TechChange alumni are always doing amazing things. They have launched mHealth apps to help with HIV prescriptions in South Africa, started mapping projects for maternal health in Ghana and more. Today, we feature an alumna from our Mapping for International Development course, Dominique Narciso!

Since taking our course last year, Dominique has gone on to found her own mapping platform, AidWell. We caught up with Dominique to hear more:

Tell us about AidWell
D: AidWell is a crowdsourced mapping and collaboration platform that would make it easy and simple to know the development stakeholders within a given issue area, such as youth development or water.

What inspired you to start AidWell?
D: During my time at Georgetown’s Master of Science in Foreign Service Program, I began to see the emerging trends in international development, where new players were growing in influence and new types of innovations were being implemented across the globe. I thought to myself, what if there was a way to see how all of these organizations are connected, visually?

Then I took TechChange’s Mapping for International Development course and really saw the possibility of visualizing this information, which pushed me further to make AidWell a reality.

Why a mapping platform?
D: If you are looking to learn about what issues different organizations are working on today, there is currently no mapping tool that consolidates this type of information in an easy and user-friendly way. Right now, it is a tedious process to find that out; you may do some google searches, reach out to your networks, or laboriously look at some NGO directories.

AidWell steps in to make it easier to just see it all in one platform on a map. It would serve US-based organizations looking to make connections with local development stakeholders and for in-country organizations looking to collaborate and learn from one another.

Dom with her team Dominique with her AidWell team

Where is AidWell right now?
D: Since starting-up, I’ve conducted a multitude of informational interviews with international NGOs, foundations, social enterprises, and donors to learn more about the need and potential viability of a mapping platform. Currently, our small AidWell team is conducting mini-experiments to understand demand and pinpoint the major challenges faced by potential users, when looking for local information of organizations.

Where do you see AidWell in a few years?
D: My vision for AidWell is to create the leading stakeholder mapping platform for the international development field, a mapping platform that opens up the possibilities for new connections and innovative ways for sharing knowledge. In the next 3-6 months, the AidWell team will be working on proving the concept, building a minimum viable product, and testing the platform in three pilot countries.

Some potential uses for this platform would include:

  • A first stop for program designers and donors when gathering information to design partnerships, cross-sector collaborations, or collective impact strategies
  • A resource for local organizations to see who is working on the same issues in their country, and potentially a virtual space for collaboration and learning
  • A country stakeholder map service for grantmakers and implementing organizations, that inform funding and stakeholder engagement strategies

Where does AidWell fit in the bigger picture?
D: With the Sustainable Development Goals being released the end of this year, there has been lots of conversations around cross-sector collaboration and public-private partnerships. One goal that stands out in this sentiment is Goal 17: ‘Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.’

This one goal is a sign that the way development is being done will continually change, as we reimagine the way organizations work with one another, how knowledge is shared across sectors and across borders, and how unlikely players can contribute to innovative approaches for development. I believe AidWell can be a part of this bigger goal, by helping organizations make that first step in knowing and engaging with the right organizations from day one.

Check out Dominique’s platform, AidWell here. If you would like to help with AidWell’s research and/or share ideas on mapping, please get in touch with Dom at with the title ‘TechChange: AidWell Suggestion.’

Interested in learning more about how mapping can impact social good, check out our upcoming course on Mapping for Social Good that begins on October 26, 2015.

About Dominique
Dominique Narciso is a skilled relationship builder, creative implementer, and forward-thinking leader in the international development space. She has over eight years of experience working on community development initiatives, social enterprise, and economic development. She is the Founder of AidWell, a start-up organization working to catalyze cross-sector collaboration through a web-based mapping platform to connect and map out players in the development space. She worked at Social Impact as a Business Development Manager, designing their international processes for future business opportunities. During her service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica, she co-designed several youth, women, and economic development initiatives with community members and local leaders. She has a Master’s of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a dual BA from UCLA in Communication Studies and Women’s Studies.

This year, we kicked off our first TechChange summer fellowship. We had three fellows join us in our TechChange office in Washington D.C. We sat down to chat with one of our Tech Fellows, Nithya Menon, a rising senior at Harvey Mudd College.

How did you hear about TechChange?

