Project Lockdown —Unlocking our Rights
Words by Jean F. Queralt • May 10 2021
An open source civic tech initiative that originated organically because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This article is a short introduction and story about Project Lockdown.
Some of the successes of the initiative were possible thanks to the National Democratic Institute (NDI) as part of the Code for All Exchange Program, to whom we are all grateful.
Note: Through this account I have deliberately avoided naming certain people essentially because I haven’t had the opportunity to ask for their permission. Should I get it at any point I’ll be more than happy to update the text. They do deserve their recognition by all means.
How Project Lockdown came to be
When you think about an endeavor that has engulfed your life (and that of many others) for over a year, it’s nice to imagine that there’s a ravishing origin story behind it. Most of the time this is driven by a desire to romanticize reality, but often the origin story is simple: Project Lockdown started as a random conversation between myself and members of Code for All.
At the break of the COVID-19 pandemic, we found ourselves surrounded by an overwhelming series of data on reported cases and deaths. No doubt those were troubled times that challenged everyone’s perception of “our normal” or how I prefer to call it “our automated habits”.
In my daily life, I manage an organization called The IO Foundation (TIOF), advocating for Data-Centric Digital Rights. Attempting change is never short of a challenge; managing a young NGO doubles down on those difficulties. In early 2020, we went from having a well laid out plan (which included participating in international events), to being unsure of just about everything.
While attempting to figure out how to adapt our plans, the most valuable piece of information to me was not the reported cases per se, rather the policies taken as a result. In short, we were witnessing the world clamping down one lockdown at a time and we couldn’t really tell for how long. To my dismay, there wasn’t a clear map that would indicate which territories underwent restrictions and, most importantly, for how long. Because what “today” looked like was certainly less relevant to understanding how “tomorrow” was going to look.
Bothered by this, I thought about doing something about it. My first thought was the same that stopped me from starting The IO Foundation 15 years earlier: “Someone more prepared, with better resources and better connections will take care of this.” So I went around and threw the idea to some people who had made the news about putting together websites on reported cases. No one replied.
Then I thought: it shouldn’t be too difficult to build a map. I went to Code for All’s Slack workspace and asked a simple question:
I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.
First Baby Steps – Alpha Times
The initial implementation targeted a very simple goal: map lockdowns.
That was it, nothing else. We wanted to provide accurate information backed by official pronouncements, and we wanted to provide a view over the future. The idea was to display the past, present and future status of lockdowns, without playing crystal ball games with predictive algorithms: if no new policies are implemented, this is what the world will look like in months to come.
Development caught up fast. Members from Code for Netherlands joined and we started scouting for extra help on volunteer platforms. Everyone was excited about giving a hand — people suddenly had lots of free time and a drive to do something about the pandemic.
Soon enough though, we realized that searching, browsing and encoding the data out of official pronouncements only for the lockdown status was not ideal. It became apparent that we were leaving behind a significant amount of relevant data points that provided for a better picture of what was going on.
The problem was… how could we decide upon the data points to follow? What would our criteria be? Could we come up with something that would be relevant and useful?
It didn’t take much to find an answer. As many of us suspected (and observed as policies were enacted), the situation was a paradise for self-serving politicians. More and more policies were issued that would restrict citizens’ freedoms and Rights if left unchecked. We then decided that we would determine our data points based on their impact on Human or Digital Rights.
We had then found our formula:
– Core data points based on their impact on Rights, so that citizens could grasp the implications on their lives.
– Data extracted exclusively from official pronouncements, so it would have legal merit.
Note: We also decided to not use the term “countries” and instead adopt the more neutral term “territories” to remain as non-political as possible. What matters to us is that people on a certain piece of land live under the policies of a specific governing body, regardless of whether some governments recognize them or not.
That First Award
In the first weeks of the pandemic, COVID-19 hackathons were the hot stuff, for better or for worse. A bit out of nowhere, our team found itself involved in the EU vs VIRUS hackathon organized by the European Commission. We took it as an internal exercise and as a good catalyst to push for the platform to keep growing. We entered the competition with an Alpha version and exited with our Beta.
All major objectives were achieved and we made it into the winners list. Personally, what I enjoyed the most was working alongside my teammates and developing internal structures that would help the project solidify and move forward. Those steps proved to be critical and the basis for what is Project Lockdown nowadays.
Few weeks of hard work later, we launched our v1.0 (in other words, the first version of our project).
It was no small feat. We managed to, out of nowhere, bring together 90 strangers distributed across 15 times zones, organize teams, find the data we needed, train people on how to extract the data points, create internal SOPs, write extensive documentation, explore what alternatives were out there and how we compared to them, build alliances with partners, create a project identity…
We were hungry. We wanted more and we quickly understood that the concept had a lot of potential and that we wanted to go beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
Plans were made to build a platform that could render different thematic policies and create a Global Rights Index with all that information. We wanted to make it easier for people to understand the complex business of Rights in an easy and intuitive manner while providing data and tools for journalists and Rights defenders to do their job.
