Application Trends From 2016: An Initial, Meta View

OTF in 2016 received nearly 700 requests for support seeking over $85 million, both the highest amount in the history of OTF’s operations
Wed, 2017-06-21 19:00

OTF’s open call proposal system is designed to solicit ideas from a diverse pool of applicants, whether their project or technology is a well-established, usable tool or just a brainstormed idea. This way, OTF aims to ensure that barriers to funding for new projects are low, available to as many people around the world as possible, while the ease of pitching a new idea is high. Unlike many funders, OTF keeps its application system open to all, which we believe facilitates the submission – and ultimately, the creation – of novel solutions to pressing and emerging internet freedom challenges.

We consider the number and nature of submissions we receive an important indicator of our connection with the global internet freedom community, and an informal gauge of the community’s needs and interests. With that in mind, we’d like to share here some key findings from a high-level, analytical assessment of OTF’s proposal system and we’re committing to releasing even more data in the future.

Since our start in 2012, we have seen a consistent upward trend annually in several key metrics categories, including the number of support requests received, total monetary amounts requested, and the number of people using OTF-supported technologies, for example. In 2016, that trend continued as these numbers again increased substantially from 2015 and years prior.

As we draft the 2016 edition of OTF’s annual report (past reports available here), we’d like to give here a bird’s eye view of OTF’s total requests received and a more minute breakdown of concept notes received.

Total Requests Received

Within OTF’s application process, a “request” is any sort of application received by OTF seeking funding or services. This includes concept note submissions, rapid response applications, lab requests, and fellowship applications.

Overall, in 2016 OTF received nearly 700 submissions requesting over $85 million. This represents a 67% increase in support requests from 2015.

Year : Requests
2012 : 12
2013 : 93
2014 : 373
2015 : 397
2016 : 729

This growth in interest in the program has brought with it an increasingly diverse pool of applicants, bringing to the table lots of new and exciting ideas on how to counter repressive internet censorship. Unfortunately, because OTF’s budget has not increased in parallel with this increased demand, the selection process for OTF funding has become more competitive than ever. In 2016, OTF funded less than 5% of concept note submissions received, compared to approximately 10% in 2014 and 2015. This trend has continued into 2017 as OTF has already received a record-breaking number of concept notes in back-to-back rounds (March and May).

Concept Notes Received

Within OTF’s application process, a “concept note” is the initial application submitted by an applicant, providing a brief overview of the project idea along with a proposed scope of work, budget, and other essential details. Concept notes pertain to the Internet Freedom Fund (OTF’s primary means of support) and Core Infrastructure Fund, so the following information and statistics pertain only to these two OTF funding mechanisms.

Round Breakdown

In 2016, OTF received 368 concept notes for its Internet Freedom and Core Infrastructure Funds. This represents a 85.9% increase from 2015, when OTF received 198 concept notes. OTF received the most concept notes in 2016 during the July 1 round with 61 concept notes submitted. At the time, this was the highest amount OTF had ever received during a single round. This record has already been surpassed twice in 2017, as OTF received a record high 115 concept notes during the March 1 round and 68 during the recent May 1 round.

Note: OTF did not have concept note rounds in 2012 and much of 2013. Thus, the total concept notes for those years have been evenly distributed across all rounds.

Regional Focus

When submitting a concept note, applicants have the option to select specific geographic region(s) that the proposed effort is intended to target or impact. The majority (almost 60%) of submitted concept notes listed a “global” focus not tied to any specific region. For those that did list a specific region, the two most popular geographic regions listed were “North Africa and Middle East” and “East Asia.” This is similar to what we saw in 2015 and 2014 when these two regions were also the most commonly listed, though the order was swapped.

Topical Focus

OTF supports research, development, and implementation efforts centered around four core focus areas: access to the internet, including tools to circumvent censorship and connection blackouts; awareness of access, privacy, or security threats and protective measures including how-to guides and data collection platforms; privacy enhancement, including the ability to be free from repressive surveillance and access the internet anonymously; and security from online threats, including encryption tools.

When submitting a concept note, applicants have the option to check one or more boxes specifying their project’s focus according to these four core areas of support. Here is the breakdown over the past three years according to focus area.

Finding a Low Cost Niche

Despite the rising number of concept note submissions, the proportion of submissions requesting less than $300,000 (the target ceiling of OTF support) was not affected. In 2016, more than 80% of concept notes submitted fell within this range – OTF’s highest level ever.

Overall, the median request level per concept note round has stayed remarkably consistent throughout OTF’s past three years.

The average amount requested per round has also stayed fairly consistent over the past three years.

Shorter-term support duration

Corresponding with the above target fiscal support ceiling, OTF aims to support projects for a duration of no more than 12 months. The majority of concept note submissions stayed within these parameters, with only 21% of concept notes requesting support for 13 or more months. 79% of concept notes received requested support for less than 12 months with 17% seeking support for 6 months or less, and 62% seeking support for 6-12 months.

When Concept Notes are Received

Perhaps the most remarkable consistency is seen when analyzing when concept notes are received by OTF. Every two months there is a marked spike in submissions, corresponding directly with the deadline that falls on the first of every other month.

More information, charts, data, and perhaps a GIF or two will be included in future blog posts and compiled in OTF’s forthcoming annual report, including an assessment of OTF’s supported projects by topical focus, range of monetary amount across OTF-supported projects, statistics on fellowship applications and Lab support requests, supported project information, and an overall breakdown of expenses.