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weDevelop: Can We Create an Empowering Web of Development with the Individual at the Center?

Tanya Gupta's picture

Development organizations operate at the global level, partnering both with countries to implement country strategies, and within sectors to tackle sectoral challenges.  NGOs on the other hand, operate at the grassroots level, working with individuals towards the betterment of communities.  Development organizations have the advantage of resources, many years of experience and knowledge but are generally several degrees removed from the individual.  NGOs are in touch with the needs of citizens and are able to respond quickly to challenges but unable to scale up.  The two have worked together, but so much more can be done.  Over the last several years the dynamic has undergone a fundamental change.  Cue to technology, which is fast emerging as a game changer in the world of development.  Technology enables linkages based on mutual agreement (e.g. development institutions-NGOs) as well as linkages that evolve organically (e.g. a grassroots human rights group in Kenya that builds a relationship with a Swedish development institution focused on social inclusion). 

In my earlier blog on the subject, I wrote about how volunteer technical communities in disaster management brought about real improvements in the area.  The use of disruptive, community-driven Web 2.0 technology by volunteer and technical communities (VTCs) working on disaster and conflict management is well known. VTCs such as OpenStreetMap, CrisisMappers, Crisis Commons, Sahana and Ushahidi have contributed greatly to disaster management. VTCs have used SMS, social media and satellite imagery; built communities around humanitarian efforts; and created technology tools and wikis, using open source software, hardware and platforms, as well as free cloud based services in affected countries such as Haiti, Libya and Japan.  One of the major challenges ahead, as documented in a recent report Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies, was "in exploring how to better coordinate between the structured and hierarchical humanitarian system and the relatively loosely organized and flat volunteer and technical communities”  and that “without a direct relationship with the humanitarian system, volunteer and technical communities run the risk of mapping needs without being able to make sure that these needs can be met".  Volunteer and technical communities are but one example of virtual communities that have been built around common development goals.  To provide an interface between volunteers and traditional organizations in the field, USAID is partnering with two volunteer technical communities for the Agency’s first crowdsourcing project: the Standby Task Force (SBTF) and GISCorps, winner of a 2012 President’s Volunteer Service Award.  We can re-state the challenge in terms of how to better coordinate structured and hierarchical development organizations (and not just humanitarian ones) with NGOs (including volunteer communities), and beyond that, to the individual.   

Can technology be a real game changer? Let’s look at the bane of many development institutions - malaria - and how it is being tackled through crowdsourcing.  One child dies every minute from malaria in Africa (source).  Any gains made through crowdsourcing would constitute a real contribution to reduction in childhood mortality and disease control.  To tackle this challenge, a UCLA team created a crowdsourced online gaming system in which players distinguish malaria-infected red blood cells from healthy ones by viewing digital images obtained from microscopes.  The team found that a small group of non-experts playing the game was collectively able to diagnose malaria-infected red blood cells with an accuracy that was within 1.25 percent of the diagnostic decisions made by a trained medical professional.  The game, which can be accessed on cell phones and personal computers, can be played by anyone around the world, including children.  I chatted with Dr. Ozcan from the UCLA team, about how they planned to scale up in the future.  Dr. Ozcan said, “As for future, this telemedicine platform will be used for combining the decisions of professional pathologists to reduce overall diagnosis errors, even for relatively poorly trained health care workers. It will also provide us a new training platform for professional health care workers.  In the long run, we expect this telemedicine platform also help our machine learning algorithms by providing high quality data toward automated diagnosis”.  To think about how ordinary, untrained people spread all over the earth can tackle the complex problem of diagnosis, and help unseen, suffering populations in remote areas, is an amazing example of how connected individuals using technology can change the world for the better.

Let me end this blog with a vision.  Assume a development project on primary education in a developing country is aimed at a) pedagogical support and in-service teacher training; and b) teaching and learning materials - funded by partner UNDP.  The anticipated outcome is improving the quality of primary education through providing teaching and learning material, and pedagogical support to, and in service training for untrained teachers.  The implementing agency is the Ministry of Education, and the stakeholders who were consulted include the local NGOs. 

In this ideal project the “web” of development would be clearly evident: consultation records available for all, the opinions of the NGOs recorded, the contributions of UNDP recorded and the development organization’s outputs and outcome data widely available.  We would be able to see the “stories” of the teachers who were trained, their personal record of their achievements, the picture of the classroom that was built, videos of the lectures, the materials, and of course the records of the children that were educated. 

The existing funding channels may not be able to fund all the needs, so voluntary organizations would fill the gap.  Perhaps there would be an international version of a “Kickstarter” project for school supplies.  Say there are 3 or 4 needy students who are not able to pay for their tuition at a particular school.  Let’s create a charity organization called “Helping Through Stories”.  This organization posts the stories of children in need written by volunteer writers and editors and sets fundraising goals for each child.  They decide to “adopt” the cause of our school and write the stories of the 3 or 4 students who need help with their tuition.  Let’s suppose Aluna is a girl student who gets very good grades and does her school work assiduously, while helping her single mother who is a farm worker, with her household chores.  Ming, living in Singapore, sees the “Helping with stories” writeup about Aluna and becomes one of 10 people who are part of the virtual community that will fund Aluna’s education.  All of this gets recorded on the Helping with Stories website, which in turn links to the other projects helping the school.  Here we have all the vertical linkages (educational outcomes of the nation, state, the school, the teachers, the children) and the horizontal linkages (the development organization, the virtual communities, the NGOs) and associated data captured in (almost) real time, and hopefully published in an open format that makes the whole process transparent and accessible to all. The rise of technology, the Internet, social media and collaborative technologies based on distributed and decentralized, yet linked structures are thus potentially able to rewrite development more effectively than our former “manual “world.  The goal of development could then well be to enable and connect this global collective intelligence

The idea of open development, after all, is essentially that the connected individual (the unit of global intelligence) can drive bottom-up development. The impact of such efforts can be far-reaching and much more powerful than any hierarchical development organization/NGOs.  Development organizations can enable the connected individual to take center stage in development.  They can do so by encouraging the development of horizontal and vertical connectivity tools.  The use of these tools can enable and empower not only through rigorous data made available at each level (whether horizontal or vertical) but also through inspiring stories of development.  This will keep powering the positive cycle of open development.

Photo Credit: Gerhard Jörén / World Bank

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