My interests in technology and education could take me in a lot of different directions, but I craved a global and social impact element, so I was thrilled when TechChange appeared in my Google search results. I kept up to date with their work, and was really excited when I saw the fellowship announcement. I stopped everything and began applying. Usually writing job applications is a drag, but not this time. My fantasies about working at TechChange were getting closer to reality. And don’t worry, even though I stopped studying for finals to apply, I still passed all my classes.

Tell us a little bit about yourself

I am a rising senior engineer at Harvey Mudd College. I grew up in Seattle, WA and frequently travel to India to spend time with my family. I’m an avid tennis player, but in general, I love being active and going on adventures. Music has always been an important part of my life and I love getting to experience it with others. I’ve recently discovered my love for hiking and camping, and some of my favorite stories are about surviving ridiculous trips into the wilderness with friends.

I have always felt incredibly blessed to have the resources and opportunities that I do, and I would love to use my knowledge and passions to boost people’s potential for sustainable growth. I believe in the power of education to tackle problems from the ground up and encourage people to learn from each other. Working at TechChange this summer gave me the chance to see how my love for education and interest in technology could combine to tackle some of the world’s greatest problems.

Where were you when you found out you were accepted into the fellowship?

I was sitting in class on the Wednesday before spring break when my phone rang. My heart raced. I was expecting the big news today. But we were reviewing for an exam and I couldn’t answer. Would they call to reject me? Might it be good news? After stressing myself out for the rest of class, I called Will Chester, TechChange Chief Technology Officer. He began asking me how I was doing, how my day had been going. The anticipation was killing me. Finally he said the words I had been dreaming of for months. I had been offered a position! I immediately sent some texts written in all caps to my best friend and parents, and ran to my next class. I can still vividly remember my sheer elation.

Nithya working
Nithya at her standing desk, where she works with dozens of code windows open on this monitor and equal numbers of Chrome tabs open on her laptop

Why did you choose TechChange to spend your summer?

TechChange’s mission combines my three biggest passions- education, social impact, and technology and the small company culture suites my learning and working styles. I knew that the people I would meet through being at TechChange, both employees and other connections, would be invaluable. I came out to DC to experience a different world and create a new network, and TechChange would help me accomplish that. A summer at TechChange would give me so much more than just greater technical skills.

What did you do at TechChange this summer? What was your role at TechChange?

I came on as a Tech Fellow, but the beauty of a small company is the number of roles or experiences you can collect. I worked with the sales team to automate significant parts of the payment process. I worked closely with marketing to integrate our methods of data collection to maintain better, more usable data on our users. Also on the marketing side, I created more visual features and flexibility for our main site. Notably, I worked with marketing and our creative team to build a dynamic grid that can be used to compare features of different products. This feature is currently being used to market our new Diploma Track program! I worked hard to make sure our site and systems were ready for the launch, and it’s exciting that everything’s live!

What did you learn during your time at TechChange?

This list could get very long very fast, but here are a few things:

  • It is possible for a small company to create a global impact by working closely with large, important partners, while still maintaining the flexibility, creativity, and collaboration of a small team.
  • Even in a company of under 20 people, different people and teams have varying perspectives, motivations, and goals, and working through these conversations is a difficult, but important step when considering the overall growth of the company.
  • There are many large, daunting problems in the world. But seeing how effectively our approach to education can tackle these problems from many angles simultaneously has made me even more inspired to go after big dreams.
  • I am still figuring out how to tie my interests and skills together cohesively, but TechChange gave me amazing opportunities to see how diverse skills can compliment each other and result in a more powerful effort.

Tech Fellows visit State Department
Nithya, You Jin, and Nick meet with Daniel Sheerin, Chief of ediplomacy at the State Department during one of their field trips this summer

What have you gotten to explore in DC?

Beyond the typical stuff, I’ve seen the monuments in the moonlight. I’ve gone to a French speaking happy hour to brush up on the language and meet new people. I went to the DC National Maker Faire. I saw an off-beat Shakespearian play. I went white-water innertubing with my housemates. I befriended a baker at a farmers market and helped her bake and sell gluten free baked goods. I saw a Syrian refugee violinist perform at the Millennium Stage in the Kennedy Performing Arts Center. I walked everywhere, for miles on end. I got rained on a lot, and refused to buy an umbrella. I spent time in second hand bookstores and worked on expanding my cooking repertoire. I played lots of tennis and made some new friends. I barely scratched the surface of what DC has to offer, but I tried my best to explore!

Did your TechChange experience end up going as you expected?

