This past Fall, I was fortunate enough to participate in an online course offered by TechChange; Mobiles for International Development – TC105. If you’re unfamiliar with TechChange, their mission is as follows: “TechChange trains leaders to leverage relevant technologies for social change.” There are several resources I look to through my contacts, social media, and research in the field of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D), and TechChange is one on which I strongly rely.

How important is formal education in this rapidly changing and growing field of tech for social change? Due to the fluid nature of technology and the necessity to apply sustainable tech solutions, where they also make sense. It’s important to have educational “institutions” where academics, but more importantly practitioners, can learn, interact and communicate on relevant topics. This serves not just as an educational forum, but a way of sharing best practices, use cases, project successes and failures. We as human beings, learn from these multifaceted approaches, both academic and experiential. Traditional education institutions have been rather slow to integrate the ICT4D discipline into formal graduate level degree programs, with a couple of exceptions at the University of Manchester and the University of Colorado – Boulder. So TechChange and their curriculum is serving to bridge the gap in education with their certificate courses. Other offerings in the TechChange catalog are listed here.

So this brings me to the title of this post, Planting Seeds. Through the TechChange blended learning environment, Twitter chats, Skype calls, etc…I was able to meet “like minded souls” already working in the social change space in Haiti. Once I found I’d be traveling to Haiti to conduct some work and assessments for our Notre Dame Haiti Program and two additional TechChange TC105 students were already working in the country, we discussed getting together for an informal lunch meeting to discuss mobile tech and more specifically, the application of FrontlineSMS in our respective programs. The seeds were planted!

 Our TC105 moderator for Team Deserts, Flo Scialom (Community  Manager extraordinaire of FrontlineSMS in the UK), offered her  expertise in community building to help pull us, and others together.  Each day, as we criss-crossed Port-au-Prince and Leogane with  meetings at various ISP’s and Mobile Network Operators, I’d get an  email from Flo, “Tom, do you have room for one more?”, “Do you  have space for another?”…etc…The seeds were watered and nurtured!

So what started with three or four for an informal lunch, turned into  17 individuals, representing five continents and eight countries – and  a full blown FrontlineSMS meet-up luncheon at the Babako  Restaurant in Port-au-Prince. The organizations at the table  represented many sectors in the aid and development community: microfinance, sexual violence, IDP camp resettlements, human rights abuses, education, and public health. It really was inspiring to look around that table and realize how many Haitians were benefiting from the dedication of these individuals and their organizations. A true force multiplier! The seeds sprout!

The talk revolved around FrontlineSMS setup, configuration and use cases, as well as other mobile and open-source tools in the social change arena, such as RapidSMS, Ushahidi, OpenMRS, openrosa, and more. So this group was not so much about a single software application, but more about affecting change with any technology – fostering a community of practice around ICT4D/M4D, and educating ourselves about opportunities for change using technology. The flower blooms!

The big win was looking around the table, as diverse as our needs and applications are; we all shared a common purpose, enthusiasm and a collective knowledge, to affect positive change with technology. It’s my hope this group will continue to grow – to blossom to include others and be self sustaining, which will amplify the positive impact for our Notre Dame Haiti Program, the other organizations at the meet-up and ultimately the Haitian people.

TechChange Year In Review

We’ve posted the video slideshow of our year in review, but we need your help to pick the accompanying music!

Tweet your suggestions @TechChange using #TCParty or just use the comments section below.

Suggestions from our staff:


See why we need the help?


Suggestions from Twitter:

Stay tuned for more photos from the party at Busboys & Poets courtesy of slightlyworn

On November 9, TechChange President Nick Martin and the TechChange team were invited to participate in a roundtable discussion co-hosted by the International Peace Institute and the UNDP’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery on crowdsourcing for conflict prevention.

The discussion covered the policy challenges associated with crowdsourcing at a national level, as well as discussions about tools and human factors.  The UNDP’s Ozonnia Ojielo expertly explained the Amani 108 process in Kenya, Nick Martin and Google’s Beth Liebert spoke about communication and mapping tools involved in the process of crowdsourcing, and William Tsuma of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict talked about the human side of crowdsourcing, including the risks people face when participating.

Ozonnia Ojielo gave the audience an in-depth analysis of why the Amani 108 program, co-managed by the UNDP and Kenyan Government, was so effective for preventing significant outbreaks of violence during the referendum vote in 2010.  He explained the level of buy-in across all levels of society, and that there was both information gathering capacity and the ability to respond when needed.

Moving off this case study, Nick Martin, with the help of Jordan Hosmer-Henner, talked about  the social tools for crowdsourcing, including FrontlineSMS, Twitter, and Freedom Fone.  Since  these systems can provide a data analyst with geographic information, the TechChange team  had put together a crowdmap and provided the audience with information to text into a  FrontlineSMS platform.  Jordan then demonstrated how the texts are received in the  crowdmap, and how to map them.  This was a nice interactive touch, and allowed participants  who may not have seen mapping platforms to interact briefly with the software from their  seats.

