The Prototype Fund Demo Day #1 - or: How I got inspired and felt reminded of my student days

The Prototype Fund (PF), a government-funded programme run by the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN), invited to the Demo Day of projects from the first round of their programme, and a mixed crowd of participants and others assembled in a former-crematorium-turned-event-space in Berlin on the last day of August to see results from 14 different projects.

Dr. Michael Weber from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research welcoming the attendants of Demo Day #1.

As Dr. Michael Weber from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) delivered his opening words, I couldn't help but be reminded of an observation I already shared after the Datensummit earlier this year: it is fascinating when the two worlds of government and civil society come together in the context of these digital endeavours. While both sides have their own lingo and modes of working, the respectful open-mindedness and shared desire to develop new visions for the digital future of society once again delivered: every project presented had achieved remarkable - in parts even stunning - results. At the same time it was great to see how "lessons learned", adversities and mistakes were embraced and shared openly in a spirit of "mistakes are just another way of learning". All in all, an inspiring and educational afternoon with a very friendly bunch of people.

The organisers' view

While the BMBF representative provided some context on why the German government is providing this kind of fund with millions of tax Euros as part of their Open Access strategy - supporting the development of potential in the realm of open source and open data that might grow into businesses - the PF team shared some of their learnings from the first phase:

  • The overwhelming application numbers are proof that there is a great demand for a programme like this (only 4% of applicants could be awarded a grant in phase 1)

  • "Open source is teamwork", particularly participants in the programme working by themselves gave feedback that they would have seen benefit in more interaction with others

  • The setting of a theme for the subsequent second call helped applicants to develop a focus; 80% of round 2 applications were theme-specific (the subject for the third call, open now, has been chosen to be "diversity", in part due to the observation that only 7-11% of applicants were female in the first two calls)

The most important insight however, and this set the overall tone for the Demo Day, was "nobody is perfect, let's improve together": an environment where failures or mistakes are not seen as a stigma but as opportunities. And from their visions for the future, shared in the closing words, it is obvious that the Prototype Fund team is working to further create value from these collateral results of the project rounds (apart from the open source deliverables themselves), for alumni and the broader public alike.

One aspect that I would be interested in hearing more about (but the demo day at the last day of the project phase is quite obviously too early for that) are the perspectives on how these projects will continue. A few talks hinted towards emerging collaborations or ideas for turning the prototype into a product, but one of the likely challenges looming in some of the concepts is that with a growing user base will come an increase of feature requests, calls for support etc. while at the same time the funding that allowed the project to take a major leap has ended (e.g. even Amnesty International just had to axe a high-profile open source project due to dried-up funding streams). We'll likely hear more about the long-term impact of the PF funding in later evaluations as sustainability is one of the core goals of the Prototype Fund.

The experience of the UX coach

The presentation by Ame Elliott of Simply Secure, a non-profit that supports practitioners in putting people at the centre of trustworthy technology and one of the coaching partners for the participants' projects, summarised some of the ways how Prototype Fund projects profited from UX consulting; first on a practical level (by what means can the UX of a project be improved) and then sharing four examples of how UX questions played a key strategic role for some projects. This was a very insightful talk, highlighting how considerations of user experience are much more than questions of interface design, as it sometimes is perceived.

Questions (and answers, in brackets) from the projects presented covered considerations such as:

  • Should a feminist website indexing female conference speakers to promote diversity feature their photos? (Yes: in their benchmarking, the team found that omitting photos on sites primarily featuring women is on the contrary almost creepy as it makes them appear as faceless, interchangeable objects)

  • How casual can the writing style be on a website assisting renters fighting for their rights? (It's a fine line between being too casual, making it look like too "start-uppy", and too serious, ending up similarly inaccessible as the original bureaucratic documents)

  • How to explain a tool that in terms of its interface is neither an "app" nor an "email provider" but its functionality is somewhere in between? (The creative answer: "a robot living in your e-mail inbox")

  • Can "tech for good" have a brand promise and what is an appropriate way to communicate it? (While civic tech is commonly reather quiet and humble, and while the term itself may be frowned upon by some, a "brand" helps to differentiate from other options and promote a solution)

This was one of my favourite parts of the afternoon. Design considerations are a common weak spot of (often tech-driven, solution-oriented) open source projects, and seeing that not only common UX considerations but deeply strategic design aspects (Ame Elliott talked about "scalable benefits") had been addressed in the Prototype Fund's coaching concept shows that this programme is about more than just "helping people to code prototypes". From a few conversations I had or overheard in the breaks, participants truly appreciated the input to their projects in this regard.

