultimate form of visualization. It is easy to see a map that has massive amount of data in small place and you are able to interpret it and make decisions based on that information. And I don’t know a lot of visuals that can have that level of complexity and be that intuitive for people to understand. So I started thinking about other ways and other environments in which visualizations could have an impact. At this time I came across some data journalism blogs.
What really dawned on me was the intersection of important social issues, technology, visualizations, and impact. When I looked around our local context of that time which was just Georgia, I was disappointed to see how little progressive journalists and NGOs here were. NGOs would spending months and put out reports that no one would ever read. You do 12 months of research and you write your report and it’s gone. It really pissed me off that the knowledge was gone. And I thought there needs to be an alternative.
So we started visualizing Georgia with local news, small things. For me it was a way, from my perspective, crucial to communicate in issues and increasing engagement. Which was an ultimate goal which I thought it was something many NGOs were striving for but were falling short of.
At that time, it was mainly just my colleague here, Jason and I, and I hired one journalist for this project, and at that time we had only one designer working for us half time. I hired a journalist, Nino Macharashvili, she just came from university, so she didn’t have any baggage, and had an entrepreneurial mindset. So we got funded by OSF to do a small experiment in 2012. And this was amazing, we got to explore so many things. And this for me is like, the crux of engagement and getting the community involved.
Just exploring new things and to see how it works and being able to do it. Open Society at that time was open to this. We were very fortunate. We were exploring all kinds of visualizations, we started with infographics, but continued with different things, more interactive, a variety of different things. This is when it clicked. And it had huge impact. NGOs saw what we did and wanted to do it to. They didn’t even know it was us, we created http://feradi.info (feradi = colorful information). NGOs were calling ‘feradi’ to do work for them. And I would show up and they said aren’t you JumpStart? That was funny.
We continued to do our own work but we started working with these NGOs, to see their approach how they are working, and how we could assist them. For us, we explored and learned a lot, but we also developed good workflows and how to work with technology in general.
It is not an easy thing to do, to meet deadlines and be efficient at doing it; it can get away from you quite easily.
Most NGOs wanted to do the visualizations but didn’t want to learn the process, they just said: do it. But that is not something what we do or want.
So we work with data, not only maps, but all kinds of data and visualize them, our goal is to create platforms, tools, etc. and speaks to target audiences in a useful way and engage them about issues that are important.
For the past couple of years we’ve worked on a variety of subjects, health – hepatitis C – contraception – abortion, to election data, to election data mismanagement, there is so many things we’ve done - noise pollution, domestic violence, air quality, you name it. Not unlike any media organization, we work on so many issues. I think in the process what we’ve done also is really sort of understood what the data landscape is, basically, what is the the catalog of data in the country and how can we exploit it and leverage it to improve communication around issues that people need to know about.
And simultaneously we do now a lot of trainings with organizations on a variety of subjects: data journalism, data analysis, all things that we’ve become quite good at.
And finally, we’ve build a lot of tools that enable people to do things that they can’t.
We are a small organization, we can’t really compete with organizations like Tableau Public, but what we’ve done is create a number of tools that have a fixed target audience that fill a gap that isn’t currently filled. We’ve built StoryBuilder last year to enable people to do log form mixed media stories, and that was very successful, and its being used all over the world. Every day there are new stories on it.
One of the key things, and this is true for all our products, they are all free and open source. We host our own version, but we make the platform available to others to install.
And this is important to me.
A friend of mine explained it once: I think people should be treated equally and should have equal access to everything, and this can be extended quite far into a lot of areas. Resource equality, economic equality, education equality, safety, legal protection equality; it can be a lot of things, and I don’t think a lot of people and organizations really understand what this means. A lot of people want equal access to public information, but they don’t get to decide what is public, so it’s not equal.
Some groups decide what is public and open, but that is not equal, you get access to all things in the vending machine, but we don’t choose what goes into the vending machine. From a data perspective I think that’s important. Equal access to decision makers, equal influence of decision making, it can be extended to so many things, property, clean water. And I think in general, the work that people do should strive so that people everywhere have equal access to all these things so that they’re not unequal distributed among them, where elites with small percentages get advantage over vast majorities of population. That for me is quite unacceptable.
It also leads to quite a lot of negative consequences in society that also impact that elite, which is violence, revolution, high swings and cycles of increase and depression, so this is my little rant, but in general, the more we strive to provide as much as possible too as many people as possible in general we are all better of, we can make better decisions, we can choose for ourselves have control of ourselves, our families, the people that matter.
