USAID Impact Photo Credit: USAID and Partners

Archives for Innovation

Improved TB Diagnosis & Treatment: Research and Innovation Urgently Needed to Address Global Epidemic

During the month of May, IMPACT will be highlighting USAID’s work in Global Health. From May 1-10, we will be featuring the role that Science, Technology & Innovation plays in Global Health.

In 1882, Dr. Robert Koch discovered Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria that causes TB. In 1952, the first combination of antibiotics was used to treat. Today, thoughout the world, most people with TB are diagnosed with the same simple microscopy method that Koch used to identify the bacteria. Additionally, almost all are treated with the same basic antibiotics that have been used since mid-20th century. During the same time period, the HIV epidemic and spread of drug resistant TB have complicated diagnosis of TB. People with HIV who become sick with TB are less likely to be diagnosed correctly using simple microscopy, and this technique does not tell us whether or not the bacteria is resistant to anti-TB drugs. Moreover, with the alarming increase in drug resistant cases in recent years, we see the limits of available treatment. The drugs used to treat multi-drug resistant TB are not very effective and extremely toxic, and patients must take them for up to two years to achieve cure.

But the past decade has brought significant new tools to the fight against TB, including the Xpert MTB/RIF® diagnostic platform and potential new regimens to shorten the length of treatment. The Xpert test for TB diagnosis can tell us whether or not a person has TB AND whether or not the bacteria is resistant to Rifampicin, one of the most powerful anti-TB drugs, in less than two hours. Without Xpert, it can take up to two months to confirm drug resistance, which results in a long delay in starting appropriate treatment. Xpert is a relatively simple test that can be implemented with minimal training and infection control requirements, and recent negotiations with the manufacturer have resulted in a significant decrease in the price. The US government is supporting countries in regions with high HIV prevalence and high levels of drug resistance to introduce and implement this new diagnostic test.

On the treatment side of the equation, the U.S. government is supporting late stage research to test new regimens for multi-drug resistant TB that will reduce the treatment time from 18 to 24 months to 6 to 9 months. Additionally, we are working with global leaders to develop guidelines for the introduction of bedaquiline, the first new anti-TB drug in 50 years, to existing treatment regimens.

EXPOSED: The Race Against Tuberculosis (Official Trailer) from Aeras on Vimeo.

Despite these promising new tools, we need additional point of care TB diagnosis tools and shorter, less toxic regimens to reduce the treatment time even further and with fewer side effects, which can be debilitating for those on treatment for drug-resistant TB. The U.S. government will continue working with global leaders, national TB programs, civil society and at community level to support this critical work in the fight against TB.

Follow USAID for Global Health (@USAIDGH) on Twitter and use #GHMatters to join in the conversation.

Full Speed Ahead for Open Ag Data

This originally appeared on White House Office on Science & Technology Blog.

Last week, hundreds of innovators gathered at the World Bank IFC Center to brainstorm about how Open Data can be harnessed to help meet the challenge of sustainably feeding nine billion people by 2050.  The group included delegates from the G-8 group of nations, U.S. Government officials, private sector partners, Open Data advocates, technology experts, and nonprofit leaders – all participants in the first-of-its-kind G-8 International Conference on Open Data for Agriculture.

Participants in the G-8 International Conference on Open Data for Agriculture, including US Chief Technology Todd Park, listen to opening remarks by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Washington, D.C. on Monday, Apr. 29, 2013. Photo Credit: Bob Nichols/USDA

The foundation for such collaboration was set by President Obama’s first ever global development policy which emphasizes broad-based economic growth, innovation, and partnership; and the President’s leadership on food security through the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative and Feed the Future.  Then, at the 2012 G-8 Camp David Summit, the G-8 nations, African partners, the private sector and civil society launched the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition and committed to host a conference focused on sharing relevant data to help advance agriculture and ensure food security for people around the world. At the end of the year, the White House hosted a Global Development Data Jam—the first high-level U.S. Government event to feature the potential of Open Data to address global challenges.

