17 February 2014

Africa: Open-Source Software Aimed At Ending NGO Data Overload

Open-source software being developed by a team of French NGOs could help aid organisations deal with growing information overload for non-profit sector, say its developers.

The Sigmah project aims to fill a gap in the market by creating information management software custom-designed for the NGO sector.

With new funding from the French Agency for Development, programmers will now be adding features to develop Sigmah as a free resource for non-profit organisations, particularly in the global South.

"You need to have good information in order to make good decisions," says Olivier Sarrat, who manages the project for French think-tank Emergency Rehabilitation Development Group (URD).

"Our main goal is to help NGOs work more effectively and give them the ability to better utilise lessons from the past."

Sigmah was initially conceived by URD as a tool to help ten French NGOs that found themselves swimming in data and reports, part of a growing "infoxication" of non-profit work, according to Edmond Wach. Wach works on Sigmah for Solidarités International, one of the NGOs behind the program's development.

"With the professionalisation and growing complexity of the humanitarian sector, NGOs have to manipulate, analyse and share more and more information, which leads to bottlenecks with too much raw data to take into consideration when making decisions," he says.

Commercial information management software is often expensive and ill-suited to NGOs' needs, according to Mike Powell, a researcher on information management who has written a book on the topic for development organisations.

"I don't know of any commercial software that has been intelligently redesigned for development purposes to address the particular needs of what is a more collaborative sector and a multi-stakeholder system," he says.

Powell says he often sees NGOs pay external IT experts to tailor commercial software to their needs, a solution that only serves to reinforce the lack of long-term options.

"NGOs endlessly spend money on their own immediate needs," he says. "If the funds were spent in a more collaborative way, we would end up with better, cheaper software."

An open-source approach not only creates a free resource for non-profit sectors, but also lets NGOs take information management into their own hands by allowing them to develop and add new features as needed, says Sarrat.

He adds that Sigmah was designed to make information management accessible. The program can be configured to an NGO's specific needs through the online dashboard, an interactive layout of data that requires no particular programming expertise.

"We don't want to make our users dependent on Groupe URD or outside technical experts," says Sarrat.

Previous attempts to develop open-source solutions for NGOs have failed to take off on a large scale, according to Powell, due to a lack of organisational "buy-in".

While Sigmah's on-the-ground impact has been limited so far - the software is being tested by six NGOs in Senegal and France in pilot projects - Wach believes this will change.

"When the new development phase ends [in October 2015], I really think that Sigmah will change our work habits," he says. "It shouldn't be thought of as a silver bullet, but this tool also shouldn't be underestimated in terms of its potential impact on work processes and human resources."

With solid support from the team of French NGOs - including large organisations such as the French branches of Handicap International and the Red Cross - Sarrat is hoping investment in Sigmah will ultimately benefit the international aid community.

"Users remain with Sigmah because they find something positive in it," he says. "Even though we are at the beginning of our evolution and the software is still quite simple, big NGOs like Handicap International, though they have the money for them, are not opting for other solutions. They want to stay with Sigmah because it's a common good for the whole sector."

Link to Sigmah's strategic plan

Click here for a video about Sigmah.

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