At JumpStart this manifests through access to information, and we encourage people to share information. And, unfortunately, within the civil society we see here so much competition for economic resources that are finite, and of course in economics they say all resources are finite, everybody is trying to get their hands on resources that are finite, that’s what generates a discrepancy between demand and supply, and then ultimately have and have not’s. But I think, NGOs they are fighting for a finite list of funding to remain viable, and they see their assets, which they see as the information that they have and they hord that capacity. We see a lot of survey data that is silo’d in NGOs, but also the public sector.
The perfect example is the Public Registry of Georgia: they hord the data and they SELL the data to people and organizations that can afford it, that gives unequal access and capacity and advantages on decision making and a whole range of issues. Such as economic advantages, because if you can access data on that level that the public registry has and analyze it, you can make economic decision that are far more informed than people who don’t have that access to that data. And that is an economic advantage. The information the public registry has is collected with public money. That is huge and the government has set it up so it is an entity of public law, it doesn’t fall under the rules of access to information, and they don’t see anything wrong with it. And they are too stupid to take that information and provide derivative advanced analytical summaries of that data and sell that to the public. Ideally what they should be doing is doing that. And making the data free and open to the public.
And I see this as well among small NGOs.
About the workflow at Jumpstart, we’re highly flexible internally but we’ve got workflows depending on what and with whom were working.
Obviously when we do our own work, when we have funds we do our own work, and we do have those funds quite often. Every Monday morning we have an editorial review board, and that is where we decide, we discus what we’ve been doing, and we talk about whats been happening and what we want to work on, and this happens every Monday morning. This includes, lets say we want to do a story on crime, we immediately look at the data landscape, we look at all the data is out there, we will look who has data and request it right away, and we see if there is not if we can collect the data ourselves. So that is our own work, it can be a story, or a tool. For example with Xtraktr, a tool that we are building which makes data publicly available, accessible, and explorable, and usable. We also talk about how we can advertise and market these things. So that it gets a lot of attention.
But working with partners we don’t have that kind of flexibility. They often don;t know what they really want, so there is a high learning curve. These partners often don’t know how to communicate. They say we want to communicate to everybody, but that is impossible, there is not one universal ‘people’. So we will focus on what data they have, what is the message they want to communicate and to whom they want to communicate. And then we try to come up with creative ways using different technologies to then do that. And it doesn’t have to be just infographics, it can be interactive visualizations, video games, street art, performance art. There are a whole variety of mechanisms to communicate information and data. We try not to limit ourselves.
It helps that on our team we have three full-time designers, we’ve got two full-time developers and one half-time developer, we have two full-time researchers, and when we approach an issue we usually do it all together. So we sit down at the table and we brainstorm. If we work with a partner, we bring the partner in. We try to get them to experience what it actually means to creatively approach an issue with the idea of engagement and communication.
Some organizations just refuse to do things, but sometimes we get organizations that do want to learn they get involved and that is quite fun. Our partners work on important social issues, we don’t do just commercial work, these opportunities are great we work on issues that are very important, and by and large that is great, that’s when we have the most success. Ultimately we would love to do our own stuff and collaborate with people to do that stuff, because we recognize we are not experts in everything.
Ideally in the future if we got enough core funding, we would do our own stories and become a tech media organization, but that is not likely to happen so we look for funds that allows us to do what we want to do and what we do best. Usually this works out. Recently we were able to do an Azerbaijani political prisoners tool (https://prisoners.watch) and partnered with Meydan TV and some other organizations, we did not have funding for it but we did it, but we knew it needed to be done. Sometimes you don’t have the funding, but it just needs to be done.
Only sometimes managing is more difficult - we have to know what our limitations are. And then I need to put my foot down, that’s enough, stop, we spent too much time on it and we need to rethink it.
Right now we are looking for alternative funds, such as Indiegogo, to become a bit more independent, but Georgia does not fit well into the international finance toolkit, which makes it a lot harder for Georgian NGOs to actual plug in into these really cool crowdfunding tools in a friendly way. Also Georgia’s legislation on NGOs is not really conducive to creating an independent NGO sector, such as tax on employment, profit tax, etc. And we have to work within that legal framework.
We do our best and ultimately, these last two years we came out with so many interesting tools – election data portal, we actually built the voting records database for the parliament that is actively being used by a number of organizations: NDI, TI, and ourselves. We’ve created hundreds of infographics, we’ve done a video game which won an international award and an infographic as well, and by Transparify we’ve been acknowledged as being one of the most transparent NGOs in the country. It is not easy, but it is important to set a good example on what we do.
It is not easy, but doing non-profit work is never easy for anyone especially if you really care and want to do the work you want to do. And I think if you’re happy, just doing work that you get funded to do, than that’s different. But we are not happy with that model, and we think that organizations exist to fill a gap, if your gap is always dictated and funded by your donors then, I am sorry, but what are you really doing? You have to start asking more existential questions then if that’s the case.