Last week’s G-8 “Open Ag Data” conference hosted by the USDA, built on this important groundwork by focusing on ways to ensure that Open Data about agriculture are not only available, but also put to good use. It also highlighted some excellent work that’s already underway and making positive change in the Open Ag Data arena, including:

  • MFarm has built a mobile application that allows farmers to receive accurate, real-time crop-price information from five major markets in Kenya, via daily text message, six days per week. The service helps farmers to make informed decisions on what to plant when, how to price produce, and where to sell to the largest profit.  MFarm is currently refining their service and will soon begin integrating USAID data into their product to help deliver more accurate price information to users.
  • INSEAD has introduced Toto Agriculture, a smartphone interface fueled by USAID data that provides village-specific agricultural data. Users can use this free application to access localized information on soil, pests, climate, and planting tips in over 100 languages.
  • iPlant: A community driven collaborative of researchers, educators, and students working to enrich all plant sciences through the development of the cyberinfrastructure essential for modern biology. The collaborative can sequence the genome of an individual cow in 3 hours, taking the time of sequencing from months down to hours.

But this is just the beginning. At last week’s conference, USDA, USAID, and a number of other entities—both domestic and international—unleashed a host of new datasets, tools, and platforms—with more to come in the weeks and months ahead. For our part, the U.S. Government:

  • Launched The Food, Agriculture, and Rural “data community” on Data.gov, which offers more than 300 datasets (and growing!) that relate to the social, economic, and environmental aspects of agriculture. For example, the new community offers Quick Stats—a comprehensive tool for accessing agricultural data profiles by subject area or commodity, such as crops and plants, or livestock. Over the next few months, USDA will make these data available in a robust Application Programming Interface (API) to enable easier sharing of data by third party applications and services.
  • The Millennium Challenge Corporation released an open evaluation data catalog that contains household survey metadata from food security programs in Armenia, El Salvador, Ghana, and the Philippines, and more data is coming soon.
  • Launched USAID.gov/Developer, a page that curates APIs and datasets specifically for developers looking to scrub in and work with open global development data. APIs include the U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants, or Greenbook, which encompasses all international aid funding allocations.  This data will help developers and researchers more dynamically parse these data, that goes all the way back to the Marshall Plan.

We can’t wait to see what entrepreneurs, nonprofits, researchers, scientists and others around the world do with these new resources, and what exciting innovations emerge. We’re also excited to strengthen our partnership with other countries and the private sector to further liberate data and improve global food security.

The G-8 Open Data for Agriculture Conference was a great start.  We look forward to seeing the Open Ag Data movement continue—leveraging data, collaboration, and innovation to accelerate progress toward our food security goals.

There are steps you can take right now to get involved in the Open Ag Data movement:

Todd Park is the U.S. Chief Technology Officer.

Tom Vilsack is the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Video of the Week: LAUNCH Systems Challenge 2013

Last week, USAID and partners NASA, NIKE Inc., and the Department of State, held a LAUNCH 2020 Summit to kick off a new LAUNCH focus on systems innovation. LAUNCH is aimed at identifying, showcasing, and accelerating innovative approaches to specific global challenges. LAUNCH searches for visionaries whose world-class ideas, technologies, or programs show great promise for making tangible impacts on society. On April 24, the LAUNCH 2013 Systems Challenge went live, calling innovators to come up with programs and processes that will transform the system of fabrics to one that advances equitable global economic growth, drives human prosperity and replenishes the planet’s resources. The challenge closes on July 15.  We will also soon be opening our first LAUNCH “nano-challenge,” a call for solutions specifically aimed at university students.

Please visit www.launch.org for more information about the program. You can view the current challenge statement and submit an application.

Health and Economic Returns on Science and Innovation Investments for Global Health

During the month of May, IMPACT will be highlighting USAID’s work in Global Health. From May 1-10, we will be featuring the role that Science, Technology & Innovation plays in Global Health.

In the past decade, U.S. investments in science, technology and innovation have led to critical breakthroughs in prevention, diagnosis and treatment of deadly global diseases. We now have a meningitis vaccine for African populations, a new test that can quickly diagnose drug-resistant TB and promising data indicating that a vaccine could prevent HIV infection. We have developed desperately needed new drugs for neglected diseases and have determined pathways to expand access to treatment for millions through programs like PEPFAR and USAID’s Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) program.

