State Department Is Trying To Make A Thousand Ushahidis Bloom

Foggy Bottom has a plan to jump-start a venture-capital approach to the field of humanitarian tech.

Haiti earthquake damageWhen the earthquake decimated Haiti last year, technologists around the world converged online to develop tools to help rescuers find victims and raise funds. Now the State Department wants to see if it can take that impulse and put it to work helping grassroots organizations tackle humanitarian problems around the world even when there isn't a horrible disaster to deal with.

To do that, the State Department is convening a series of "TechCamps" in different parts of the globe this year to bring together non-governmental organizations that know the problems, with technology experts who might have innovative ideas about how to tackle them.

"We saw the ability of digital natives and the networked world, using lightweight and easily iterated tools, to do something rapidly that a big organization or government would find difficult, if not impossible, to do," Richard Boly, the State Department’s director of eDiplomacy, tells Fast Company. "The question is: Can we get that same magic to happen when people aren’t dying?"

The State Department tested out the idea in Santiago last fall, as part of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Civil Society 2.0 initiative to bring more technology into diplomatic efforts. In that gathering, NGOs and technologists from around Latin America discussed tools to promote democracy and economic development.

The new conferences will work similarly to the Santiago one—but with a twist. This time, the State Department will also be inviting the people who might pay for these innovations—including the World Bank, USAID, and large corporations—so that ideas that emerge will have a way to live beyond the conference.

"It’s a way to identify the next Ushahidi or FrontlineSMS and help them scale quickly," Boly says.

The idea represents a shift in how the U.S. thinks about solving humanitarian problems. Traditionally, USAID has spelled out projects and commissioned large organizations to execute them. The resulting work might or might not solve the original problem (the Western approach to aid has received a lot of criticism in recent years), but it always costs a lot of money. Attacking problems this way certainly doesn’t foster the kind of lean-and-mean bottom-up problem-solving that flourishes in places like Silicon Valley.

"It assumes that the person who has the money has defined the problem and thought about how to solve it. There’s a huge opportunity for [us] to get it wrong," says Boly, who has a history of spurring entrepreneurship. During a foreign service posting to Italy, Boly brought businessmen to the U.S. to learn how venture capital works. And during a stint in Silicon Valley back in the '80s, Boly helped launched the first Macintosh.

USAID is welcoming the new approach. "TechCamp is all about digital development," USAID Chief Innovation Officer Maura O'Neill tells Fast Company via email. "We are mashing up local insights and tech tools to save lives, create stable and open governments, and greater prosperity for all."

The first of the upcoming TechCamps takes place in Jakarta later this month (selected in part because Indonesia has the second largest number of Facebook users after the United States, indicating a certain tech-savviness). That gathering will focus on tools to aid in disaster response—this time, before the disaster occurs.

Next on the roster is Moldova, with a focus on open government. Then Lithuania, to coincide with the biennial convening of the Community of Democracies. Another six or seven gatherings are in the works, the State Department says, to possibly take place in India, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

The diplomats are hoping a new round of companies will emerge from the gatherings, along with tighter networks to collaborate in the future. But they don’t see TechCamps as a cure-all. "We’re going to find that it works in some contexts better than others," Noel Dickover, the cofounder of CrisisCommons who is now working with the eDiplomacy group, tells Fast Company. "We’re still kicking the tires on it."

Read also: State Department Convenes Tech Conference for NGOs in Latin America

[Images: Flickr users newbeatphoto and expertinfantry]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter. Email.

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