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Refining the wheel: What factors help people repurpose open contracting tools?

14 Jan 2020

By Helen Kilbey, The Engine Room

A version of this post has also been published on The Engine Room’s blog.

More than a dozen open-source tools now exist for publishing, analyzing, visualizing and working with government procurement data published according to the Open Contracting Data Standard. The great thing about many of these tools is that – theoretically – others can reuse them in new and different contexts instead of having to build new tools from scratch. But in reality, this doesn’t happen as much as you might expect. This blog explores what makes practitioners more likely to repurpose existing open contracting technologies, based on new research we did in partnership with the Open Contracting Partnership and the World Bank Procurement Global team. You can download the findings, as well as guidelines for tool re-users and tool developers at the end of this post.

Why re-use tools? 

Repurposing existing technologies can come with a host of benefits. Re-use can save an organization time and resources and offer access to a community of developers, support providers and other tool re-users. It can also contribute to resource conservation in civic tech more generally. 

In practice, these benefits are generally under-realized. In 2019, we looked more closely at why. What conditions enable successful re-use of open source tools in a new context, and what causes re-use attempts to be unsuccessful? What are the challenges encountered and how can they be surmounted? 

Research findings 

Many factors that contributed significantly to success were related to support, learning and funding, including: 

  • In-person support from the tool author or a support provider with in-depth knowledge of the tool: In almost every case of success we documented, whether in open contracting or in civic tech more generally, direct support played a crucial role – particularly where support was provided under contract and with dedicated funding. 
  • Spaces and events where knowledge could be shared with others in the field: A key draw of re-use is the opportunity to become part of a global community of people involved in related work, grappling with similar challenges and potentially able to offer advice or support. Community-building spaces can include in-person events, GitHub, mailing lists and Google Groups.
  • Training and learning resources: More resources for new implementers are needed, particularly on a relatively intermediate level.
  • Adequate financing: This includes funding for costs such as developer time (for adaptation and implementation of the tool), project management, long-term maintenance and sustainability, and infrastructure.  
  • Clear and thorough tool documentation: Clear, thorough documentation is key to successful re-use of a tool. Elements that help include statements on what a tool does and how it does it, a step-by-step outline of the setup process, reference materials, and use cases and examples. (More tips and resources can be found here).

Other findings were more closely related to open contracting tools themselves: 

  • Tool re-users we interviewed generally expressed a preference for smaller, more modular tools that could be extended or used together, rather than complex platforms. 
  • The barrier to entry for many tools was felt to be too high for many of the intended users of these tools, and interviewees noted a need for more web-based tools.  

As the field of open contracting continues to grow and tools continue to be developed, organizations re-using tools are a critical part of the open contracting ecosystem. We hope that the following guidelines extend an invitation to new tool re-users, while also providing insights for existing practitioners.  

We’re also always open to hearing your feedback! If you have thoughts you’d like to share, please send them to hello@theengineroom.org

 

Practical advice for potential re-users and tool authors

Based on our findings and previous research into tool selection, we created two sets of guidelines.These, as well as our findings, can be downloaded below.  

  • Tool re-use in open contracting: A Primer. For organizations interested in re-using an open contracting tool. It includes an introduction to some available tools, a step-by-step guide to help an organization formalize exactly what they need, and a detailed look at how to evaluate whether a tool is the right fit and whether the right conditions are in place for successful re-use of that tool.
  • Evaluation Matrix. A matrix designed to accompany the evaluation framework introduced in the primer. 
  • Guidance for tool authors and support providers. A set of suggestions for how tool authors and open contracting support providers can enable or support successful open contracting tool re-use.
  • Key findings and research methodology. For those who want a quick look at what we did and what we found.