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Archives for Innovation

Young Entrepreneurs Develop Startups in Serbia

The room was full of energy and promise. Huddled around computers, young adults worked in teams in a bright, open-concept, collaborative environment resembling a startup, creating innovative apps and IT platforms.

This is Serbia’s ICT Hub, a business incubator in Belgrade for information and communications technology (ICT) entrepreneurs.

Last fall, I visited the ICT Hub — a partner project of USAID, DNA Communications and Orion Telekom – to learn more about economic opportunities for young adults in Serbia, a country where the unemployment rate for this population is about 50 percent.  However, jobs in ICT are growing for people entering the workforce.

So far, over 60 young Serbians have participated in the ICT Hub’s intensive training for developing entrepreneurship skills and business strategies, and many more have engaged in monthly lectures open to the general public on strategy, leadership and tech entrepreneurship.

The ICT Hub provides a space available 24/7 where teams can collaborate, receive mentorship support from local business executives, have access to business and legal resources, and develop programs and applications specific to the IT sector.

As a young communications professional and an ICT aficionado, I was delighted to discover a general sentiment of optimism and hope when I spoke to my fellow ICT-enthusiast peers at the Hub about their various apps and innovations.

First, I met ICT Hub Project Director Kosta Andrić, who emphasized that the goal of the Hub is to build the potential for tech entrepreneurship while changing the mindset of young adults and the work culture within the country.

Young adults who first come to the Hub often fear failure, but through the program, they learn to take chances and innovate. Not all ideas and products may succeed, but the skills developed through the hub are transferrable to future ventures.

Kosta introduced me Milan Brindić, 26, co-creator of Bincode Entertainment, a gaming studio that produces mobile games. Milan enrolled in the ICT Hub’s program after an initial investment from a Bulgarian accelerator, a business incubator that provided mentorship and support for his startup. His team now has a space to work on the game as well as support from the hub’s extensive network of contacts, and a pathway for fulfilling his dream of publishing his game.

“Life in Serbia is hard for a young person … but, despite that, every person must follow his dream,” Milan said.  “The ICT Hub is very useful to me and helps me the most with networking…every tenant helps each other, so we are like family.”

Integrating communication and technology, Milan’s passion for gaming has a regional twist; his role-playing mobile game apps are based on Slavic mythology.

“We are inspired by all the other great role-play games in the world,” he said. “Each team member is in love with this genre of games. But one important fact — everyone knows what Greek mythology is, but we are inspired by Slavic mythology, and we want to educate our players about Slavic mythology and about Slavs.”

Milan Brindić, 26, co-creator of Bincode Entertainment, collaborates with team members at the ICT Hub. / Laura Jagla, USAID

Milan Brindić, 26, co-creator of Bincode Entertainment, collaborates with team members at the ICT Hub. / Laura Jagla, USAID

A creative path for many

Since the ICT Hub opened in fall 2014, several products developed have been quite successful. Some participants have created mobile games, such as extreme sports game Longboard Mapp, which has more than 15,000 users. ICT Hub participant Vuk Nikolić, creator of TruckTrack, a management software for the trucking industry, was connected to U.S. venture capital seed fund 500 Startups, which invested money and expertise in Nikolić’s software and team. Now, TruckTrack’s team has expanded, and the platform has over 2,000 companies registered.

Other teams are just getting their start, though they are enthusiastic about their potential. Nemanja Stefanovic, 25, creator of HireApp – an application connecting youth and others with part-time jobs – remarked that the creative space and mentorship offered by the hub contributed to his success

HireApp creator Nemanja Stefanovic and team member (left). New ICT Hub participants Vanja Belić, Stevan Janković, and Vuk Spplajković (right). / Laura Jagla, USAID

HireApp creator Nemanja Stefanovic and team member (left). New ICT Hub participants Vanja Belić, Stevan Janković, and Vuk Spplajković (right). / Laura Jagla, USAID

Investing in the future

The next ICT Hub session of pitching to potential investors will take place this spring. Hope lingered in the air as participants worked in a flurry to innovate.

After meeting with the young entrepreneurs at the Hub, I can summarize the experience in one word: possibilities.

In the words of Milan Brindić, “In the next five to 10 years, I see myself running a gaming company in San Francisco, focused on game design and experience. I am making awesome games… So, my dream is… I don’t have any dream, I am living it already!”