Beth Liebert expanded on Nick and Jordan’s presentation, giving a detailed explanation of Google’s mapping products.  She demonstrated how the maps incorporated layering technology that could be easily used by non-technical practitioners, demonstrating the platform with a map that was designed during the London riots to provide information on police activity, safe spaces and different types of events.  This information is all crowdsourced using the tools that Nick and Jordan discussed, and Beth provided a superb explanation of the depth and capacity Google mapping products have for bringing data to life.

William Tsuma brought the conversation back to the operational side, speaking about the challenges of organizing crowdsourcing operations in environments where security was a problem and the issues surrounding data sharing with governments and security agencies.  His suggestions demonstrated practical examples of how to work around these challenges, as well as methods that professionals could employ while working on crowdsourcing at the community level.

The discussion covered the range of issues at the policy level, covered tools and technical needs for crowdsourcing, and brought the conversation back to the core issue, that we are trying to improve the lives of people affected by conflict and instability.  Roundtables like these, hosted by organizations doing good work in the field and supporting critical research on conflict prevention, provide a space to discuss the intersection of tools, policy and human challenges of crowdsourcing while giving a variety of experts the opportunity to ask questions and share their insights.

In the fall of 2011, TechChange facilitated its first series of online courses.  The courses were each three weeks long and covered the following topics (we will also be running these courses again in the Spring):

Participant Demographics

In total, we had 170 participants from 43 countries and the response has been remarkably positive. Participants came from a range of organizations, including:

Voice of America World Bank IREX
USAID World Pulse Media Mercy Corps
Plan International Freedom House UNDP
World Vision Concern Notre Dame
International Rescue Committee International Youth Foundation Teachers Without Borders
International Red Cross Office of the First Lady of the Dominican Republic Radio Station in Haiti (Minustah FM)


This post is contributed by a guest author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of TechChange or the TechChange staff

The development of a robust state is almost always tied to education. The mode of education that has been in fashion since colonialism favors the privileged teacher entering an underprivileged area and bestowing light upon the children, or adults as it may be. There are a few problems with this, not least the fact that really good teachers don’t often go to the places they are needed most.

Two interesting experiments suggest that those teachers aren’t needed; if the tools are given to children in developing areas, they will naturally teach themselves.

Suguta Mitra has recently developed what he calls Self Organized Learning Environments (or, SOLEs), which are designed for children in groups to utilize technology (e.g. high speed Internet, video calling, etc.) for self-teaching. The SOLEs stem from smaller experiments he conducted throughout the world with children being given nothing but the tool – no instruction on how to use it, no goal – to see just how much they could learn.

The first experiment sees a computer with a broadband connection placed into a slum of India. Within weeks, the children of the town are using the computer to teach themselves…well, anything. Some use it to record music and play it back. Others download games and teach friends how to play them. In one eye-opening example, Mitra places computers in a classroom, tells Tamil-speaking 12-year old children in a South Indian village to learn biotechnology in English, on their own. He explains:

“I called in 26 children… I told them that ‘there’s some really difficult stuff on this computer, I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t understand anything. It’s all in English and uh, I’m going.”

He returned two months later to see just what the children had learned and one girl responds, “Apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we’ve understood nothing else.”

The idea that such a small catalyst — the introduction of a computer to a group with no prior experience/instruction — could blossom into the development of intellectual societies driven by a preternatural instinct to learn is reminiscent of emergence theory, which maintains that simple actions lead to complex systems.

Another such example of emergence theory in education comes in Neil Gershenfeld’s Fab Labs.  His project deals in relatively low-cost labs – about $20,000 each – that allow people to build the things they need using digital and analog tools. The idea is that rather than using technology as a top down equalizer, giving people the technology will allow them to create solutions for themselves.

This is beginning to rattle the foundations of emerging economies who often depend on the aid – financial or otherwise – given by established countries. Now, rather than wait for someone to offer help, they can literally create their own. It’s particularly important in places where outsiders fail to understand the cultural dynamics of an area. Mitra’s SOLEs and Gershenfeld’s Fab Labs allow local economies to create local solutions, thereby empowering themselves.

Global technology is advancing swiftly. Software and information are becoming cheaper through cloud computing, which pushes the costs down further and simultaneously creates a wireless resource that people can tap into. As the cloud broadens and the technology revolution continues, so too will the revolution in education and the way we think about developing nations.

Thomas Stone is a freelance writer and frequent contributing author at gospel(s).

Cross-posted from The Amani Institute Blog.


If you’ve been reading the news much in America this past year (or talking to me at all), you’ve likely heard about the current crisis in higher education. And the doomsayers are no light-weights. They include The Economist wondering if American universities will become like its car companiesThe Washington Post predicting the decline will more likely mirror newspapers, and if you like your news delivered via guru, Seth Godin flat-out predicts a meltdown.

And that’s just for starters. Seriously. Google “crisis in higher education” and you’ll see what I mean.

