A Story of Technology and Civic Engagement

bif_vertical_color_correctBy: Anne Sophie Lambert

Tomorrow Accountability Lab is going to the Business Innovation Factory Summit in Providence, Rhode Island! The theme of this year’s summit is “A Good Story Can Change the World” and it will bring together a diverse group of innovative and passionate people from across the country, as well as 32 featured storytellers. At the Lab, we believe that genuine change requires a strong sense of purpose, enthusiasm, and openness. Thus, we’re excited for this rare opportunity to hear the personal narratives and origin stories that shape what many inspiring individuals do and why they do it.

We were particularly excited to see Ethan Zuckerman—Director of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab—on the list of storytellers. I recently had the opportunity to interview Ethan and here’s a sneak peek of his story.

Ethan has been working in technology since 1994 and has long felt that much good could be done by sharing innovative technology with citizens in Africa. He founded Geekcorps to bring IT experts and technology to West Africa, but soon came to realize that technology alone is not the solution. Below are several lessons he learned along the fascinating journey to what he does today:

  1. There is little outside support to bring technology to developing countries—and effective media can play a key role in changing that. He found that digital technology is not reaching its potential to build global understanding. For example, people have easy access to Fijian water but have limited access to learning about Fijian culture. In response, he co-founded Global Voices, a virtual newsroom which showcases the perspectives of citizens from 167 countries around the world in over 30 languages, focusing on stories from marginalized and misrepresented communities.
  1. Technology must have a rigorous theory of change. You should be able to answer why you’re doing it and how it will create positive change. And then you should measure whether your hypothesis was correct. Even if your project focuses on a goal with seemingly less concrete outputs, such as awareness raising, you can measure how much attention your campaign received and how that attention has changed public opinion or government behavior. It’s also important to consider that local populations may not always buy in to your ideas, so the best theories of change come from within a community. For example, while it is definitely worthwhile to open up government processes, people on the ground know that there are required next steps to make that transparency effective in their lives.
  1. Remember that innovation is not just about technology, and this is particularly important to remember when working in the developing world. For example, Twitter is not particularly technologically advanced model, but it has revolutionized social structures. Thus, technology is often simply the infrastructure by which social innovation can be created.

Keeping those three principles in mind, Ethan is currently working on a government monitoring project in Brazil called “Promise Tracker” to hold the mayor of Sao Paolo accountable for 100 goals he’s made for his time in office. Two key factors in the success of the work have been partnering with a group of passionate local volunteers from the “Our Sao Paolo” network to conduct the monitoring, and working to gain the support of the government. As the project has begun, Ethan has learned that you can’t try to control how things work from afar and the more you try, the less citizen participation you are likely to get. As the project implementation progresses, he expects to find a rich mix of good and bad news about the current state of affairs and is most excited about using it to promote a model of active citizenship.

He also mentioned several other great projects going on around the world—from a “mon-a-thon” in Italy, where a group associated with the government is inviting citizens to conduct in depth evaluations of its activities; to a project in China selling $5 water testing kits to people inviting them to test their water, share their results and help identify poor water quality hot spots. We know this is just the beginning of many innovative ideas that are about to collide this week at the Business Innovation Factory Summit and we’re excited to be a part of it!

Check out #BIF10 on Twitter to follow the BIF summit’s conversations in real-time over the next couple days!

About Accountability Lab

Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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