I expected it would be amazing, and it surpassed amazing weeks ago. As far as my day-to-day work, I don’t think I had a clear idea about what my work would entail, so every project I’ve worked on has been an adventure. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was to fall in love with the company and the people here. I have some tough goodbyes ahead of me.

Would you come back to work at TechChange one day? Why?

I believe in TechChange’s mission completely. I feel like a part of the TechChange family, and being at work everyday is such a positive experience. I have fantastical visions for how TechChange can develop, and would love to be involved in making them a reality. Coming from the West Coast, however, it’s still hard to imagine moving so far away from home. Even though Nick says he would paint the Golden Gate Bridge on our windows to make the transition easier, I’ve still got a lot to think about. These kinds of decisions aren’t easy!

Nithya Escape Room
Nithya with her team at Escape Room Live, one of many TechChange surprises this summer

What advice would you give to future TechChange Fellows?

I think the best skill to have is the guts to jump into things, even when you think it’s outside the realm of your expertise. Figuring things out as you go is how the world works. TechChange is a small company and people play many roles, so if there is something that intrigues you, don’t hesitate to ask about how you could get involved. Be open about your passions. Everyone at TechChange has an amazing background, and I’ve loved hearing their stories and connecting over culture, food, and hobbies. My goals and dreams have been opened to new possibilities through learning from everyone here. Keep an open mind, ask lots of questions, and let this Fellowship help you grow in ways you never anticipated.

What has been your favorite moment at TechChange this summer?

It’s hard to pick just one! I think my favorite moments come from the everyday ridiculous banter and genuine camaraderie between us in the office. From discovering a free dining table and chairs on the street and carrying them back to the office as a team on my first day, to the constant debates over the merits of standing desks and the desirable office temperature, everyday is entertaining. I love that 15 of us (and one guitar) crammed into our tiny recording studio to “harmoniously” sing happy birthday to one of our facilitators over skype. We have jokes about band names, TechChange spin-offs, soylent, and more. There are many silly moments in the office that keep me dying of laughter, but every moment of silliness is equally matched with moments of dedication and support from every person on the team. Being a part of such a playfully hard-working team made every day a wonderful moment.

It has been incredibly fun to have Nithya join our team this summer. She goes back to complete her final year at Harvey Mudd and our team wishes her all the best and hopes to see her again in the future!

Interested in applying for the TechChange summer fellowship? Apply here!

We are so excited to announce our newest initiative: A Diploma in Technology for Monitoring and Evaluation!

Over the past five years, we’ve been providing skills to over 6,000 alumni in more than 170 countries. During this time, we’ve been asked by both alumni and the organizations we work with: how can they get more? As a response to the crippling costs of graduate school tuition and the desire professionals have to get the hard skills they need to be successful, we’ve created this diploma program.

Whether you’re a working professional or a recent college grad looking for an alternative to graduate school, we have a diploma track suited to you. This 16-week online diploma program in Technology for Monitoring & Evaluation is designed to give you the technical skills and real-world experience you need to succeed in your career and make an impact in the world.

We’re here to help you learn new skills, build your network and grow your career. Ready to get started? Learn more and apply here. Hurry! Applications close September 4.

Diploma Track

Featured Image: Gardens for Health International’s agricultural agents complete a mental mapping exercise in Ndera, Rwanda.

At Broad Street Maps, we believe that health is inherently a geographic issue. In the U.S. today, your zip code is a better predictor of your health profile than your genetic code. And in much of the developing world, where resources and infrastructure are limited, physical access to primary care can be the single most determining factor in the utilization of health services, and consequently, the health of a population. Therefore, the majority of the problems health workers face in these countries on a daily basis are inherently spatial. Resolving concerns about access to services and coverage, allocating limited resources effectively, and understanding the distribution of phenomena across a catchment area all depend on geographic knowledge.

The strength of local public health systems is inextricably linked to basic infrastructure. And being able to visualize that system as a whole — one made up of health centers and hospitals, water wells, bus stops, and marketplaces — is essential for delivering services to where they are needed the most.