Learnings from the projects

The list of projects can be read on the Prototype Fund's website, so instead of reciting the often highly entertaining presentations, I'd rather like to summarise five insights from the collective wisdom to be taken away from the event:

1. Finding partners can boost a project

Some of the participants were able to use their prototypes to onboard partners to take their projects further. Be it a research institution getting interested in the potential application of a solution or other activist groups with similar needs driving the development of the project, using the early stages of a prototype to pitch it to potential collaboration partners is highly beneficial; it broadens the context for the developer or team, while at the same time paving the way for potential funding or development contexts after the PF phase has ended.

From what the ministry representative said at the end, there is of course hope that projects evolve further into something with a potential economic impact. Building a network of interested stakeholders around one's project is probably the best way to get a foot in the door to further build on the outcome from the six-month Prototype Fund time frame.

2. Expect things to be more difficult

Another experience shared by several presenters was the learning that, once work on a project got started, sometimes surprising aspects turned out to be more difficult than anticipated during the application phase. Also personal life circumstances can affect how a project proceeds, and sometimes the focus or some aspects of the plan may change (within certain limits, I assume, given that the funding is based on what sounds like a rather restrictive legal framework, which according to the organizers' talks already stretch what is possible to the max).

In the end, however, it sounded like all the unexpected difficulties or adjustments to project scopes eventually contributed to the positive outcome. This is one key observation from this Demo Day: not a single presenter seemed unhappy with their final outcome. All of the presented projects were rather mature prototypes, some even much more than that. All adversities, it seems, ultimately were an enriching rather than limiting attribute of the projects.

3. Extensible design adds value to open source software

In more than one presentation it became obvious how the value of an open source project is increased by designing it in a way that enables its reuse beyond the original use case. Generally valid for any kind of tools (users always appropriate technology to match their own needs), in open source in particular - built with reuse in mind per definitionem - it is important to consider from the beginning how to maximise the reuse value of a creation.

Just as an example, CommonsBooking started out as a tool for booking community-shared cargo bicycles in the city of Cologne, but can today be applied to a wide range of use cases in cities all over Europe. GeoHub, a tool for editing geo data based on existing maps, on the other hand solves a very high-level problem (not having to redraw already existing lines) and will thereby be useful for a very wide range of tasks.

4. Concept over complexity

Value is often not derived from creating complex can-do-it-all solutions or from reinventing the wheel, but from executing one thing well, making use of what already exists. In quite a few of the presentations, it struck me just how "simple" ideas can be to create so much value (this is not to say that simple concepts would be simple to execute).

SignDict for example is one such project: looking at it now that its inventor has built a working site from his idea, it is actually a very straightforward combination of using ubiquitous webcams and a wiki-like system to build a community-driven sign language dictionary. Or Syrian Archive: collecting social media evidence of human rights violations in Syria in an automated manner and making use of the latest recognition techniques (side note: seeing software identifying different parts of ammunition shrapnel off video footage truly blew my mind) to assist categorisation by the community is - as a concept - far from rocket science; still, and the recent take-down of such videos by YouTube has proven it, there is enormous value in this platform.

5. Working with public administration is hard

Finally, some of the projects were about the provision of access to public data. Not a new challenge at all, it was still interesting to hear how some of the participants managed to break resistance and slowly build some level of trust - by what sounds like cumbersome and time-consuming work - to get some official instances on board. Baby steps, it sounds like, but steps nonetheless. Yet, when presenters use terms like "structural slowness", "fear of transparency" or "open data delivered in PDF files", it gives an idea how this is not an easy context to work in.

On the other hand, once these battles are won, the results are really impressive. Be it the interactive gentrification visualizer GentriMap, the FixMyBerlin service that enables participation in cycling infrastructure development processes, or the interactive advisor tool MietLimbo that helps determine whether a user's rent is within the legal range for their street of residence - only a well-designed application creates worth from such "open data".

An inspiring Demo Day

Back in my days as a student at the Aalto University Media Lab in Helsinki, "Demo Day" was the highlight of every semester; all students would burn the midnight oil to show off some of their latest ideas and prototypes, resulting in a pot-pourri of ideas, a creative explosion of sorts. But it was not only the name that reminded me of those days, it's the spirit that makes a true demo day, and it was more than once that I suddenly felt ten years younger, feeling that sensation again - a sensation of inspiration emerging from a group working on widely different topics but all with the curiosity for pushing the boundaries of how technology can be utilized to achieve a goal.

The Prototype Fund Demo Day featured 14 projects, on a diverse range of topics.

The third call for the Prototype Fund is open now. If you are a self-employed resident of Germany and have an open source project you would like to work on with funding for half a year, you have time to apply until September 30.