2009 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Karen Turner and the Global Development Commons Team

Led USAID’s first-ever “crowdsourcing” initiative to pool ideas from the public to develop solutions to international challenges such as famine and public education.

While technology and developing countries have traditionally been worlds apart, developing countries now comprise the fastest growing market for mobile devices. So what would happen if this new access to cellular technology could be harnessed to foster international development?

This is the question that Karen Turner and the Global Development Commons team at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) asked themselves—and their partners—in July of 2008.

Out of this question came the 2008 USAID 2.0 Challenge, an open, global competition designed to spur innovative ideas for using mobile technology to “improve the way international development is done.” In the process, Turner and her team have begun a quiet revolution, still in its infancy but one that could represent a significant sea change.

“For many years, international development was top down. This project is about having citizens participate in their own development,” said Turner. “The best part is we are really making a contribution; we’re blowing it open. Not only are we going beyond the Beltway, we’re bringing in the whole world.”

The USAID team competition, which received 115 submissions, reached out to nontraditional sources—students, budding entrepreneurs all over the world, and anyone with a good idea—and asked them to submit their ideas for harnessing the power of mobile devices to solve an important problem of their choosing in developing nations.

“It’s an effective way to unearth the compelling projects going on around the world and bring attention and funds to building them further,” said Lisa Croel, director of  the Tech Museum of Innovation in California. “By helping pull these people together, you also cut down on duplication of effort or very similar efforts around the world and you allow humanitarian solutions to be found and deployed faster.”

The catch to the competition? Participants were asked to submit their ideas online for anyone to read—and scrutinize their submissions until the entry deadline.

Erik Hersman works for the small start-up Ushahidi, one of this year’s winners. His organization was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. Ushahidi won for its submission to enable people to crowdsource information about international crises in real time through mobile phones.

“We took the feedback sent to us by people on the site, and via e-mail and phone calls, to fine tune it. This is the type of process we enjoy, because it forces us to do our best work,” said Hersman.
Competition winners Kirsten Bokenkamp and five other Columbia University students developed what they called a RapidSMS Child Malnutrition Surveillance program to improve the gathering and quality of nutrition data for children in Malawi. Their project enables more timely access to more accurate data through text messaging, thereby helping the Malawi government make better informed public health decisions.

“By changing a very little thing, health workers in Malawi can transmit data that were previously written and mailed and then entered manually into a database,” Bokenkamp said. “We hope it’s scaled up and used as a model elsewhere.”

Wesley Wilson, who worked with the USAID Development 2.0 challenge team, said, “The idea of social entrepreneurship is powerful and this challenge recognized that this can take hold within our government.”

Croel said Turner recognized the possibilities, understood that the agency had to change and was instrumental in getting her peers on board who are admittedly less tech-savvy than many of the Agency’s newer employees.

“The challenge that we found is that the decision makers are different from the new staff coming on board —we understand the value of things like blogs, but we don’t use them, so we had to persuade people that this is valuable to our development work when it’s not something that they do themselves, and let them know that this is a vital part of the Agency’s mission,” said Turner.

By adopting crowdsourcing, Karen Turner and the Global Development Commons team have made USAID’s approach to international development more open, tech-friendly and, most important, more effective.