I have a decent amount of volunteer experience in a good number of different advocacies, and I understand the emotional cycles we all go through. We have some free time, we get excited at the possibility of helping out — but soon enough, time runs out and motivation jumps through the window.
From my time volunteering as an STI screener, I kept a quote from the training package that says “Commitment is doing what you said you would, long after the mood you said it in has left.” That page has been on my fridge door for over 5 years and I read it daily. This is something I keep in mind when on a team, whether it’s composed of friends, colleagues or volunteers.
(The other always valuable reminder is our dear friend Pareto).
As we headed towards developing v2.0, the world started opening up at different speeds. People got busy again with their lives with an inescapable desire to embrace back some normalcy and to interact face to face with others. Time became again a scarce commodity in the volunteer scene and Project Lockdown was not going to be an exception. Development came to a halt and we began bleeding members, so to speak.
It was however gratifying to observe that certain core members, who had been in the project since its very early inception, remained in the project and kept pushing for new goals to be achieved. We had (and have) many features we wanted to implement, and an undeterred belief in what the initiative represents has made it possible to overcome those obstacles.
As part of the new game plan, we decided that one positive strategy would be to participate in events so as to give the project more exposure as well as attract new talent and, perhaps, additional support.
Since then we managed to run sessions at the Bread&Net 2020 as well as g0v Summit. MozFest 2021 didn’t pan out yet we will have a Tech Demo session on the upcoming RightsCon 2021 and we are preparing submissions for the Paris Peace Forum 2021 and the Internet Governance Forum 2021 (plus a few more in the oven).
The difficulties experienced didn’t curtail our plans — we remain determined to turn Project Lockdown into a Global Rights Observatory and we see the utility of developing a Global Rights Index that would provide a temperature check for the health of Rights, both by territory and worldwide. We truly feel there’s a need for this.
Forging New Strategies
Disclaimer: If you are not a technical person you may find this section challenging. I encourage you to nevertheless take up the gauntlet and brave through it. You will close this tab knowing you learned a thing or two.
It turned out that one of the main challenges to achieve our goals was not the technical development of the platform. The dataset in the room was scaling our ability to obtain and curate all the data that would be necessary to keep our initial COVID-19 NPIs (Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions — fancy name for policies) dataset layer and all the new ones we were preparing. This took us into a process of redefining our data funnels and we came up with a few options that would help in that endeavor. We would crowdsource the data entry (somehow Wikipedia style, with some necessary differences), explore training an ML algorithm to ingest official sources and, more excitingly, provide a direct feed capability for public authorities to load their policies directly to the platform; after all, there are reasonable incentives for those who have pledged (or are mandated) for transparency in their administrations.
Another big leap forward for the project was to move our operations to Github. At its very early stages we opted for Trello and then battled for months to make it a viable project management solution for us. It didn’t quite pan out (no offense intended, dear Atlassian). We then had a rather rad idea of massively using Github as not only the repository for the codebase but for just about all tasks related to the project. We then embarked into a very revealing adventure of organizing all components and documentation into one single source of truth articulated through a comprehensive use of labels. The repository now contains all that you need to know about the project in one single place (from pending tasks to code, documentation, media kit or policies). While the concept is still a work in progress, it is now possible to crowdsource all kinds of non-technical tasks in areas such as accounting, HR, or helping connect us with partners we wish to reach out to (for those curious, check the Need labels).
We wanted more — and so we went for more.
The IO Foundation is a rather new player in the civic tech & civil society hoods. Our advocacy is Data-Centric Digital Rights and one of its axioms is that programmers are the next generation of Rights defenders; both Human and Digital. On a monthly basis, we run TechUp, our engagement program where we attempt to provide them with the necessary tools to develop the skills and sense of responsibility required to gap the separation between what they implement and the impact it creates for citizens. Since one of the activities is pairing open source projects with volunteers, guess which project we brought in?
So what’s next?
For months now, we have been dedicated to building our version 2.0. Despite all the difficulties to engage volunteers, we were determined to not drop the original volunteer-lead spirit of the project while needing to address how to reach a more consistent level of development. We have now experimented in a hybrid strategy of hiring programmers for the development of core features and providing our volunteers with tasks that are more adequate to the time they can dedicate to code.
We are also currently developing the Direct Feed data funnel. Do you know any public authorities that would be interested in exploring this? Reach out to us!
(Taiwan, I am looking — intensely — at you)
On the partners side, we are exploring options with the CoronaNet project and other policy trackers which would increase our COVID-19 DSL database while providing them with a mapping platform. Other DSLs are also in the making.
The Global Rights Index is also under development. Are you interested in this type of research? You know what to do!
