Adriana Groh, the head of the Prototype Fund, on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on open-source software, navigating a data-driven world with confidence and the skills needed for developing technology providing benefits for the common good.
“A good network is needed for public-interest tech projects!”
Policy Lab: Ms Groh, the Prototype Fund is a Civic Innovation Platform cooperation partner. What makes the collaboration so inspiring for you?
Groh: Both the Prototype Fund and the Civic Innovation Platform encourage people who are driving forward innovations and technological developments that offer added social value. Via this partnership, we can share our experience and what we have learned, which leads to important synergistic effects.
Policy Lab: What added value does the Civic Innovation Platform offer?
Groh: Frequently, it is difficult to find partners for larger projects. Networking on the platform can play an important role in this regard.
Policy Lab: The Prototype Fund is a funding and research programme for open-source ideas in the field of public-interest tech. How did the initiative arise and who is the project aimed at?
Groh: The initiative was established in 2016 and has its roots in the experience gained from the Code for Germany network. Code for Germany is a Germany-wide, voluntary, and decentralised network for people who apply their skills in software development, design, or data journalism for the benefit of the common good. With the Prototype Fund, we want to promote innovations arising in digital civil society and establish a very low funding threshold to reach new target groups in the free software community. The project enables many people to test their ideas and attracts around 300 applications in each round.
Policy Lab: What skills are required for good public-interest tech projects to get off the ground? What aspects are decisive when it comes to developing ideas?
Groh: It is not necessarily an advantage to approach an idea in terms of the technology you want to implement. Rather, it is better to explore the problem in depth and to reach out to the community that has been looking into the specific issue for some time already. This community can then also be involved in the process of finding solutions. In this way, technical applications are developed with the people concerned rather than for them.
Policy Lab: Does the question of open source also play a role?
Groh: Yes. As we see it, public-interest tech is always based on open-source approaches due to the greater transparency, the theoretically higher security and the better usability. The use of open-source licences allows the community to continue working on the products that are being funded and to consistently improve and maintain them. For us, this is a further important criterion for public-interest tech.
"It is better to explore the problem in depth and to reach out to the community that has been looking into the specific issue for some time already. This community can then also be involved in the process of finding solutions. In this way, technical applications are developed with the people concerned rather than for them."
Policy Lab: How do you assess the potential for innovation from civil society compared with the seemingly unlimited resources available to Big Tech?
Groh: I don’t want to play one off against the other. However, obviously, our funding contest shows how beneficial a free, unrestricted, and transdisciplinary space can be for innovation. It’s always impressive to see how creatively people from different backgrounds can work together – even if it’s only for an afternoon. Large companies with their ingrained structures are often more cumbersome.
Policy Lab: How are you experiencing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on public-interest tech and open source? Has there been any increase in the interest in such tools on the part of civil society as well as the business community?
Groh: We’ve been seeing a form of acceleration. The coronavirus pandemic has heightened the need for open-source software as it can be customised more quickly than centralised systems. In a situation as challenging as a pandemic, in which qualified employees as well as many volunteers suddenly want to help, it is possible to react far more swiftly as it is not necessary to adhere to formalised process steps. I think that the crisis has really shone a light on the significance of open data. In some cases, important data required for urgent decisions has not always been available.
Policy Lab: Thematically, your funding projects also concern software infrastructure in addition to civic tech, IT security, and data literacy. Why is it important to promote infrastructure?
Groh: The best software applications are no good if they are based on poorly maintained or neglected systems. For this reason, software infrastructure should not be treated differently to the infrastructure we see and use each day, namely as part of a public service that must be duly maintained in order to remain competitive in the long term. This is the challenge.
Policy Lab: What is the current situation with regard to data literacy in Germany and what value is being attached to the ability to evaluate and understand data?
Groh: I do not presume to be able to judge data literacy in Germany as a whole. What I can say, however, is that the ability to understand data is crucial. Today, we’re able to collect vast amounts of data on the basis of which decisions that affect us all are made. This calls for a solid foundation. For this reason, data literacy must be specifically promoted, otherwise acting with self-assurance and developing informed opinions will become difficult in a data-driven world.
Policy Lab: As a cooperation partner, you have been overseeing the selection of the most convincing ideas in the Civic Innovation Platform contest. What do you think are the biggest challenges now facing the teams in developing their project ideas?
Groh: The teams’ own ambitions often pose a major challenge as there is mostly not enough time to do justice to them, as difficult as that may be. You have to consider what you actually need. At the beginning of the project in particular, the focus should be on the core aspects and objectives of the project because at the end of the day it all boils down to how effective the project is. In addition to working on your own project, you also need to establish a network. Although this involves a lot of time, it is very important in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of a project.
Policy Lab: Thanks for talking to us, Ms Groh.