ICT Hub is a model that could be replicated in other countries to promote entrepreneurship, leadership development, and increased economic opportunity.

Possibilities, indeed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Jagla is a Communications Specialist in USAID’s Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and Environment.

Online to On the Ground: How Students in Virginia Supported Nepal Earthquake Recovery

Students and staff from AidData and the College of William & Mary participating in a Crisis Mapping event in April, 2015. / Hannah Dempsey, AidData

A massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal just as I was finalizing plans to spend the summer working there.

At the time, I was a student at the College of William & Mary and a Summer Fellow with the AidData Center for Development Policy, a research and innovation lab that helps the development community improve transparency by mapping where funds and efforts flow. The geospatial data tools we create help universities, think tanks and civil society organizations make better decisions about aid allocation, coordination and evaluation.

In the midst of planning for my trip to Nepal, the earthquake struck, leaving 9,000 people dead, entire villages flattened and hundreds of thousands homeless. After receiving news that our friends and colleagues were safe, my classmates and I looked for a way to help Nepal from our campus in Virginia.

Our solution? Crisis mapping from our laptops.

As student researchers at AidData, our day-to-day focus is tracking, analyzing and mapping development finance data. With specialized data skills, we were ready and equipped to rapidly collect, process and send spacial data to the people in Nepal who needed it. We partnered with USAID and other organizations to identify areas of Nepal in need of assistance, and mapped this information so that responders, community members and others could take action.

Within 48 hours of the earthquake, my student team started Tweeting to recruit other students to data mapping trainings on our campus.

Disaster mappers needed

More than 50 students responded to our call to action. We mobilized volunteers quickly, teaching them how to use the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) platform to create and edit online maps of humanitarian and natural disasters — Nepal’s earthquake, in this case.

Volunteers meticulously combed through aerial images of the Nepali landscape for buildings, roads and residential areas damaged by the earthquake. Along with thousands of other mappers around the globe, we also examined satellite images to pinpoint areas of destruction outside of Kathmandu and provide data on where shelters were. Over the next five months, volunteers at William & Mary provided more than 111,000 updates to the map.

Satellite maps created through the AidData Nepal Info Portal played an important role in recovery efforts in Nepal. / AidData’s Nepal Info Portal

One challenge we faced was how to make all of our data, along with geo-referenced news reports and YouTube videos of the damage, accessible to policymakers and first responders. Save the Children and USAID helped us get our data where it was needed, informing the efforts of and keeping them out of harm during search and rescue operations.

Even though the immediate needs of the earthquake have subsided, our work continues. Inspired by the mapping fervor following the Nepal disaster, students began organizing open-source ”mapathons” and even created an OpenStreetMap club to further develop their skills so that they will be ready to mobilize the next time the call for disaster assistance goes out.

I was amazed by how quickly and easily students could plug into global efforts, make tangible differences and help the lives of strangers halfway across the globe.

This experience spurred my passion for using data to positively impact global development and I look forward to doing even more to uplift humanity through this type of work in the future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hannah Dempsey is a Research Assistant with AidData and a Senior at the College of William & Mary, one of eight university-based Development Labs that is a part of the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN).

The AidData Center for Development Policy is one of eight USAID Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) university-based Development Labs. As part of the U.S. Global Development Lab, HESN is the Lab’s flagship program to engage universities in global development using science, technology and innovation-focused approaches. AidData, based at the College of William & Mary, is made up of full-time staff as well as a cohort of student research assistants that collectively work to improve development outcomes by making development finance data more accessible and actionable.

Empowering Voters One Mobile Phone at a Time

Two boys competed in a mobile phone typing contest in March 2015 to showcase how fast and easy typing in their native language, Khmer, can be with the Khmer Smart Keyboard, an app developed with assistance from Development Innovations. / Chantheng Heng, USAID

Two boys competed in a mobile phone typing contest in March 2015 to showcase how fast and easy typing in their native language, Khmer, can be with the Khmer Smart Keyboard, an app developed with assistance from Development Innovations. / Chantheng Heng, USAID

Walk down any street in bustling Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and among the many motorcycles, tuk tuks and food sellers, inevitably you will see young Cambodians using their mobile phones.

With two out of three Cambodians below the age of 30, Cambodia is one of the youngest countries in Southeast Asia, and Cambodian youth are embracing new technology such as smartphones and tablets as they become more affordable to communicate in ways that are having a profound impact on society.