Increase adoption, connect citizens with organizations, increase presence in events and run Sprints on TechUp are, you guessed it, totally in our agenda.
So… after all is said and done, did we learn anything? You bet we did; I sure did.
1. For real, if you have an idea, just go for it.
I am not being corny: just bloody go for it.
You are not supposed to be the most knowledgeable person in the room, you don’t require having extensive resources, you don’t need to have prior experience.
Yes, all of the above will certainly help and will alleviate some of the friction.
No, none of those can compare to your degree of determination.
Few thoughts that may help:
- No one is born knowing
- The only dumb question is the one not asked
- Function as if money matters and operate as if it doesn’t
- Pareto is your forever frenemy
The reason why I am sharing this is quite straightforward: I question myself pretty much on a daily basis and while that is not a bad thing in itself, it must never become an insurmountable friction. I learned that lesson way before Project Lockdown and am painfully reminded of it on a daily basis.
2. The world is a mess
We send cars to Mars while we can’t agree on how to map and name places in a standard, universal way. No joke.
We’ve been lucky to have the support of Mapbox along the way through their Community Manager (props to you, Marena Brinkhurst), and their developers.
3. Stick to technologies that maximize your volunteer base.
We initially took a mixture of good decisions and not-so-good ones. For instance, instead of React we started with PReact and somehow a PWA service worker made its way into the code. Bad move. Took us many months to get rid of those and v2.0 has being recoded from scratch with React. Also, for the long run, Typescript is your friend.
4. Document Document Document
Never ever, under no circumstance, underestimate the value of documentation. Dozens of volunteers will come and go, and enabling their quick understanding of the code is paramount for them to get involved. Make it as easy for them as you can and ask them to pay it forward with just as much documentation in the code they contribute.
Advice: Create a guideline about that so that everyone is on the same page.
5. Get things started even if not totally planned
Though it’s definitely better to have a fully-fledged action plan, this is not always possible — even more so in spontaneous projects like this, where developments happen overnight. Don’t be afraid to make decisions and don’t fall into paralysis by analysis. It’s better to get something done and correct it than to not do anything.
6. Working with volunteers is, you’ve guessed it, challenging.
In fact, it’s the most difficult part of any project, yet without teammates you can’t move forward (the alternative is painfully slow).
Best you can do is accept the highs and lows. You’ll have periods with a high influx of volunteers and times where you’ll be functioning with a skeleton team. This is a constant in any volunteer-driven project and the best you can do is keep your infrastructure ready on standby for whenever a new influx may materialize.
Advice: Make peace with the Pareto Principle and try to inspire your volunteers as much as you can.
7. Beware of too many tools: Consolidate
When you run a project without resources, you’ll end up using a myriad of online tools in their free-tier modality. Being a registered NGO, we have the advantage of qualifying for a good number of free licenses (which nevertheless are time-consuming to identify and sometimes negotiate). This inevitably ends up being a mess and becomes an extra friction when onboarding new project members (informing, training, assisting…). Try to consolidate platforms as much as you can. Project Lockdown is lucky to have the support of organizations such as Basaas and ZenHub that have allowed us to make sense of all the (over a dozen) online platforms we use.
Pro Tip #1: Come over to our TechUp monthly event to discover organizations providing free support to open source projects and civil society. We grow the list every month (don’t be a stranger, it’s free).
Pro Tip #2: If you are one such organization, reach out to us. We want to connect as many of you with the projects that need you (Contact@TheIOFoundation.org or find us on the #the-io-foundation channel on the Code for All Slack workspace).
8. Persist, persist, persist
There is no magic formula to get things done: the universe does not cooperate. Find new communities to reach out to, talk about your project with the people you know, never give up on the thought of succeeding in your vision.
Finding the right people to materialize that vision alongside you is only a matter of a relentless, merciless search. Sooner or later you find those who fit perfectly in your project and they will feel at home. Cherish them: those are awesome people.
Are you interested in joining Project Lockdown?
- Reach out to us via email Contact@TheIOFoundation.org or find us on the #the-io-foundation channel on the Code for All Slack workspace.
- Participate in our TechUp events or find us in other similar initiatives, such as DemocracyLab.
I’d like to take the chance to thank Code for NL for bootstrapping the project, Rashika Senapathy (Team HR), Petra Jääskeläinen (ex Team UXUI), Nadja Petrovic and Marta Mangiarulo (Team Comms), Ruha Ratnam (Team Management), Mark Datysgeld (Team Devs) and Julie Green (Team Research) for the relentless encouragement and for actively participating in proposing solutions to move forward. Props to Jeff Knurek (Team Devs) who joined recently to keep the development on the codebase going. It is fair to mention that many more people helped just as much and it would be impossible to cite all of them lest I’d intend to turn this post into the white pages. Suffice to say that I have a debt of gratitude towards every single person that has supported Project Lockdown.