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East Asia and Pacific

How 'Big Data' Can Benefit the Public Good

Aleem Walji's picture

Patrick Svenburg, co-founder of Random Hacks of Kindness, tells "Developers for Development" audience: "There's no shortage of big ideas in the world.  It's the action part that's often lacking."


“Big Data” –- the billions upon trillions of bytes of digital information that are pumped into cyberspace every nanosecond –- has a single, secular mission: to keep growing. Now, software developers – the not-so-nerdy techies who keep Big Data growing at its feverish rate –- are striving to channel Big Data into the public good.

On Monday at the World Bank, developers came together with the development community -- in person and virtually through Skype video -- to figure out how to do that.

The entire "Developers for Development" can be seen on B-Span, the World Bank's webcasting service.

The afternoon event, which attracted an auditorium-ful of in-person visitors (many of them curious staffers from risk management and ICT at the World Bank) and many more via the live webcast that was offered in English, French, and Spanish, started with developers showing what's already been achieved since the first CrisisCamp about data and the public good was convened in Washington with CrisisCommons-World Bank co-sponsorship in June 2009.

The first demo was about the on-the-fly proliferation of CrisisCamps internationally in response to the earthquake that devastated Haiti in February.

Water and Poor People: No More Charity

Tom Grubisich's picture

When Ned Breslin, CEO for the international social company Water for People, talks, the effect can be like a splash of cold water on your face.  Development-speak is not his style.

Take this snippet from his new "Rethinking Hydro-Philanthropy" essay:

 

 

"Success will require less single-minded focus on the absolute number of people without access to water and sanitation facilities and more focus on the serious questions around long-term impact and sustainability. So that years after the cameras have left, the donor reports have been filed, and the press release circulated, the community is not forgotten."

"Sweat equity" from needy communities is not enough, Breslin argues.  "Up-front community contributions," he says, are essential to making new water -- and sanitation -- facilities sustainable.

Water for People won a US$200,000 Development Markektplace 2007 award for water facilities in Malawi, which Breslin, in this radio interview, says "has some of the worst water and sanitation problems in Africa."

Breslin's credo -- that water and sanitation in poor countries should not be viewed as a charity mission -- is being validated elsewhere.

'Hot Spots,' 'Bright Spots,' and Hidden Strengths in Capacity

Tom Grubisich's picture

There is a laser-like focus on the capacity of developing countries to respond effectively to the steep challenges of their Millennium Development Goals and

Ethiopian farmer, with his children, shows newly irrigated crop to extension agent.

destructive climate change.  Capacity gaps are relentlessly pinpointed.  Sometimes national governments themselves provide the toughest evaluations, like this one from Bangladesh's Ministry of Environment and Forest on the country's climate adaptation action program:

"...institutional capacity including human resource quality [is] weak and poor and needs substantial improvement if the challenges of climate change are to be faced squarely....A lack of awareness, both of the potential gravity and the extent of the problem as well as possible actions that could be taken, is the foremost [barrier]. This lack of awareness exists at all levels from national level policy makers to sectoral and local level officials as well as amongst civil society and the most vulnerable communities themselves...."

There are, to be sure, capacity gaps in Bangladesh and other developing countries, and identifying what and where they are is the first step in closing them.  But there are also "bright spots" and, perhaps more important, underlying strengths, especially at the local level across all developing countries that can be masked by the emphasis on gaps.

Act Globally, Act Locally

Antonio Lambino's picture

Like Silvio Waisbord (see previous post), I was also at the International Studies Association Conference in New Orleans.  One of the sessions I attended, “Institututionalisation and Norms in Global Governance”, spoke to CommGAP’s interest in how global standards emerge and spread.  How do norms wend their way to the top of the global policy and decision agendas and get embedded in the policy regimes of various countries?  It’s a massive question and no single panel or conference can comprehensively explore its multiple dimensions.  This panel, however, did a good job at pointing toward some promising directions.

Social Entrepreneur -- With an Emphasis on 'Entrepreneur'

Tom Grubisich's picture

We're hearing more and more about the "social entrepreneur" as the development community looks for new ways to achieve better results, especially with many developing countries struggling to meet their 2015 Millennium Development Goals and at the same time cope with destructive climate change.

Ashoka, itself a pioneer in social entrepreneurship, has a pretty good definition:

"Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change."

But maybe the definition should also emphasize a special breed of social entrepreneurs -- those who tackle major social issues by launching projects that seek to be profitable.

When Fast Company magazine in 2008 honored 45 nonprofit social entrepreneurs "who are changing the world," it also tipped its hat to 10 for-profit companies with social missions.

Trying to change the world with a project funded by development donors can be maddeningly frustrating.  Even with a successful pilot, a nonprofit company is likely to encounter repeated funding snags and gaps in its quest for sustainability and replication.

Joel Selanikio was a Marketplace 2003 winner with the innovative idea to collect health-care data with hand-held computers.   DataDyne, the company that pediatrician Selanikio and his partner, technologist Rose Donna, co-founded, is a not-for-profit limited liability corporation (LLC).  Its personal digital assistant -- EpiSurveyor -- was an immediate success in health care in Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries.  But Selanikio had to keep making the rounds of donors for each step of his growth.  He was the model of the "ambitious and persistent" social entrepreneur -- but: "I got tired wearing out the knees of my trousers" making successive proposals to development donors, he said in an interview.


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