Doctor prepares malaria treatment. Photo credit: IMAD

However, there is still much work to be done. Global diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis take eight lives per minute. And so many young lives are taken, compounding the tragic loss of human potential – almost one in five of all global health deaths each year are in children under the age of five. In addition to the devastating health consequences, these diseases perpetuate the cycle of poverty. For example, the average TB patient loses 3-4 months of work and 30% of yearly household earnings because of the disease. Trachoma, a neglected tropical disease that is the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness, results in an estimated $2.9 billion in lost productivity each year. Developing new tools to combat these diseases is critical not only for saving lives, but also for allowing individuals to achieve their earning potential and enabling impoverished nations to develop sustainable economies.

As we look ahead, a plethora of new technologies are poised to transform the way that we prevent, diagnose and treat global diseases. For example, advances in mobile technology are leading to a new generation of mobile health tools that will dramatically increase access to healthcare. Advances in genomics mean that scientists can track diseases on a molecular level, allowing them to identify outbreaks, understand patterns of disease transmission and develop targeted drugs and vaccines. We are truly on the brink of remarkable breakthroughs and have the opportunity to revolutionize global health. To seize this opportunity, we must call for continued investment to save lives, combat extreme poverty and accelerate progress.

Additional resource:

Follow USAID for Global Health (@USAIDGH) on Twitter and use #GHMatters to join in the conversation.

Use of Technology in Malaria Prevention and Control Activities

During the month of May, IMPACT will be highlighting USAID’s work in Global Health. From May 1-10, we will be featuring the role that Science, Technology & Innovation plays in Global Health.

More than ever, the world relies on technology for everyday activities in the work place. Technology brings us a host of efficiencies – saving us time, resources, and providing real-time response capabilities. Within the realm of global health, programs in the field are finding ways to use new technology for monitoring and evaluation, rapid exchanges of critical data and information, and general logistical purposes. Such efficiencies can equate to lives saved and reduced morbidity, drastically increasing the impact programs have on populations in need.

RTI has implemented a number of technology-based solutions to support the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) malaria prevention and control efforts throughout Africa.

Zanzibar District Malaria Surveillance staff visiting malaria positive households during a training session, June 2012. Photo credit: Mike McKay, RTI

Funding by PMI and other stakeholders, together with the leadership of the Zanzibar Malaria Control Program (ZMCP), has resulted in a dramatic decrease in malaria prevalence in Zanzibar. However, persistence of malaria transmission in surrounding areas (Tanzania mainland and Kenya) leaves the island vulnerable to sudden outbreaks and the re-establishment of ongoing, perennial malaria transmission. Through the USAID-funded Tanzania Vector Control Scale-Up Program, RTI International has worked closely with the ZMCP and PMI to develop Coconut Surveillance, a mobile application that builds on the Malaria Early Epidemic Detection System (MEEDS). MEEDS is an innovative mHealth system used by health facilities to report new malaria cases via simple-feature phone handsets, which ensures that epidemic outbreaks are identified within two weeks of their onset. Coconut Surveillance works through the MEED system by alerting district malaria officers to new local case reports. ZMCP district malaria officers are then guided through an active case detection protocol by Coconut Surveillance, which includes the following steps:

  1. Collect additional case data at reporting health facility,
  2. Visit household to collect family member data and test for malaria infection, and
  3. Record GPS-based household location.

Malaria surveillance officer interviewing woman from malaria positive household in Zanzibar, June 2012. Photo credit: Mike McKay, RTI

The accumulated data are synchronized with a shared database, enabling program officials to monitor results in real time, detecting cases, identifying localized outbreaks, responding within two weeks of case detection, and developing better strategies for disease elimination. ZMCP officers equipped with Coconut Surveillance on tablet computers receive new case alerts from MEEDS, and use Coconut Surveillance to collect additional data as they follow up on each new case.

MEEDS is currently used by all of Zanzibar’s 150 health facilities. From July to December 2012, Coconut Surveillance followed-up (PDF) on 980 newly reported cases, tested 3,228 household members, and identified 223 previously unidentified malaria cases in Zanzibar. MEEDS and Coconut Surveillance are helping Zanzibar to identify and treat many otherwise undiagnosed malaria cases, identifying hot spots and transmission patterns, and responding rapidly to new outbreaks. These mHealth applications are helping Zanzibar to sustain the remarkable gains it has made against this dangerous and debilitating disease.

Opportunities exist to expand on the lessons learned from these technology-based activities in malaria programs and introduce them as solutions to other global health projects that encounter similar challenges. The value added by these tools offers the opportunity to greatly increase efficiency, accuracy, and impact across the global health spectrum.