Maps were used in public health since the 1800s

More than 150 years ago, Dr. John Snow, the father of modern epidemiology, and local community leader Reverend Henry Whitehead set out to investigate the cause of London’s raging cholera epidemic. The duo conducted interviews and gathered data points, going door-to-door to track the source of the epidemic. As their research progressed, Snow decided to map of the distribution of deaths in relation to Soho’s water sources. The map showed a trend — many of the deaths occurred around the Broad Street water pump or around businesses that used the pump’s water. Bolstered by his visualization, Snow insisted that the city remove the handle of the pump. After the pump was removed, mortality declined rapidly, forcing the medical community to consider, for the first time, the waterborne nature of the disease. Dr. Snow’s actions not only saved hundreds of lives, they also marked the first time that maps were used to directly influence public health policy.

Snow, J. On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, 2nd Edition, 1855.

Opportunities and Challenges in public health mapping today

Today, maps and geographic analysis are being utilized in a myriad of ways across public health. They have, for example, been used to record distances that patients have to travel to get to the nearest tuberculosis directly observed treatment (DOT) distribution points, to quantify a relationship between the accessibility to roads and HIV cases, calculate population per bed ratios at local clinics, spatially analyze clinic usage, and evaluate and improve ambulance response times.

But despite their proven value, geographic tools remain extremely underutilized in the field of public health. Anyone who has ever interacted with a geographic information system (GIS) can probably guess why. The software is incredibly complex and time-intensive. It requires either a trained staff member or a significant investment in consultation. And most significantly in the developing world, it requires complete and accurate geographic data.

Analysis of the distribution of health centers performed in QGIS

Luckily, the proliferation of GPS-enabled smartphones is beginning to simplify the process of collecting and building upon this fledgling geographic data infrastructure. Tools like Magpi and ODK Collect allow users to update health surveys with the simple addition of a ‘Location’ field, thereby putting in place the essential building blocks for geographic analysis without exorbitant time, training, or cost. At the same time, Quantum GIS (QGIS) is offering a free and open source alternative to the close-source giants. And new platforms like CartoDB are making game-changing strides towards making web maps and geographic analysis more accessible.

But possibly the biggest obstacle to adopting these tools is a lack of roadmap on how to truly integrate geographic analysis into existing workflows. Smaller-scale organizations with limited bandwidth don’t have time to invest in new systems that don’t directly make their lives easier. Far too much ICT4D ends up being a burden. What we need are tools that streamline the process of analysis to decision-making. What we need are maps for action.

A Place to Start

Fortunately, organizations do not necessarily need to dive into software licenses and new tech to begin making action-oriented, spatial decisions. Hand-drawn maps have proven to be incredibly valuable tools for incorporating local knowledge, enhancing community ownership, and understanding local perceptions of distance and space. As Dr. John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead demonstrated, visualizing pertinent health data in even the simplest ways can elicit valuable new insights that inform future decision-making. And maybe even more importantly, the duo also proved that the grassroots process involved in understanding your “where” can be essential to developing a sound, and possibly life-saving, theory of “why.”

Broad Street Maps helping to conduct a household survey and collect GPS locations of patients in the Sacred Valley of Peru

Inspired by both the lessons from London and our time in the field, our team at Broad Street Maps is committed to leveraging the power of maps to visualize information, identify patterns, and, above all, actively use this vital perspective to make decisions.

If you are interested in learning more, have any questions, or are just head over heels about maps, please shoot us a line at Our team is always happy to provide guidance to organizations interested in mapping at all stages of the process.

If you are passionate about mapping development data, take a moment to check out the incredible work being done in the OpenStreetMap, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, and the Missing Maps communities.

And lastly, for a true immersion experience, be sure to check out TechChange’s course on Mapping for Social Good. Course starts this week!

About Isabel
Isabel Shaw heads cartography and product development at Broad Street Maps. She has worked with Save the Children and National Geographic and lived in Rwanda and Argentina. She is a TechChange alumna and holds a BA in Geography with concentrations in Global Health and Spanish from Middlebury College. Shaw lives in Seattle, WA.

Green infrastructure hasn’t always been a priority in urban development. Now, more than ever, green spaces are an essential component of urban design to build healthy, livable cities, and urban planners have jumped onboard. They have started integrating green infrastructure, green spaces (parks and recreational areas), tree canopies, vertical green walls, and green roofs into urban environments. And they are doing it with the help of maps!

Geographic Information System (GIS ) and geospatial technologies are incredibly useful to plan, build, and monitor green infrastructure. Urban green infrastructure is not only important in building a fun and vibrant city, but also necessary for supporting resilient populations across an environment. Increased use of green spaces is associated to improve psychological well-being, physical activity and general public health of urban residents. As green spaces become important in city planning, it is crucial to be able to visualize them.