But why? In this brief RSA-style videoAnya Kamenetz elaborates some of the reasons.


What do you think? Is higher education a bubble about to burst? Are American universities as we know them endangered? This is a topic we’ll come back to from time to time.


We’ll be addressing this issue among others in our new course New Technologies for Educational Practice that begins next February. Apply now to join thought leaders and other professionals in the four-week online certificate course! 

Editor’s note: Dr. Matthew Levinger is a guest author and as such his views do not necessarily reflect the institutional or personal views of TechChange or its staff. His course is not directly associated with TechChange in any way and is being offered in as part of the US Institute of Peace training  academy.

The advance of information and communication technologies over the past decade has been so astonishingly rapid that it is easy to lose track of the historic dimensions of this transformation.  Google Maps and Google Earth were both launched in 2005, just six years ago, and the Google search engine itself is just 14 years old. Today, there are more than 5 billion active cell phones around the world–an average of nearly one for every human being on the planet.

Two years ago this month, the first International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM) was held at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Next month, the third ICCM will convene in Geneva, Switzerland, as the annual gathering of a volunteer network with 2,900 members from 137 countries.

As GIS and other place-based technologies continue their exponential rate of advance, the need for sustained dialogue between the producers and the consumers of data from volunteer GIS-based and other participatory mapping projects becomes ever more urgent.  The producers of this data are predominantly experts in information and communication technologies, whereas the consumers of the data include international humanitarian responders, officials from governments and international organizations, members of advocacy groups, and residents of communities afflicted by natural disasters or political crises.  Miscommunication and cultural disconnects can easily arise among these diverse stakeholder groups, with negative effects on the outcomes of participatory mapping projects.

Collaborative efforts to map humanitarian and political crises pose both logistical and ethical challenges.  From a logistical standpoint,  participatory mapping projects have often had limited impact in supporting more effective crisis response efforts—in part because of insufficient coordination between the technical specialists who have organized and led mapping initiatives and the end users of the data who are charged with responding to these crises. A recent UN Foundation report entitled Disaster Relief 2.0 points out shortcomings in the crisis mapping efforts launched after the Haiti earthquake: “The international humanitarian system was not tooled to handle these two new information fire hoses—one from the disaster-affected community and one from a mobilized swarm of global volunteers.”

From an ethical standpoint, such mapping projects pose a number of thorny questions, for example:

  • Are the producers or recipients of data from these projects exposed to security risks or other potential adverse consequences, including threats to privacy?
  • What negative effects may result from false or distorted reporting?  For example, after the Haiti earthquake, many reports of victims trapped inside collapsed buildings were posted by people seeking help for digging out the corpses of family members who had been buried in the rubble.
  • Does the establishment of a crowdsourcing platform for crisis mapping create unwarranted expectations that there will be a timely response to reports by people in need?  Some observers have suggested that creating an Ushahidi platform for a disaster zone is akin to establishing a 911 telephone line without giving the dispatchers any emergency response capability.
  • What are the ethical implications of creating universal surveillance systems that compile streams of data from diverse sources?
  • In the context of violent conflicts and other political crises, how can parties to the conflict be prevented from using crowd-sourcing platforms to spread disinformation or incite violence, e.g. by exaggerating the number of victims or falsely accusing their opponents of war crimes or mass atrocities?

These ethical and logistical questions need to be effectively addressed as part of an operational plan prior to an intervention.  While getting the hard data is important, we also have to remember that our goal is providing aid and support to the people affected by conflict.

Matthew Levinger is a senior program officer in the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where he teaches professional education programs on conflict analysis, conflict prevention, and participatory conflict mapping.  He has worked previously as founding director of the Academy for Genocide Prevention at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and as a senior intelligence analyst at the U.S. Department of State.  A historian by training, he spent 14 years teaching Modern European History at Stanford University and Lewis & Clark College before moving to Washington, D.C.


Image Courtesy of the Author

The story that follows is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), whose working conclusion is that the riots that occurred on September 11th and 12th, 2011, taking  seven lives and causing 65 injuries on the small island of Ambon, Indonesia, may have been intentionally provoked by certain parties through text message rumors.


Despite a slow and ineffective response by police on the ground, the violence did not engulf the entire island.  Some say that the riots were contained by efforts in the same vessel through which they were spread: text messages and virtual social networks.


Image Source: Ushahidi

Mini Biography

Adam Papendieck has an MPH from Tulane University and a technical background in GIS, Statistics and Information Systems.  He is currently the Sr. Program Manager for Technology at the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University, where his role is to leverage appropriate and innovative information technologies in support of research projects, funded Public Health capacity-building projects in East Africa, and crisis informatics activities with the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy.  He has worked on applied ICT activities such as the creation of a dynamic web mapping application for the World Vision US corporate information portal, the design and implementation of open source thin client computer labs in Rwanda, the creation of e-learning platforms at African institutions of higher education, various crisis mapping initiatives and disaster analytics activities for the Gulf Oil Spill, Hurricane Katrina and other events. (more…)