crisis innovations

One of the frustrations of working on a development project with a focus on policy work is that the impact on very urgent needs is years away. There is certainly value to shaping the legal environment to pave the way for changes to set roots. But as I mentioned in an earlier post about why I use twitter, I’m interested in how social issues are tackled now, across different continents.

So check out the practical ideas borne out of  crises around the world. One of them hit the NY Times lately, Africa’s Gift to Silicon Valley: How to Track a Crisis.

@Ushahidi suggests a new paradigm in humanitarian work. The old paradigm was one-to-many: foreign journalists and aid workers jet in, report on a calamity and dispense aid with whatever data they have. The new paradigm is many-to-many-to-many: victims supply on-the-ground data; a self-organizing mob of global volunteers translates text messages and helps to orchestrate relief; journalists and aid workers use the data to target the response.

Ushahidi also represents a new frontier of innovation. Silicon Valley has been the reigning paradigm of innovation, with its universities, financiers, mentors, immigrants and robust patents. Ushahidi comes from another world, in which entrepreneurship is born of hardship and innovators focus on doing more with less, rather than on selling you new and improved stuff.

Because Ushahidi originated in crisis, no one tried to patent and monopolize it. Because Kenya is poor, with computers out of reach for many, Ushahidi made its system work on cellphones. Because Ushahidi had no venture-capital backing, it used open-source software and was thus free to let others remix its tool for new projects.

This and other platforms eg @frontlinesms are available to help villagers self-organise so that resources can be targeted to meet their needs. It has great potential for maternal and child health problems, and for access to health care issues.

It’s time to bounce ideas around..

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