Some cities in the U.S already have green infrastructure on the top of their agenda.

Urban Tree CanopyNine cities that love their trees, via National Geographic

Access to green space; also an environmental justice issue

Though the benefits of greening a neighborhood are positive, they tend to increase property values and housing costs often pushing out or displacing traditional residents. According to researchers in the Landscape and Urban Planning Journal, “Most studies reveal that the distribution of [green] space often disproportionately benefits predominantly white and more affluent communities. Access to green space is therefore increasingly recognized as an environmental justice issue. Many US cities have implemented strategies to increase the supply of urban green space, especially in park-poor neighborhoods.”

Increased use of trees, especially in low-income housing areas has been shown to reduce noise pollution, filter air pollution and lower crime rates. Integrating trees along street sides of compact urban landscapes may improve environmental inequities.

While maps are only as good as their data (sometimes maps deceive the eye), they are a powerful tool in predicting and planning how cities grow. GIS and Remote Sensing go side by side in urban planning to help the decision-making process for new zoning laws, accommodate demographic changes and preservation of natural environments (wetlands, natural forests and rivers) on the border of new urban developments.

Here are three organizations who are already using maps to enhance green infrastructure in their cities:

1. Casey Trees

Casey Trees Logo

Casey Trees, a local non-profit organization based in DC has the mission to restore, enhance and protect the tree canopy of the nation’s capital by using GIS in their Research and Mapping programs. “We’ve compiled a map showcasing all of the nurseries within 25 miles of our headquarters in the District, Maryland and Virginia. These nurseries and garden centers have plenty of trees waiting for you to come claim them”

Casey Trees map showcasing all of the nurseries within 25 miles of their headquarters in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

2. Green Roofs for Healthy Cities

Greenroofs for health cities Logo

Green Roofs for Healthy Cities- North America, is a not-profit association with the mission to develop and protect the market by increasing awareness of the economic, social and environmental benefits of green roofs, green walls and other forms of living architecture. Green roofs increase urban biodiversity through the attraction of pollinators (birds, bees and hummingbirds) and reduce hotter city temperatures caused by the heat island effect.

Green Rooffds – Map

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3. New York Restoration Project (NYRP)

New York Restoration Project (NYRP), is a non-profit organization driven by the conviction that all New Yorkers deserve beautiful, high-quality public space within ready walking distance of their homes.

“As New York’s only citywide conservancy, they bring private resources to spaces that lack adequate municipal support, fortifying the City’s aging infrastructure and creating a healthier environment for those who live in the most densely populated and least green neighborhoods.”

NYRP has a map initiative that compiles locations of parks, gardens, community spaces and tree plantings across New York’s five boroughs.

NYPR maps

NYPR map that shows various green spaces in New York

Do you know of other organizations or individuals using maps to monitor green spaces in your city? Tweet at us @TechChange and @EvaAdler44 or comment below to join the conversation!

Interested in learning more about how mapping can be used for social good? Join Eva Adler in our upcoming course, Mapping for Social Good. Course begins on July 20!

About Eva

Eva Adler

Eva Adler is  the course facilitator for TC141: Mapping for Social Good. She enjoys exploring geovisualizations that act as platforms for global health and social equity movements. Prior to TechChange, Eva served on the Center for Innovations Team at R4D identifying innovative approaches to water and sanitation challenges across East Africa and India. She thrived conducting field work locally in South Carolina as a GIS Technician at Moore Farms Botanic Garden and in Colorado as a Research Field Assistant at Routt National Forest. Eva has worked in resource-limited environments gathering demographic, health and sanitation data alongside rural communities of Nepal. She holds a BA in Ecology and Geography with deep enthusiasm to collaborate with others who share the same passion for maps and social change.

While many people were watching the final match of the Women’s World Cup last week, the Hacking Team was hacked. Hacking Team, an Italian digital security company, provided surveillance software to law enforcement agencies. Their clients are government agencies, but they have been accused of selling to oppressive regimes, despite embargoes like the Wassenaar Arrangement. Last week’s hack proved that they have in fact sold software to Sudan and a number of other oppressive regimes, including Ethiopia, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia.

Why should you care about these hackings? And if a digital security company can get hacked, what can you and I do to prevent ourselves from becoming victims as well?