Around the world, these technologies are allowing people to self-organize and connect with one another like never before.  As a result, in many countries regular citizens — whether as part of formal civil society organizations, or as bloggers, citizen journalists or human rights activists — are flourishing and lending talent and expertise to drive political, social, and economic development.

This year’s theme of International Democracy Day — Space for Civil Society — is an opportunity to reflect on how USAID is leveraging this wave of new communications technologies in its programming around the globe. These technologies are fostering improved access to information for citizens even in the most repressive countries and creating space for civil society to develop.

Phone empowerment

Although power of citizen voices is growing stronger, backlash countering transparency and access is growing across the globe.  According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, more than 100 new laws restricting freedom of association, assembly, and expression were proposed in the last three years alone. Galvanizing civil society, democratic governments, and private philanthropy to push back against these restrictions is at the heart of President Obama’s Stand With Civil Society initiative.

In Cambodia, USAID is working with the International Republican Institute through the Accountability and Governance in Politics program to help inform voters. The program aims to strengthen multi-party competition, support public demand for reform, enhance the accountability of elected officials, and increase youth civic engagement and women’s participation in the political process.

Access to the internet is increasing rapidly across Cambodia and outpacing the research on total users, especially for young people using free wi-fi available at many locations across the nation’s capital. / Chandy Mao, USAID

Access to the internet is increasing rapidly across Cambodia and outpacing the research on total users, especially for young people using free wi-fi available at many locations across the nation’s capital. / Chandy Mao, USAID

Take Ell Lavy, for example. At 31 years old, he drives a taxicab in a village in the province of Siem Reap. Since he lives in a remote village far from the town center, it is difficult for him and his family to get news — especially about political issues.

But now, he is learning all about Cambodia’s various political parties and their platforms by calling hotlines run through an interactive voice response system supported by USAID. The hotlines allow citizens like Ell to stay plugged in, even in areas with limited Internet access. While he is an avid listener of the radio, the hotlines allow him to get more detailed information about each political party.

“I didn’t know that I could use my phone to get this information,” Ell says. “When I called and listened, I heard a message about the party and about the lawmaker in my province of Siem Reap. Before, I had only heard information like this when I was studying at school in Phnom Penh.”

Since the launch of the interactive voice response system in August last year, more than 45,000 calls have been made. Political parties, recognizing its value, have been waging an aggressive campaign promoting the hotlines on social media and are seeing an increase in their use by up to 5 percent each month. Political parties are in the process of entering into direct relationships with telecom providers in order to continue this service themselves, making the endeavor sustainable.

Young 5D Lab members access training and use video production equipment and software to create and edit videos at Development Innovations. / USAID

Young 5D Lab members access training and use video production equipment and software to create and edit videos at Development Innovations. / USAID

These technologies go beyond helping increase political participation. In Cambodia, citizens can also use their cell phones to improve health outcomes and protect the environment. Similar interactive voice response systems are being used to reach people with HIV and to share vital information to women in remote areas regarding hygiene, breastfeeding and child care. Cambodians have begun using cell phones to document illegal logging practices for local authorities in their communities.

As the 2017 commune election and the 2018 general election approach, the hope is that young people in Cambodia will be more tuned into the political sphere and ready to make their voices heard to shape the future of their country.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jean-Marc Gorelick is the elections and political processes team lead in the Office of Democracy and Governance in USAID’s mission in Cambodia.

Disruptive Innovations Bringing Nepal Closer to Ending Extreme Poverty

Nurses apply chlorhexidine to the umbilical cord of a newborn at Nepalganj Medical College & Teaching Hospital. USAID is helping Nepal bring the life-saving antiseptic gel to villages, communities and health centers across the country. / Thomas Cristofoletti for USAID

Nurses apply chlorhexidine to the umbilical cord of a newborn at Nepalganj Medical College & Teaching Hospital. USAID is helping Nepal bring the life-saving antiseptic gel to villages, communities and health centers across the country. / Thomas Cristofoletti for USAID

In the maternity ward of a USAID-supported hospital in Dhulikhel, a town on the eastern rim of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, I watched a nurse apply a disinfectant gel to the umbilical cord of a newborn baby. That tube of the antiseptic chlorhexidine — worth under 15 cents — has been shown in a randomized control trial, to reduce neonatal mortality by a remarkable 34 percent in Nepal.

