For many years Israel has been considered a high-tech hub producing some of the worlds leading technologies. In fact, Israel has the largest concentration of high-tech industries per capita in the world; It has more companies trading on the Nasdaq than any other country outside the US and it has the highest number of college graduates per capita too (check out:Start up Nation for more).
If you’re using Windows you can high five Israel for locally developing most of the components and if you’re using a mobile phone you can raise your glass to Israel for developing that too. Israeli innovation is also responsible for instant messaging, firewall security software and Intel wireless chips among others.
You would imagine that in such a tech rich environment, Israeli NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) would be among the first to harness ICTs (Information Communication Technologies) for social good. However, like in most other countries, a gap still remains between those working in the non-profit sector and those working towards technological innovation.
I am Keshet Bachan, coordinator of the "Because I am a Girl" Report for Plan International, and on the 30th of April, I joined a two day TechCamp summit run by the US State Department. At the TechCamp, folks working on the tech side were on hand to provide folks working in civil society with ideas about how technology can help them further their cause, enhance their messaging, reach bigger audiences faster and even fundraise. TechCamp is a program under Secretary Clinton’s Civil Society (CS) 2.0 initiative:
“an effort to galvanize the technology community to assist civil society organizations (CSOs) across the globe by providing capabilities, resources and assistance to harness the latest information and communications technology (ICT) advances to build their digital capacity”.
The Tel-Aviv TechCamp adopted a theme of Women’s Empowerment and the cirvil society organizations attending were all working towards gender equality goals while many were also female led.
The first step of the TechCamp was to get to know each other better and to find out how civil society organizations could benefit from the expertise in the room. A short round of fast paced project presentations allowed the participants to get a taste of what the techies in the room could offer and how technology had already been harnessed to promote social good.
The next step was to break into small groups where civil society organizations received training from the techies on specific low cost open-sourced technologies that could enhance their work. I joined Laura Hudson from Frontline SMS in a small group that focused on how their open source platforms and a basic mobile phone can help NGO’s reach greater audiences, stay in touch with their stakeholders and beneficiaries, manage one-to-many and many-to-many communications, and professionalize their operations.
The focus on women’s empowerment meant that many of the issues the NGO’s were working on were socially sensitive or even taboo. In contrast to large scale campaigning, fundraising and advocacy efforts on environmental or even political agendas - gender based issues such as violence against women are still difficult to openly address. This is further complicated by the ethnic and religious faultlines that run through Israeli society. Technology, as a democratic platform that encourages a multiplicity of voices but which can also offer anonymous interactions, was seen to be well placed to address this tension.
For women’s groups working in traditional settings, Frontline SMS offered an easy and cost effective means of reaching their beneficiaries and providing support. Relevant connections were made between Plan International’s Violence Against Children (Benin) project as a model of a text based child hotline, and a similar service that would operate in Israel. In a country with high mobile penetration rates, where a 2008 census found that there are 2.2 mobile phones per household, reaching women via text messaging holds great potential.
Additional links were made between Arab-Israeli women led environmental groups who were working against illegal dumping sites. their work to date had been completely ‘offline’ making advocacy efforts to prevent illegal dumping, which is an environmental disaster and a huge cause of summer brush fires, difficult and time consuming. uploading their mapping efforts and digitizing the collection via open street map will have a big impact on their ability to mobilize the community and achieve their policy goals. the experts at TechCamp, including Gregory Asmolov from the London School of Economics, a crisis mapping specialist, were on hand to support their first steps into the world of mapping platforms.
A group of women who recently set up a rehabilitation project for former sex workers were in need of funding to open a day centre where they would provide vocational skills training and psycho-social support. Merril Beth Ferguson from Meetup, quickly identified the need for an online presence to support their offline fundraising efforts. With her help the group set up their first fundraising page and they have great hopes that this will provide them with the financial support they require. According to the founders, before TechCamp they hadn’t been aware of online fundraising platforms such as Kickstarter andMimoona.
The final day at TechCamp provided NGO’s and techies with an opportunity to put to practice some of the learnings of the previous day, and in small groups, try to come up with a new solution that would combined technology and social good. Presentations of these collaborations can be found here, and hopefully some of these ideas will be further developed as they offer real solutions to pressing issues.
For those of us well steeped in ICT4D, the link between technology and social good seems obvious and even essential. However, for many of the women at TechCamp Tel-Aviv, this was the first time they had realized the potential of harnessing technology and open sourced software in their own work, in their communities, and their spheres of influence. Hopefully the tech rich environment in Israel will encourage TechCamp participants to continuously seek out collaborations with those driving innovation in the high-tech sector and will will see more productive partnerships in the future.
Keshet Bachan is a feminist, girls empowerment expert, gender and ICT4D specialist, and freelance consultant