The power of a strong password is not a myth
Passwords are an important aspect of digital safety because they act as a form of authentication, often times as the only method. It’s important not just for individual accounts, but also for bigger organizations. So, how strong were the Hacking Team’s passwords?

Apparently, not strong enough. Their Twitter account was hijacked and used to spread the cache of files published in the hack. The Twitter password was one of many passwords that were stored in files that anyone with access could read (i.e., in plain text). I can presume this was how their Twitter account was compromised.

Poor policies around how passwords are selected and stored are what led to the publishing of passwords for the Hacking Team and one of their software engineers, Christian Pozzi. As lampooned by security professionals on Twitter, the majority of the passwords Pozzi used were variations on the word ‘password.’

What’s the major takeaway here? That the best practices of choosing strong passwords, not reusing passwords and storing them safely are just as important as we’re always told.

A strong password isn’t enough: Get to know your software
With the exception of having a long password, not everyone agrees on what constitutes a strong password. If you know your password has been compromised, you can be notified and immediately change it. But not all threats to one’s digital data are as transparent and easy to address. You especially need to be aware of what kind of software you have installed on your computers.

Hacking Team Hacked blog photo

In the world of cyber warfare, there are holes in software that are discovered but remain undisclosed and unpatched. They are known as “zero-day exploits” (0-day) because they are released on or before the day an exploit is publicly revealed. It essentially means that some person or some organization/agency might be able to install malicious software without you, the software provider, or any defensive software (e.g., antivirus) knowing.

This issue is serious because there is a thriving market where people can purchase these exploits, which disincentivizes security researchers from disclosing their findings.

Hacking Team used 0-day exploits to hide their surveillance software. As of today, three 0-day exploits for flash have been revealed from Hacking Team’s files. How can you avoid this yourself? Always make sure that you upgrade your flash player and keep it updated. Or better yet, consider having it set to run selectively by using the option “click to run” when on a website that requires flash.

The more software you have installed (especially out of date and/or unnecessary software), the more chances there are for exploits to be used to compromise your system. This is even truer on mobile phones, which receive fewer software updates.

In addition to removing unnecessary software and keeping necessary ones updated, it is crucial to understand the limitations of software you are using. While not a new vulnerability, Hacking Team also had a Skype decoder to listen in on Skype calls. The published files revealed that they had this software from around 2006. Understanding the software you are using is essential to prevent having a false sense of security.

In the now immortal words of the Hacking Team “If your company hasn’t been #hacked, it will be.”

If your organization works with personally identifiable data,it is crucial to make sure the data is safe. Learn more about digital safety in our brand new upcoming course, Basics of Digital Safety. The course begins on August 17, lock in early bird rate now!




This is the second post in our Digital Pedagogy series, where we will share how we are trying to make online social learning even better with new learning activities. Check out the previous post here.

As an educator, I’m always looking for new and more effective learning activities that fit with my philosophy of learning. Teaching in this digital age is very exciting with the availability of new tools for different types of activities and distance education. Despite these advances and advantages of online learning, it is not always easy or possible to adapt in-person activities into an online environment.

My role at TechChange focuses on our online facilitated courses that we run. All of these courses run for four weeks and are based on our learning model, which uses social learning and game mechanics. Course completion is assessed by interaction (indicated through TechPoints) as opposed to grades.

Introduction to Collaborative Syllabus Building

With all of our courses, we try to be as responsive to the participants’ learning goals as possible. One of the first questions we ask participants in the first week of a course is whether or not we have missed something in the general content or direction of the course. We then try our best to incorporate these topics and resources into weeks three and four.

As we were designing our upcoming course on Mapping for Social Good, we found ourselves discussing the topic of content and scope once again. With mapping, there is a lot that can be discussed, from the very technical (there are masters programs just in digital mapping/GIS) to the ways mapping has been and can be used for social good. Instead of having the course facilitators decide on the content and potentially miss key topics that the participants want to cover, we have implemented a learning tool called collaborative syllabus building (will now be referred to as CSB in this post).

CSB is an activity used effectively in classrooms to improve motivation and performance of students by asking the learners to provide input on the curriculum, grading, course activities, and/or course expectations. For an in-person class this often occurs before the course starts or during the first few weeks.

Collaboration for setting topics is not confined to academia. Unconferences (also called OpenSpace Conferences) have become popular for their participant-driven focus. Typically, the unconference has no set syllabus and the participants set the agenda and sessions. Instead of having a conference organizer decide what the participants want to hear or learn, the participants vote by their attendance.