All around the country, more than 50,000 female community health volunteers  are sharing this innovation and saving thousands of lives in the process.

Thanks to simultaneous advances in health, education, nutrition and access to energy, Nepal stands at the edge of its prosperity. On the path to overcoming the remnants of internal conflict and transitioning to democracy, the Nepalese have cut extreme poverty by 50 percentage points in the last two decades.

Gita, a female community health worker, visits a pregnant woman and her family to show them how to use the chlorhexidine antiseptic gel and how to apply it to the umbilical cords of newborns.   / Thomas Cristofoletti for USAID

Gita, a female community health worker, visits a pregnant woman and her family to show them how to use the chlorhexidine antiseptic gel and how to apply it to the umbilical cords of newborns. / Thomas Cristofoletti for USAID

Innovative programming like chlorhexidine application is growing more common in Nepal and around the world. USAID is also supporting creative community-based approaches to countering human trafficking, including a novel effort to criminalize organ sales that has won landmark court cases, setting new precedent in Nepalese law for holding traffickers accountable.

Suaahara, a comprehensive nutrition program  that translates to “good nutrition,” teaches skills for nutrient-rich backyard vegetable farming, raising poultry, improving sanitation and hygiene, and controlling pests through demonstration farms and new mothers’ discussion groups.

A focused effort to improve early-grade reading is supporting the Ministry of Education’s School Sector Reform Plan by strengthening curricula and training teachers, school committee members, parents and technical support staff in more than 27,000 Early Childhood Education Development centers across the country. Just a 10 percent increase in the share of students with basic literacy skills can boost a country’s economic growth by 0.3 percentage points, while laying the foundation for their later learning.

We need these kinds of disruptive innovations to help bend the curve toward increased child survival, better access to justice, lower malnutrition, greater literacy and skills, and, ultimately, the end of extreme poverty. Solutions like these will drive broader development progress and elevate our efforts to realize transformative change, and now, 2015, is the time to do it.

This year will be a pivotal year for international development. In Addis Ababa this summer, leaders will come together at the third Financing for Development conference to agree on a new compact for global partnership.

In the fall at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, heads of states will ratify a post-2015 development agenda, a universal, more comprehensive, more ambitious follow-on to the Millennium Development Goals, outlining a vision for the next 15 years of development progress. And in Paris next December, member states will adopt a new agreement to combat global warming at the 21st Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Substantial challenges lie ahead for Nepal. Tensions from the recent conflict remain, simmering below the surface. The government has set a January 2015 deadline to approve a constitution – after a failed attempt in 2012 – to be followed by local elections, which haven’t been held in 16 years. And a quarter of Nepal’s population still lives on less than $1.25 a day.

Based on current projections, Nepal is likely to eradicate extreme poverty before 2030. If Nepal can navigate the pitfalls ahead, it is well-positioned to see long-term, sustainable growth by developing its immense hydropower potential, exploiting its unparalleled tourist draw, and producing goods and services for the growing middle class on its doorstep – the belt from eastern Pakistan through northern India to Bangladesh that constitutes the most densely populated area on earth.

A worker for Lomus Pharmaceutical packs tubes of a chlorhexidine antiseptic gel that is one of Nepal’s great innovations and success stories in global health. The gel, when applied to the cut umbilical cord stumps of newborns, instead of traditional substances like oil, curry powder or ash, can reduce the risk of infant death by up to a third.  / Thomas Cristofoletti for USAID

A worker for Lomus Pharmaceutical packs tubes of a chlorhexidine antiseptic gel that is one of Nepal’s great innovations and success stories in global health. The gel, when applied to the cut umbilical cord stumps of newborns, instead of traditional substances like oil, curry powder or ash, can reduce the risk of infant death by up to a third. / Thomas Cristofoletti for USAID

While the solution to a vexing challenge like neonatal mortality may seem as simple as applying a bit of antiseptic ointment at the right time, this breakthrough came only after a dedicated and concerted effort to hammer away at the problem. USAID worked in partnership with academic researchers, government service providers, community extension workers, private-sector drug manufacturers and others to rigorously pilot, test and scale the Chlorhexidine project.

