Can Online Tools Solve Offline Problems in Central Asia?

I recently had the chance to interview Lira Samykbaeva, Information Program Coordinator for the Soros Foundation–Kyrgyzstan, about the Social Innovation Camp held in Kyrgyzstan last May.

The first-ever Central Asian Social Innovation Camp was held last month in Bosteri, Kyrgyzstan. Can you tell me a little bit about the aims of the camp and its participants?

The goal of Social Innovation Camp was to bring together ideas, people, and digital tools to build web-based solutions for some of the most pressing social problems facing the region—from human rights violation to access to information to environmental protections. Participants spent two days in Bosteri learning how web-based technologies could support their ideas for social change.

Two months before the camp began, the foundation announced a competition for applicants to submit ideas for web-based solutions to address local problems. Submissions were judged on four criteria: a clearly defined social problem, a specific technological solution, a description on how to attract users, and a business plan to sustain the project.

Eight ideas were selected from about twenty applications, and a total of eighty team members participated from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Participants ranged from software developers to students to traditional and online media professionals to members of the for-profit and nonprofit world. Professional programmers, designers, and marketing specialists providing expertise and helped the teams bring their ideas to life. All together, the camp in Bosteri was the largest Social Innovation Camp to date.

What is web-based social innovation, and why do you think it's important to promote in Central Asia? Are there any obstacles that stand in the way?

Web-based social innovation is about bringing together ideas, people, and technologies to foster change. The camp teaches participants how to use the power of the Internet and web-technologies to help people connect, collaborate, and network with each other to solve social problems.

The foundation faced significant challenges organizing Central Asia’s first Social Innovation Camp. A number of camps have been held throughout Europe; however, social issues can be dramatically different in the Central Asian context, in addition to differing levels of social and entrepreneurial agility.

Because Social Innovation Camps are driven by the passions of individuals rather than the agendas of organizations, the foundation was also concerned about whether there would be enough dynamic engagement from the camp’s participants, especially because many were used to more passive conference experiences. However, the camp resulted in a strong competition, supported by enthusiastic discussions and dramatic presentations. The winning projects were ones that demonstrated regional urgency, so that software and technologies developed could be shared among countries.

Can you give me an example of some of the more interesting projects that camp participants came up with?

During the camp, eight teams of independent civil activists, software developers, marketing specialists, journalists, and bloggers worked intensively on their projects. Projects tackled issues such as school bullying, recycling, human rights, online journalism, and corruption, and incorporated ideas such as online games, Internet radio, and SMS mapping.

First place went to The Dobro (Donate) Project, which matches those who need help—whether it's blood donations, legal assistance, or volunteers—with those who can help. The website hopes to connect people rather than raise or collect funds directly. The site mock-up showed large buttons for “need help” and “can help,” with a photo and map of the beneficiary. Posts on the Dobro site can be integrated in to social media and membership will be offered to companies who want to sponsor the project—allowing companies to use their charitable spending budgets to select beneficiaries from the site as well as advertise their participation via their logo.

Second place went to The School Racketeering Project, which allows students to report bullying and extortion by classmates. During the camp, participants realized that despite the fact that this is a well-known problem in Kyrgyzstan there are no real statistics about the prevalence of the problem in the country. There also aren’t resources on how to handle the problem, its consequences, or information for students on where they can turn for help. Their site design is intended to be simple enough for young people to use and has a clear “submit a case” form, and the foundation has begun talking with the Bishkek police force about piloting The School Racketeering website in the city.

Third place when to Kelsin SMS, a website where people can send short SMSs reporting incidents of poorly maintained roads, requests for bribes by government agencies, blackouts, etc.. The reports will be used to generate online maps of the various problems. While the project is not trying to solve all these problems, it is creating a platform to expose these issues—essentially putting real numbers behind the problems people frequently cite.

What do you hope participants will do with the information they learned at the camp once they return to their homes?

That it's possible to use online tools to solve offline problems. We hope that after participants return home they will look at their projects from a new perspective. The camp encouraged participants not only to use the Internet to solve problems but to also tap into their frustrations to create projects that utilize social innovation. Because no one can predict which projects will work, it is up to participants to create solutions and test them in the real world.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your work at the Soros Foundation–Kyrgyzstan and how the foundation is working to foster other online initiatives?

Within the Social Innovation Camp we’ve initialized great projects, which need to be fostered by the foundation. We’ve already initiated number of activities on further implementation of these projects, such as our collaborative work with the Bishkek Police department on the School Racketeering Project. Until recently, projects based on SMS mapping were not possible in Kyrgyzstan because our mobile phone operators did not have the infrastructure for geolocating features. After technical market research and numerous discussions about the benefits of crowdsourcing projects, the foundation was able to secure USAID funding for deployment of such a system in Kyrgyzstan.

We hope to use geolocation for mapping electoral and human rights violations during the coming presidential elections in November, monitoring the work of city municipalities on www.point.kg, as well as additional projects that could benefit from crowdsourcing tools.

The May 2011 Social Innovation Camp was supported by the local Open Society foundation, Transitions Online, and the UN Democracy Fund, and partnered with SICAMP.org, Internews, Hoster.kg, and Sun People.

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