There are so many things we want to achieve. If people want positive impact, they need to start thinking out of the box and explore real specific targets, subgroups of society, that can actual achieve positive impact. And start to build on that, using technology and creativity in the process.
We could use more volunteers, in a number of ways, volunteers who want to research, crowdsource data.
For example. recently we collected data on sounds and volumes around the city and after that we did an infographic on sound pollution and how it effects your hearing. Projects like that, there is no data on it. It would be more successful if we had more data on it.
Sometimes we need help on fact checking all the data, for example the Azerbaijani political prisoners project, we had volunteer and meydan.tv to do it, but more would’ve been better.
Jumpstart is very busy, we are a small group of people and we dont have time to have representatives at all the discussions and meetings both with civil society and the government and we need to. If we had volunteers that could help us be present, take notes and share our insights and input into that process we’d be a lot better off. is. Just some help with activities that we are involved in and want to be better in. We tried to find funding but its not sustainable. The only way we can be present if we are funded full time.
But we share all our assets with our volunteers, it’s a give and take.
Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the South Caucasus, they often work in a bubble, more access to international networks to get involved and become part of larger international movements, the more we can gain from the movements. The OGP for example is one, open data movements, open parliament movements, adoption of international standards, and just tools and concepts that are being discussed internationally that Georgia could benefit from. Often Georgia seems to be behind ten years behind the curve. And there are a lot of really new schools and ideas, related to transparency, accountability, corruption, data journalism, visualization that are being popularized, open sourced, and yet for some reason, I think Georgian government agencies, NGOs, people are not always really aware of these things, because they are not involved internationally in networks and communities. It is crucial that Georgia sees itself as a member of these networks and gets involved and participates in these discussions and the development.
All this stuff is reciprocated, if Georgia gets involved, the world sees more Georgia. And there is more pressure to move things. I think that can only be good.
JumpStart tries to be really involved internationally. I get involved in international conferences and unconferences, we reach out to organizations beyond our borders, because the work we do, maybe we focus on local issues, but the approaches and mechanisms are not isolated to Georgia. Georgia is not unique in almost any of these things. Poor quality of journalism, government not sharing information: whoohoo it’s not unique. Lets get involved with other organizations and see if we can plow through these problems together and we are not alone, we’re benefiting from a collective set of resources.
There are a lot organizations doing similar things to what we’re doing, it’s really popular right now. Locally I know that Elva has been doing most of what we’ve done, good for them. Locally the market is not that big to compete, but they’ve found markets elsewhere and are based in Tbilisi. There are a lot of media organizations elsewhere that are doing amazing data-journalism work in South America: nation, media organizations in Mexico. A lot of these organizations get a lot more negative repercussions for their work than we do in Georgia; fortunately in Georgia we don’t have the government attacking us or the mafia shooting us down in the streets.
I can name a few, but there really are so many: Open Knowledge Foundation, Sunlight Foundation, they’re all doing on different scales and different scopes similar work and there is a lot of value in that. All these organizations are really open to collaboration and I think that it’s important.
Georgia locally, I think Transparency International Georgia is doing a lot of work but I don’t think they realize the potential. They do really amazing research but then the messaging could be a lot better We’ve been trying working with them in the past but then also they aren’t really well managed and things fall through the cracks. Fortunately they are aware of that.
But I don’t see a lot of organizations locally doing what we do.
Creative approaches there are many. If we look at the Guerrilla Gardeners movement, a group of people that believe in something and use creative approaches to solve environmental and urban problems, and I think that’s amazing. I think Iare Pekhit is doing similar positive approaches, creative approaches in communication and engagement. I think they are great ideas, that work locally, they are very local, but I think it’s not working in isolation so that’s good.
I see some organizations picking up their boot straps and really trying to improve things. I mean, CRRC is being forced through funding to search for more sustainable funding and engaging approaches, ISET similarly.
I think the kind of work that we do is transferable to almost any sector. The educational sector needs it the most here in Georgia. But the methodologies that we use can be used: what are you trying to achieve, how do you get there, what tools do you use. Those can be used in the educational sector as well. Using technology, creativity, design, data, to tackle social issues.
We try really hard to partner with organizations and help out as we can.
JumpStart’s long-term perspective is to continue innovating and trying new things. Ultimately the concepts are simple, we have goals we want to achieve, we have stories we want to tell, and we want to try new and interesting ways to do those things.
We are going to continue working, and we would love more support from all sides to improve transparency of agencies and organizations and that includes the data that they have. We will build tools and support organizations that are willing to share their data and make it public, so that people can use the data how they want and not how they want other people to use it. This would help us out a lot and other people as well.
If people care about the issues of transparency and decision making in a democracy, then they can either support it or be a force against it and we will keep building tools such as Xtraktr to help encourage transparency of data and public access.