One particular obstacle, for instance, was that in much of Nepal mothers traditionally rub substances like cooking oil, ash, or even cow dung, on their babies’ umbilical stumps. For widespread adoption to be viable, USAID and its partners had to develop a gel that could be applied similarly to traditional salves, and spend as much effort on behavior change and institutional strengthening as on the technology.

By focusing our efforts on disruptive innovations such as Nepal’s successful chlorhexidine project and using the U.S. Global Development Lab to design, test and scale similar interventions around the world, USAID will help bend the curve towards the end of extreme poverty.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Thier is the Assistant to the Administrator in the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning. He tweets from @Thieristan

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A New Leader for the U.S. Global Development Lab

Since launching eight months ago, the U.S. Global Development Lab has rallied a global community of innovators around our shared goal of ending extreme poverty. Less than a year in, it is pursuing a diverse array of projects—like seeding start-ups through the Global Innovation Fund, preserving biodiversity in Brazil by harnessing advanced data analytics, and reducing child mortality in India through our new Urban Sanitation effort.

At the core of these efforts is a focus on working hand-in-hand with both global and local partners—enabling us to make an impact faster, cheaper, and more sustainably.

But in doing so, our Agency is focusing on doing business differently.

We are deepening our engagement with innovators—including co-creating through the new Development Innovation Accelerator, and hiring technical experts through flexible personnel authorities.

We are approaching challenges in new ways—crafting a statement of the problem, and then opening it up to the brightest minds around the world to solve. Using this public-facing approach, our new Ebola Grand Challenge generated more than 1,300 innovative proposals in one month alone.

We are broadening the scope of the partners we work with—like our Frontiers in Development innovation marketplace and the Higher Education Solutions Network TechCon, which brought together universities, corporations, and governments to share their best ideas in development.

We are embracing smart risk, iterating quickly, and learning from failure.And we are working to scale innovations with immense potential—likeelectronic payment systems—to millions of people in the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Today, we are thrilled to announce steps to take these efforts to a new level—as next month, the Lab will welcome Ann Mei Chang as its first Executive Director. With extensive experience in the technology industry, a commitment to public service, and a depth of expertise in development, Ann Mei will accelerate our Agency’s commitment to harnessing science, technology, innovation, and partnerships in every place we work.

Prior to USAID, Ann Mei served as the Chief Innovation Officer at Mercy Corps, where she focused on leveraging mobile technology to improve the lives of the poor. She also served as the Senior Advisor for Women and Technology at the U.S. Department of State—playing a key role in harnessing technology to improve the lives of women and girls in developing countries, and increase the representation of women in the technology sector. Throughout her career, Ann Mei has worked closely with USAID—including through the launch of the Alliance for Affordable Internet, a public-private partnership that aims to expand Internet access to one billion people.

Ann Mei has more than twenty years of engineering and leadership experience in Silicon Valley, including serving for eight years as a Senior Engineering Director at Google. At Google, she also led the product development team for Emerging Markets, with a mission to bring relevant mobile and Internet services to the two-thirds of the world’s population that is not yet online. In addition, Ann Mei has held leadership roles at several leading companies including Apple,Intuit, SGI, and several startups.

Under Ann Mei’s leadership, the Global Development Lab will continue to focus the world’s brightest minds on our biggest shared challenges—lifting millions out of the tragic cycle of extreme poverty.

Please join us in welcoming Ann Mei to our USAID family. 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

The authors both served as Acting Executive Directors of the Lab. 

The Digital Development Opportunity

Bangladeshi farmer Jalal Kha talks over a mobile phone as he works in his paddy field. / AFP, Farjana K. Godhuly

Bangladeshi farmer Jalal Kha talks over a mobile phone as he works in his paddy field. / AFP, Farjana K. Godhuly

At last month’s Frontiers in Development Forum, we welcomed some of the world’s brightest minds and boldest leaders to discuss how to best partner to end extreme poverty. We not only heard from leaders like Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Secretary of State John Kerry, but also from innovators who are creating mobile apps to fight human trafficking and using 3-D printers to build prosthetic hands in the field. It was a recognition that we live in a unique moment, one where new technologies and partnerships are redefining what is possible.

Above all, the Forum was a reminder that—as we near the 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals—we must accelerate progress. For our Agency, new technologies and partnerships have created unprecedented opportunities to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies.