Educators and facilitators are already using technology to aid this collaborative participant-led process. For instance, educators have used Moodle to administer a survey prior to a course or a wiki for the collaboration. There are a number of other collaboration tools that can be used for this purpose. Most often, these tools are used in conjunction with in-person or hybrid (online and in person) events.

Digital Pedagogy post photo

Adapting CSB for TechChange

At the core of social learning, a key component of TechChange’s learning model, is the idea of collaboration. We decided to adapt CSB for our 4-week online courses and will be trying it out this week for our mapping course!

In order for CSB to be effective, the course participants need to feel comfortable enough to ask questions about the topic. So with all of our CSB activities, we will be providing a short introduction to the topic and forums for participants to explore the content before the course begins. Having enough time to incorporate feedback and allow participants from diverse time zones provide input, we will run the CSB activity for a week prior to the course beginning.

For the syllabus itself, we will have learning objectives and course activities that we feel we need to cover in order to discuss the content. The rest of the syllabus, including additional learning objectives and course activities, will be based on what the participants want. While we can’t promise that everything participants recommend will make the syllabus, we will do our best and share the final syllabus at the beginning of the course.

We’re very excited to be trying out CSB this week with Mapping for Social Good! Have you used CSB in an online course before? Tell us how it went by tweeting @NormanShamas and @TechChange or comment below!

What does urban design have to do with mental health? By 2050, at least two-thirds of the global population will live in cities, which means urban public health is fast becoming a priority. Policymakers, architects, designers, urban planners and others are starting to think seriously about how to design our cities in ways that reduce health issues like obesity or breathing problems, but one key aspect of urban public health can find itself under the opportunity radar: mental health.

The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health (UD/MH) hopes to change this. Launching this week in Washington DC, this startup think tank seeks to answer one question: how can we design better mental health into our cities? UD/MH plans to bring together interdisciplinary thinkers and doers to share ideas and find solutions. They will curate research, provide analysis, showcase innovation and host interdisciplinary dialogues in cities all over the world.


We know cities can make us happy. For example, they can facilitate social interaction, deliver low-stress commutes, and may provide us with lovely green spaces. But we also know that cities can also make us less than happy. City living is associated with increased depression, anxiety, and even schizophrenia.

Can we adapt the urban environment to improve our mental health and wellbeing? And how can mobile technology help?

Right now, mHealth is emerging as a promising tool to help us understand how urban design affects mental wellbeing. The Urban Mind Project is a current London-based pilot research project that invites people to regularly track their mental wellbeing over the course of a week via a mobile app, which relates their feelings to different aspects of the urban environment. The researchers hope their results will inform future urban planning and social policy on urban design and mental health.

“We can use digital technologies to try to understand how the built environment affects us, affects our well-being and our health, and maybe it sounds a bit too optimistic, but I think it must be possible to build better environments,” says Andrea Mechelli, the lead investigator on the study. “It seems an obvious thing to do, but it’s not really happening. Often, urban planning is motivated by other reasons. Why should it not be motivated by people’s well being and health?”

The Urban Mind Project is a collaboration between King’s College London, J&L Gibbons, Nomad, A&E, the Van Alen Institute and the Sustainable Society Network+. They aim to analyze the data and demonstrate how urban environments affect mental health. One example is looking at the way urban environments can influence whether a person is more or less likely to develop an addiction. If you happen to be in London, you can sign up to participate here.

Screen shot: Urban Mind Project

Screen shot: Urban Mind Project

If you’re not in London, you will soon be able to start tracking urban design and mental health via your phone using Gensler’s new PoppySeed app. PoppySeed plans to crowdsource how different city locations make people feel, and direct them to locations that others associate with positive emotions. The data being gathered by this app is also poised to feed into future decision-making around urban design. Right now, you still need an invitation code to join the fun but here’s a video that gives an overview of the app. mHealth for urban design and mental health is in its infancy, but it is growing and this is an exciting time.

As the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health gets underway, we can look forward to the results of these experiments, and to others sharing their innovative mHealth projects on the think tank’s Sanity and Urbanity blog. In the meantime, other ways in which urban design can improve mental health will be explored at the UD/MH launch event on July 7th. A limited number of tickets are still available here.

Interested in learning more? We will be exploring initiatives like UD/MH in our upcoming Mapping for Social Good online course that begins on July 20. 