Watch MEEDS in action.

Follow USAID for Global Health (@USAIDGH) on Twitter and use #GHMatters to join in the conversation.

LAUNCH: Addressing Development Problems Through Systems Innovation and Collaboration Across Boundaries

Will Schmitt serves as the LAUNCH program manager for Office of Science and Technology. Photo credit: Will Schmitt

Last week USAID and its LAUNCH partners held a very successful “LAUNCH 2020 Summit” at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. We are also excited and honored that the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s Kennedy School just named LAUNCH one of its Top 25 Government Innovations. To mark the start of an exciting new phase of LAUNCH and to celebrate our success, we would like to provide a short overview for those not familiar with the program, as well as some news about where we are taking the program next.

What is LAUNCH?

LAUNCH, a collaborative public-private partnership between USAID, NASA, NIKE Inc., and the Department of State, is aimed at identifying, showcasing, and accelerating innovative approaches to specific global challenges. LAUNCH searches for visionaries whose world-class ideas, technologies, or programs show great promise for making tangible impacts on society.

Since the beginning of LAUNCH in 2010, we have completed four program cycles (Water, Health, Energy, and Beyond Waste) and have just kicked off a fifth focused on transforming the system of textiles and apparel manufacturing.   For each challenge, LAUNCH convenes a group of thought leaders for an expert consultation called the “Big Think” to help identify the areas ripe for innovation within that sector and guide us in sharpening our challenge statement. A two-day Summit follows, where global stakeholders from across that cycle’s system build a collective understanding of the systems problems outlined in the LAUNCH challenge.  The challenge is publically released at the Summit, beginning an open innovation process that will identify hundreds of innovations related to the challenge. Ten promising innovations are chosen through a rigorous evaluation process and invited to the three-day LAUNCH Forum, the centerpiece of the LAUNCH process. At the Forum, the ten innovators meet with the LAUNCH Council, a selected multidisciplinary group of leaders whose expertise, networks and resources align with the particular challenge.   During the Forum, the LAUNCH Council helps the innovators chart a course of action that will accelerate their innovations forward.  Innovators then receive six months of support through the LAUNCH Accelerator, a program custom designed for each innovator to harvest and act on the most promising connections, ideas and opportunities surfaced during the LAUNCH Forum.

What kinds of innovations has LAUNCH supported?

Over the past three years, LAUNCH has supported dozens of innovations with game-changing potential. The Carbon for Water project, for example, has distributed nearly 900,000 easy-to-use water filters in western Kenya, obviating the need to boil water to make it safe for drinking. This reduces wood consumption and carbon emissions by an estimated two million tons annually. The company that manufactures the filters is subsequently able to sell carbon credits on the global carbon credit market. That’s real financial sustainability alongside cost-effective service delivery.

Or LUCAS, (now produced by spin-off company Holomic) a lens-free microscope that attaches to a camera-equipped cell phone and is able to remotely detect bacteria and parasites in blood or drinking water. The LUCAS technology came out of Professor Aydogan Ozcan’s UCLA lab and has subsequently garnered significant private investment.

What makes LAUNCH different from other types of programming models?

For one thing, LAUNCH is fundamentally about sustainability—we pick apart sustainability problems and find the innovators we think stand the best chance of radically impacting those problems. We’re sourcing and supporting new technologies and innovations, yes, but we don’t want these to be one-off innovations that get “stuck in the garage.” We want to promote innovations that are sustainable, scalable, and contribute to human development in a way that minimizes the strain on resources. And we want to do it in a way that is ultimately financially sustainable. LAUNCH is as much about systems thinking as it is about new technology.

Secondly, LAUNCH is collaborative and open. We’re partnering with NASA, NIKE Inc., and the State Department precisely because we believe that each partner brings its own unique perspectives, capabilities, and audiences to the table, and each plays a major role in shaping the program. A powerful network built by the partners and our collaborators that is poised to help LAUNCH innovators with their greatest business or program needs is critical to our success. The principle of openness also applies to the selection of our LAUNCH innovators (the winners of each LAUNCH Challenge), many of whom are organizations that have never worked with USAID before.

What should we know about the new phase of LAUNCH that began with the LAUNCH 2020 Summit?

