Economist: Geeks for Good

This originally appeared in the Economist.

Esha Chhabra

June 27, 2012

IN THE summer of 2010, a team of self-confessed “socially conscious nerds” came together to create TechChange, a start-up to further the use technology for development. But instead of moving to Silicon Valley, they picked Washington, DC as their home. And instead of talking to venture capitalists and incubators, they reached out to government offices and international organisations—even amid budgetary cuts and a recession.

Why? At the time, the hype around mobile services in the developing world, such as M-PESA, Safaricom’s hugely popular mobile payment service in Kenya, was at its peak., an American crowdfunding site for development projects, was widely praised. As a result, more and more NGOs were seeking to use mobile phones for development and adopt crowdfunding platforms. But they didn’t know how to best use these new tools, which also include text messages and social media.

That left a gap in the market for TechChange. “There was a divide between those who create tech tools and those who wanted to use them,” says Nick Martin, the firm’s founder and chief executive. “We started by taking dozens of online courses—and found that most online learning was pretty awful, leaving us tons of room to innovate.”

Two years later TechChange has taught more than 600 students in more than 70 countries through their online classroom. Its most popular course to date has been “Mobiles for International Development”. Enterprises such as Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS have developed open source software that lets NGOs collect information via text messages and look at the results in real time. Students gain hands-on experience, for instance by analysing data gathered by mobile-phone surveys in Tunisia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those interested in conflict resolution can dig deeper by enrolling in a special course designed around case studies from Libya and Syria.

A new course, which will take place in November this year, will show how to best use mobile technologies in public health. Mobile services already connect rural patients with urban doctors, enable basic diagnostics in the field and help collect other data from patients. The course was put together with the help of mHealth Alliance, an initiative led by the UN Foundation. It includes case studies from successful social enterprises such as MedicMobile, which illustrates how mobile phones can be used to deliver health services in remote areas.


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