Next week is Akvo Team Week 2014, when everyone in the organisation comes together. “Everyone” now means more than 65 people, a substantial team that is a far cry from the small group that first launched Akvo Really Simple Reporting in Stockholm back in 2008.
Of course we’ll only be here in 2020 if we do two things – run the organisation on a sustainable financial footing, and continue to adapt to the complex environment we work in – “Riding the Tech Rollercoaster” is how I put it this summer, where we need to be okay about the fact that there are constant changes in our market, new products appearing, new business models, new ways of doing things, lots of people trying to run at different paces. We need to remain calm and adaptable – and really, really dynamic.
This week at Stockholm World Water Week, I was interested to see the New York based organisation mWater announce that itself and Water.org are collaborating on a “free mobile survey platform”. I’ve met mWater’s founders, John and Annie Feighery several times and think they’re terrific. Any time people around Akvo describe an organisation like mWater as a “competitor”, in a tone that implies they’d rather they didn’t exist, I correct them. The last thing I worry about is the emerging ecosystem of organisations creating new ways to map global water status. Our problem isn’t them – it’s the people and organisations who bicker and drag their feet, who won’t share data or collaborate genuinely with others.
What I do take issue with, though, is that mWater positions its product as “free”. My understanding is that mWater is making its platform available “for free” because it has secured a grant from water.org to do so. Which is nice, but easy to misinterpret as meaning there is no cost to implementation or even development. Our team at Akvo has expanded to 65+ because our partners have wanted our help – to transform how they bring project activity online, to build workshops on using smart phones and mobile surveys into their training workshops, to help them work out how to publish their data openly, in ways that can be exchanged and that meet emerging transparency standards. And to develop new features into our web and mobile tools. Indeed, we took on the FLOW product from US NGO Water For People in early 2012 because the challenge of developing a software tool and rolling it out with a global network of partners was a huge task and not something they wanted to handle themselves (here’s an overview of what we’ve done since then).
To understand the factors involved in deploying mobile and web tools in NGOs and development networks, it’s important to see beyond downloading and installing the app itself. One major step we’ll be making next week is to publish, for the first time, all the programmes Akvo itself works on around the world, setting out what we’re doing and making it easy add updates and render our work in maps, for example. We are, of course, using Akvo RSR to do this – an exercise in “Eating Our Own Dog Food” (as Adrian Collier puts it) that is something we probably should have done a while ago. This will give a very clear sense of the depth and breadth of contracts we now have in place supporting organisations in the international development sphere – and beyond. And it will enable everyone in the team to post updates on the work we’re doing with partners, including photos and video.
This is well timed. Right now we’re in the process of articulating better our experience of the costs related to introducing mobile surveys and monitoring or project reporting. We’re not in the consumer app business, nor are we an organisation using advertising revenue to subsidise “good works” or “philanthropic software”. Akvo does what it does – build and run software as a service, which we also release under an open source license, for the international development universe.
Yesterday we were refining our description of how we ensure Akvo itself is sustainable. Below is the current version of that. I hope it helps explain that calling something “free” can sound great, but that in the end it needs to be built on a sustainable footing, and that’s something we all need to keep working at. And engaging partners themselves in helping fund that is no bad thing, as it drives accountability and helps them understand and have a voice in what comes next.
Akvo is a self-sustaining organisation
Akvo aims to get modern, effective tools into the hands of people who need them, at the lowest practical cost, through an organisation that works on a stable footing. Akvo is a not-for-profit, but also not-for loss, organisation. To this end, Akvo’s business model is based primarily on running software as a service for its partners.
Rather than build and support its tools with one-time grants, Akvo charges a fee to partners to run them as a service on their behalf. This ensures Akvo is financially self-sustaining and accountable to those receiving the service, which means partners can be confident that Akvo tools will be there for the long-term. In most cases, larger donor organisations pay for Akvo tools, training and support, with local field organisations getting the tools in their hands “for free”. Service revenues are also used for the development of products so they can be constantly maintained, updated and improved. This model allows Akvo to develop tools that will remain in tune with its partners’ requirements.
To ensure the sustainability and usability of its products, Akvo works closely with partners to develop a roadmap of new features. This ensures its tools remain relevant and meet the evolving demands.
Akvo’s products are developed by its own team of software developers, and released under an AGPL open source software license. Akvo is committed to making its products easier to use and easier to deploy, at scale. Akvo’s development team ensures the products are well tested, well functioning and up-to-date. Akvo works with the wider open source technology and open data communities to make data shared using Akvo tools available for use to local and global stakeholders involved in international development and poverty reduction. It also encourages interoperability with other tools and platforms.
Related reading: Huffington Post, 9 April 2014. 10 Big Lessons We Learned In The Business of Intelligent International Development.
Mark Charmer is a co-founder and the communications director of Akvo.