We held a LAUNCH 2020 Summit at NIKE headquarters to kick off a new LAUNCH focus on systems innovation. After a few program cycles, we realized that the problems we are addressing are fundamentally systems problems and that the program should both explain and attack them as such.  We began by gathering a broad selection of members of the system we’re addressing in one room for a few days. We used the Summit to build a collective understanding of that system’s challenges and the possibilities for collaboration in solving them. We decided to focus on the textiles and apparel system because of its complex global supply chains, common interest for all four partners, and immense scope for change in the system. This industry has a disproportionate impact on the livelihoods and the environmental and social well-being of the world’s poor. As a result, it provides fertile ground for the LAUNCH program model and its new focus on tackling systems innovation problems to drive transformative progress in the industry. For the LAUNCH 2013 Systems Challenge, we’ve chosen to focus on the materials of which fabrics are made and the manufacturing systems that make those fabrics. Elements of the challenge statement focused on putting workers at the center of innovation in the industry and on building inclusive business models should be of very significant interest to the development community.

The 2013 Systems Challenge went live on April 24th and will close on July 15th.  We will also soon be opening our first LAUNCH “nano-challenge,” a call for solutions specifically aimed at university students.

Please visit www.launch.org for more information about the program. You can view the current challenge statement and submit an application. Please distribute the challenge statement far and wide across your own networks (downloadable file here)—it’s a critical part of finding the very best innovators!

Better Diagnostics Critical to the Fight against Typhoid

During the month of May, IMPACT will be highlighting USAID’s work in Global Health. From May 1-10, we will be featuring the role that Science, Technology & Innovation plays in Global Health.

The lack of a robust, sensitive, and easy-to-use diagnostic test is one of the most serious barriers to the control and prevention of typhoid fever.

Typhoid fever is a severe bacterial infection spread through water or food that has been contaminated with human waste. The disease causes high fever, flu-like symptoms, abdominal pain, and systemic illness that can result in severe morbidity or death.

An estimated 21 million people fall ill due to typhoid each year, and unfortunately, the burden of disease is greatest among the most vulnerable: school- and pre-school-age children. These children primarily live in poverty throughout Asia and Africa, typically in crowded and unsanitary conditions without access to safe water or basic sanitation.

Women and children in Bihar state, India. Photo credit: Esther Havens

When they fall ill with typhoid, recovery is no guarantee. WHO estimates at least 216,000 people die from typhoid each year. The disease can be treated with antibiotics, but resistance to common drugs is widespread and increasing.

The lack of effective diagnostics means it is more difficult to identify patients, provide effective treatment and prevent the disease from spreading, especially for drug resistant typhoid. It also hinders our ability to conduct surveillance and to identify high-burden and at-risk populations. For policymakers, ministries of health, and others, this lack of diagnostics obscures the true impact of the disease, and reduces the sense of urgency that is required to address it.

There are vaccines available to prevent typhoid; however, they have limitations. Existing vaccines are only moderately effective and provide limited protection to young children. But without a more trusted method for identifying patients, it is also more difficult to conduct efficacy trials of next generation vaccines and clinical therapies. The lack of a sensitive diagnostic test increases the number of patients that must be recruited for these trials and, as a result, dramatically increases the associated costs and time. As a result, in the past few decades, the field has moved forward only with public sector investment.

We don’t have to wait for next generation diagnostics to make a strong case that international organizations and national governments should invest in the control and prevention of typhoid. Timely case identification and management with antibiotics has dramatically reduced case fatality rates, and access to clean water and basic sanitation will provide the best long-term solution.

But at the same time, we know that next generation vaccines providing high levels of lasting protection as early as infancy and effective clinical care may not become available to the children that would benefit most because the cost of needed trials is too high. And when children’s lives are at stake, we need to move quickly.  That’s why we need to rise to the challenge of developing better typhoid diagnostics, and soon.

Learn more about typhoid fever and how to get involved at www.coalitionagainsttyphoid.org.

Follow USAID for Global Health (@USAIDGH) on Twitter and use #GHMatters to join in the conversation.

Embracing Innovation and Discovery to Accelerate Global Health Progress

Ariel Pablos-Mendez, PhD, serves as assistant administrator for Global Health

During the month of May, IMPACT will be highlighting USAID’s work in Global Health. From May 1-10, we will be featuring the role that Science, Technology & Innovation plays in Global Health.

