Collaborative Development

I recently gave a talk on Collaborative Development and Open Data at GoodXGlobal at SXSW13, at The White House’s Global Development Data Jam, and most recently today at the G8 Open Agriculture Data Conference. Here is the jist and the videos of the talk.

I happen to be a lucky guy. I work for one of the coolest companies out there. Ushahidi. Built in Kenya, 5 years old, founder of the iHub and countless other initiatives that have led Nairobi to now be called “Silicon Savannah.” It is awesome that I get to be a white American male working for a Kenyan Tech Firm in Silicon Valley. That didn’t happen 3 years ago.

I also spent the last 6 months as a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the CTO’s office at The White House. I worked on Open Data for Development between The White House and USAID.

And it is what I have learned from these two experiences that I want to share. An idea I call collaborative development, I think this is the next iteration of development, development 2.0, if you will.

The Aid industry historically would share financial capital to build roads, or human capital to respond to a crisis, but now there is a new source of value. Collaborative development requires that we share the rich value of information capital to the technologists that are blossoming in the developing world.

In case you are unaware, there are robust innovation ecosystems emerging around the world. For instance, the iHub, a developer community in Nairobi, has over 10,000 members, 152 companies, 652 jobs, They are even building a super computer! We can catalyze entrepreneurs in the areas we aim to help by sharing data, this raw material, with those innovators who know their problems better than anyone else.

Ushahidi came about because the founders were Kenyan. If you know the lean startup theory, you have to know your customers right? The reason Ushahidi works was because the founders were the customers, they are Kenyan, their families were there during the violence.

No one in The Bay Area was going to come up with an SMS, Twitter, data collection hybrid for mapping violence. It would have been a sensor enabled device to find parking spots or the nearest food truck – not that that isn’t darn cool. The acts of sharing and collaboration are empathy in practice. This is about working together to solve the world’s biggest problems.

Sharing our data with technologists like these, who know their problems in and out, has a multiplier effect for development.

Not only does the original project create the benefit that it was set out to create, but by sharing the data produced from that work with those we are trying to help, we can generate a secondary wave of impact by igniting entrepreneurship, creating jobs, and thereby lifting people out of poverty in a local, sustainable way.

For instance, there is a project called SERVIR, a partnership with USAID and NASA to use high-resolution satellite imagery and predicative models to help those at the biggest risk from climate change. SERVIR provided training to Kenyan scientists to use that data to model river flow and flooding. And now, because the data was made open, the tea industry in Kenya is using it to reduce crop losses. Now that is a multiplier effect, it retained jobs and increased yields – outcomes that were not intended by the original program. But if we keep the data locked up, no multiplier effect, we end the cycle.

Open data will also improve our own decision-making. There is a data feedback loop, from collection to analytics to action. Opening up data is a key part of collaborative development, and collaborative development is all about coming up with solutions together.

Uchaguzi is a perfect example of this feed-back look and an example of working together. Ushahidi helped triage data over this past week from thousands of reports. The US Embassy, USAID, SODNET, Mercy Corp, and many other partners used that data to improve their response and decision making in near real-time. This is truly unbelievable, complete game-changer in the way we handle elections and potential conflict. Uchaguzi used open data to help provide information down to the polling-place level data. This was cool stuff!

See in the AID industry, the typical process goes something like this – It takes a few years to get the data, then we make a plan, and it takes a few years more to implement it.

By shortening that time frame, we can make huge change. Look at the real-time, reporting, triaging, vetting, and response that happened during Uchaguzi. That is tough stuff, and a complete change from the standard process of procurement, tender, act.

Let me take a second to rant. In the development industry business as usual means PDFs. Now I totally understand why. It takes 20 different documents, GIS shapefiles, Excel models, to make a report. And it’s a whole lot easier to take a screen shot, PDF it, and send it over via email, particularly if you are out in the field. But PDFs are not actionable. If we embrace data by design, we put data into machine-readable formats, so that entrepreneurs can make something with it. Honestly, it is like funding James Cameron to make Avatar, and then watching it in a black and white flipbook.

Listen, in global development we face not only the biggest challenges in the world, like poverty, global health, food security, human rights, and climate change. We also work in the LEAST digital places imaginable. We work where there are no lights.

So is data for development an oxymoron?

No. I want to assure you that the time is now, the tools are available, and the talent to use open data is global. If we integrate the mindset of data by design throughout our work, we can improve our decision-making and thereby our impact. And perhaps more importantly we should share our data, because it multiplies our impact, and because sharing data is an act of empathy.

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