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The coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep structural problems that go far beyond conventional ideas of public health, not least the impacts of pervasive inequality and racism. Civil society is mobilising to adapt and respond. Our ability to drive change will depend in part on our ability to communicate vital information in effective ways, harnessing the power of data and digital technology. The emergency has shown that the right information delivered in the right way can prompt people to change their individual behaviours and collectively save lives all over the world.

The iconic "Flatten the Curve" graph, which encouraged people everywhere to help contain the spread of COVID-19, is a case in point. It shows how measures such as hand-washing and social distancing can squash the expected peak of the pandemic, and keep infection numbers low enough for healthcare systems to manage. This simple public health chart, which originated in specialist journals and reports, was widely shared by traditional newspapers and magazines, then refined to clarify the message even further, translated into many languages, and creatively reworked into animations, cartoons and even cat videos.

Storytelling for advocacy is a challenge, especially in transparency work, where the characters are often lawyers—or laws—and not mythical heroes. As advocates who want to make a point to make a change, we need vivid imagery to deliver our message, especially because the changes we seek can be hard to explain.

We seek compelling stories the same way those heroes seek magic hammers and hidden temples. We’re on a quest for stories that can remake the world. But—spoiler alert—the quest often ends in disappointment.

When you’re an NGO technologist, you discover that every exciting technology plan comes with ‘small print’: caveats and contingencies that stand between your best case scenario and reality. A promising civictech tool runs up against scepticism that hobbles its impact, for example, or a new trove of government data gets released to find only a trickle of usage.

But to learn why tech succeeds or falls short in the governance context requires time and resources that NGOs don’t usually have. It takes research and reflection to understand that small print and delve into whether digital tools can foster better governance and greater participation—and, if so, under what conditions.