Improving women’s and children’s health is critical to the development of successful economies and stable communities. It not only saves lives, but it helps communities move themselves out of poverty. Yet every year, 6.9 million children die of preventable causes and more than 287,000 women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

In his State of the Union Address earlier this year, President Obama set forth a vision to, within the next two decades, achieve some of the greatest contributions to human progress in history– eliminate extreme poverty, ensure an AIDS-free generation, and end preventable child and maternal deaths.

To many, these goals seem impossible. They seem like nothing more than a catchy statement, in a political speech. But in reality, these goals are achievable, and we’ve already begun to see tremendous progress.   For example, we’ve supported the scale up of a simplified newborn resuscitation program, “Helping Babies Breathe” through a public-private partnership. The partnership has trained and equipped 100,000 health providers in 50 countries in the last two years. This past year, USAID reached more than 84 million women with family planning information and services. By enabling women to delay and space pregnancy, this helped to prevent 15,000 maternal deaths and save the lives of more than 230,000 infants. These are just a couple examples of the recent advancements we’ve made.

But while we have tools and knowledge that can save and improve lives today, we must also look toward the future. Millions around the globe still do not have adequate access to reproductive, maternal and child health services. There is no guarantee that today’s tools will meet tomorrow’s challenges. We must not become complacent.

USAID and the broader global health community invest in innovation, science & technology to find game-changing solutions. Solutions that will help accelerate the goal of ending preventable child and maternal deaths, and creating an AIDS-free generation.

Through the Grand Challenges for Development, Development Innovation Ventures, and the Higher Education Solutions Network, USAID is helping to drive breakthroughs in science and technology that can transform development challenges. Recently, we launched the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact in Global Health to help promote and discover innovative, business-minded approaches to address key bottlenecks in the development, introduction and scale-up of global health technologies and interventions.

And since 2011, Saving Lives at Birth has supported 39 exciting and potentially transformational solutions to women’s and newborns’ health. The innovative ideas include an instrument-free, low-cost, rapid point-of-care CD4 test; a postpartum intrauterine device simulation training model; a counterfeit and substandard drug detector device for use in the developing world; and a low-cost, sustainable health cooperative.

At USAID, we are committed to finding innovative solutions to global health  problems (PDF) and if the global health community can harness science, technology and innovation for the poorest communities in the world, we can leave an unparalleled legacy in global health in this next decade. Over the next few days, we will be blogging about some of the latest cutting-edge solutions that are changing the global health arena. By working together to discover and build new solutions, we can maximize our impact and expand what is possible in development.

Follow USAID for Global Health (@USAIDGH) on Twitter and use #GHMatters to join in the conversation.

Light Above Darkness – The Global Struggle for Democracy & Human Rights

Sarah Mendelson serves as deputy assistant administrator for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance

Two years ago at the Community of Democracies (CD) in Vilnius, Aung San Suu Kyi appeared via video message, addressing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, foreign ministers, presidents, and human rights activists from under house arrest in Burma. While she wasn’t physically present, her grace and strength were felt even from thousands of miles away. I remember she said she was “full of hope and full of anticipation for what the not too distant future will bring us.”

Those were telling words. This week, in Ulaanbaatar, at the seventh ministerial of the CD, Aung San Suu Kyi once again addressed the audience – this time in person. Back straight, regal, and elegant with flowers adorning her hair, Dau Suu said she never lost faith that humans “desire light above darkness.” She walked among the other dignitaries and yet always stood apart. As one official noted, she seemed like “the next Mandela.” Her moral force reminded all of us that we have a duty to remember those who do not live free and to work tirelessly to ensure that one day they can.

Dau Suu’s remarks were followed by Tawakkol Karman, a brave young Yemeni woman who won the Nobel Prize for her non-violent struggle for the safety of women and women’s rights in peacebuilding work in Yemen. Her emotional appeal to “stop the killing in Syria and the killing of Muslims in Burma” was blunt, forceful, and a sharp contrast to the more diplomatic speeches that such gatherings inevitably generate.

Deputy Secretary Burns delivered a powerful message from President Obama about generating the “new technologies and tools for activism.” It is our hope that the information technology revolution means we will continue to open governments and transform the global struggle for democracy and human rights. For innovation not only makes hiding corruption even harder, it can help governments listen and respond to their citizens.