About Layla

Layla McCay

Layla McCay, a TechChange mHealth alumna is a psychiatrist, health policy specialist, and adjunct professor in international health at Georgetown University. Trained at the Maudsley Hospital and Institute of Psychiatry in London, she has worked for the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and several global health NGOs. She is passionate about the determinants of mental health and how people interact with the built environment. Layla is the Director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, launching on July 7.

In a previous post, we wrote about how ICTs were helping people all around the world respond to the Nepal earthquake. Today, Luther Jeke takes a closer look at the mapping efforts during the response.

Do you remember where you were the morning of April 25, 2015? I will never forget. I was at my home in Washington D.C. catching up on emails and the news. I was shattered when I saw the headlines for the earthquake in Nepal. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that was going to later claim more than 8,800 lives and injured more than 23,000.

I’m based in Washington D.C. through the Atlas Corps fellowship and have Nepali friends in the fellowship here as well. After getting the details of the devastation in Nepal from several news sources, I reached out to the other Nepali fellows, including Samita Thapa, who is based at TechChange. I knew that Nepalis who were living abroad may feel helpless being so far away and I had the thought: what if they could volunteer digitally?

Nepali volunteers

I have been a member of the Standby Task Force (SBTF) since 2011. The SBTF organizes digital volunteers into a flexible, trained and prepared network ready to deploy in crises. Launched at the 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010), the SBTF was created “to streamline online volunteer support for crisis mapping, following the lessons learned in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan, and to provide a dedicated interface for the humanitarian community.”

But just having a digital mapping community isn’t enough. Having local information and networks on the ground is crucial, so the three of us coordinated a group of Nepali volunteers to assist the SBTF digital humanitarian efforts that mapped the Nepal earthquake by analyzing social media content. Together, we were able to recruit around 200 Nepali volunteers who tirelessly helped the mapping team by feeding, translating, and verifying information from our social media network in and out of Nepal. We were constantly on Facebook, Twitter, and Skype over a period of two weeks to help with this digital humanitarian deployment and to map the crisis.

The Mappers

We helped the SBTF collect, verify and map over 1,000 lines in the information management database of the Nepal earthquake. About 5 million tweets were processed by the Artificial Intelligence in Disaster Relief platform (AIDR). Our volunteer group was instrumental in helping the SBTF click through more than 60,000 images and 10,000 messages that were being geolocated onto this map below, with around 200 volunteers joining the Nepal Advisors deployment.

Nepal Earthquake on MicroMappers
Tweets and images geolocated by SBTF volunteers on MicroMappers

The data was used by many humanitarian organisations like Doctors Without Borders, Nepal Youth Foundation, Government of Nepal, governments of various other countries responding to the earthquake, and more. It has been used to assist and accelerate the coordination of humanitarian groups on the ground. We processed an extraordinary range of data streams during the 12 days of the deployment and geolocated pictures and messages of needs and offers of assistance, provided maps and tables and supported other organisations and groups to streamline their processes. Our team worked closely with many other groups throughout this deployment. You can read about our efforts and success over on the SBTF blog.

I have learned from my mentor, Patrick Meier that anyone can be a digital humanitarian. All you need is a big heart and access to the Internet. I reached out to the Standby Task Force and with huge efforts from Medha and Samita, we founded a volunteer group of Nepalis to digitally support the work of the SBTF in Nepal. To learn more or to get involved, check out their website here. They can alway use your support whenever disaster strikes.

Digital mapping has been used in disaster response, maternal health, WASH programs, and more. Interested in learning more ways mapping is being used for social good? Sign up for our upcoming Mapping for Social Good online course now!

About Luther

Luther is an Atlas Corps Technology for Development Fellow serving at Creative Associates International (Creative). Luther provides support to the Technology for Development (T4D) unit which is responsible for incubating new ideas of how to use technology interventions at Creative. Learning about the latest in information and communication technologies for development and contributing innovative solutions are his two key missions at Creative. He has four year of experience in the nonprofit sector, and earned a Bachelor’s of Arts in Sociology and has a wealth of experience in the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) sector. In his most recent capacity as iLabLiberia’s Director of Training, he and his team provided more than 3,000 Liberian and foreign nations the opportunity to use the innovation lab and gain new technology skills. You can learn more about Luther here.

This post originally appeared on the Atlas Corps blog.