And we are already seeing results. One of the most interesting and informative presentations was from an Indonesian leader proudly showing how her government is using technology to empower citizens to hold governments accountable in ways that even the world’s oldest, most established, democracies would do well to replicate. Mongolian officials, our hosts, were talking of transparency, open societies, shared lessons on democratic transition and cooperation with emerging democracies.

At USAID, we are embracing this virtuous cycle through Making All Voices Count, the Open Government Partnership, and by supporting game-changing innovations from governments, partners, organizations, and change agents around the world. We believe these efforts will help new democracies deliver to their citizens, empower civil society activists, and challenge authoritarians everywhere. We have seen a lot of progress since the last CD in 2011 but we have also seen a backlash in many places. Governments attempt to rule by laws designed to close space around civil society and activists. While many of us have hope that such efforts do not have a bright future in the hyper-connected 21st century, we met many activists that live daily with security services trailing and jailing them. I must remind myself that change is possible and hope that when I see them at the next CD, their lives are transformed by freedom.

Who Stole My Cow? Open Data and Praedial Larceny

On December 23, 2012, thirty-two cows were stolen from a farm in Trelawny, Jamaica. By the time the story was picked up by a national newspaper three months later, the farm had been practically shut down, with only six of the original twenty-two workers still employed. Praedial larceny — the theft of agricultural produce and livestock — is widely acknowledged as a major threat to agricultural production and food security in developing countries. It robs legitimate producers, stifles incentives for farming entrepreneurs and adversely affects the poor. In Jamaica, this scourge deprives farmers of more than JA$5 billion (US$52 million) each year. The Rural Area Development Authority (RADA), an agency of Jamaica’s Ministry of Agriculture, has demonstrated a strong commitment to using open data to combat this economic drain and improve the resilience of the island’s agricultural industry.

Stanford Political science professor talking with farmer in Cornation Market in Kingston, Jamaica about praedial larceny. Photo credit: Matthew McNaughton

At its core, praedial larceny thrives on information asymmetries that limit coordination between stakeholders, such as farmers, law enforcement, and buyers of produce. The free flow and accessibility of information about registered farmers, their production, incidences of theft and linkages between production and market are all a part of the information ecosystem that is needed to combat this challenge.

It is within this context that I am excited by the G-8 International Open Agriculture Data Conference and the U.S. Government and USAID’s commitment to supporting agriculture open data. While the value of data is derived from its usage, the principle of ‘openness’ is founded on access and participation. Having more relevant and timely access to data for not only policy makers and data scientists, but also farmers, innovators and other intermediaries, will help to create the solutions needed to prevent threats to food security.

Over the last three years RADA has collaborated with universities, NGOs, and entrepreneurs, including the Mona School of Business & Management, the Caribbean Open Institute, and the SlashRoots Foundation, to publish agriculture open data through APIs and develop a number of proof of concept applications and visualizations to improve extension services and policy making. They partnered in Developing The Caribbean, a regional open data conference and code sprint that spanned six islands this year, where they released data and helped define problem statements to development challenges, along with government agencies from across the Caribbean. The event attracted over 200 volunteers software developers and domain experts in agriculture, tourism and data journalism, who generated over twenty-five prototypes in response to thirty problem statements.

Testing low tech prototypes in largest market in Jamaica after two day workshop to collaborative build solutions with users. Photo credit: Matthew McNaughton

Looking forward to further collaboration with RADA focused on specific development challenges, such as praedial larceny, one thing is clear: open government data in agriculture will be critical to breaking down the silos that typically create governance bottlenecks. This requires focusing not aggregate macro datasets, but instead opening small, service level indicators, originating from any development partner, that can provide “just in time” data to inform decision making. Early program prototypes include employment opportunities as data collectors for at-risk youth, and mobile farmer ID verification for law enforcement and buyers of produce.

To this end, we’re embracing open data that not only helps to catalyze innovation outside of government, but also lowers the barriers for RADA and the farmers they serve, to explore new ways of collaborate to solve the problems that impact them both.

Matthew McNaughton (@mamcnaughton) is an Open Innovation & Development Consultant at the World Bank, and Director of the SlashRoots Foundation, a Caribbean Civic tech non-profit, aiming to accelerate the evolution of the technology ecosystem in the region. SlashRoots is collaborating with the Caribbean Open Institute to launch the Code For The Caribbean Fellowship program. CftC is a member of the Code For All Network, Code For America’s International Program.

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