From GPS to Skype to e-tablets, new innovations are fundamentally changing the way we communicate, work, learn, share and interact. Almost two decades ago, we launched the Leland Initiative, an effort to expand access to information and communication technology in more than 20 African countries. To build on this legacy, we teamed up with the U.K., Google.org, and the Omidyar Network to establish the Alliance for Affordable Internet. Since then, the Alliance has grown to more than 65 members, from Facebook to the Government of Mozambique. Together, they are building global consensus around a set of policy and regulatory recommendations that will lower the cost of internet access—unlocking new opportunities for doctors, entrepreneurs, and local leaders across the developing world.

Much of this progress won’t happen at a desktop; it’ll happen in the palms of billions of hands. Today, farmers are using mobile payments apps to send payments and receive loans; entrepreneurs are selling their goods on the global marketplace; and health workers are treating more patients, at less cost, and without expensive equipment.

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A mobile money user in the Philippines checks her balance on her phone. / USAID, Brooke Patterson

We’re also tapping into affordable, game-changing technologies with the potential to transform the way we work. In Uganda, we’re using mTrac, a tool that enables local health workers to send the government reports via SMS. Recently, the Ministry of Health used mTrac to survey 10,000 health workers on whether their health unit had a fridge that kept perishable drugs and vaccines cold.

The survey cost just $150 and took less than three days—providing the Ministry of Health with information from 1,862 health facilities. As a result, we learned that only about 70 percent of them have working fridges to store life-saving treatments. As Uganda ramped up its national campaign to eradicate polio, it used this information to target the most vulnerable populations and protect more children.

Technology we often take for granted is creating monumental changes in developing economies. In Senegal, rice millers buy expensive Asian imports, while local rice farmers are unable to sell their crops. To build up local supply chains and improve the quality of harvests, we are helping farmers share information through Excel and Dropbox. With this information in hand, rice millers can monitor local crops, schedule shipments in advance, and collect payments online. With 30 farming networks involved to date, this project is helping tens of thousands of smallholder farmers boost their sales and reach new customers.

We’re not creating technology for technology’s sake. There are too many apps that might look sleek, but are not transformative for the people who use them. That’s why we have helped publish a set of guidelines on best practices for development programs that utilize technology.

We call these principles the Greentree Consensus, and they are built on earlier sets of principles that draw on the insight of more than 300 NGOs with expertise in the field. Representing our commitment not only to innovation, but sustainable results, we’re thrilled to be launching these principles in partnership with over a dozen donors and multilaterals, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the United Nations Development Program and the World Food Program.

This is just the beginning of a conversation. We must do more to take these insights into action.  Over the next year, we want to hear from the development community about your experiences in bringing technology to tackle development challenges—from promoting media freedom to solving water shortages. With our Agency’s new U.S. Global Development Lab at the center of this effort, we’ll be able to create, test, and scale breakthrough solutions like never before. In doing so, we can make strides towards a day when extreme poverty—like cassette tapes and dial-up internet—is a thing of the past.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Rajiv Shah is USAID Administrator. He tweets from @rajshah

Calling all Innovators to Help Fight Ebola

Saving lives at birth. Powering clean energy solutions in agriculture. Inventing new tools to teach a child to read. Across development, we’re calling on the world’s brightest minds to tackle our toughest challenges. In the last few years, we have helped launch five Grand Challenges for Development that have rallied students and scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs to tackle some of humanity’s toughest problems.

Today, we face just that kind of challenge—a global health crisis that is in dire need of new ideas and bold solutions. From Guinea to Liberia to Sierra Leone, Ebola is devastating thousands of families, disrupting growth, and fraying the fabric of society. The United States is helping lead the global response to the epidemic, but we cannot do it alone. That is why President Obama launched our sixth Grand Challenge. Fighting Ebola: A Grand Challenge for Development is designed provide health care workers on the front lines with better tools to battle Ebola.

To help kickstart this Grand Challenge, some of our nation’s most innovative problem-solvers will gather in DC today and tomorrow to work on this issue.  We’re also inviting people from all over the country to share their ideas. You can add your thoughts and see what other people saying here.

As the United States and the international community work to contain the worst Ebola epidemic on record, courageous men and women are performing critical tasks every day to save lives and prevent the spread of the virus. Personal protective equipment (PPE)—the suits, masks and gloves the health care worker wears—is their primary protection, but it is also the greatest source of stress. In these hot and uncomfortable suits, health workers must administer to the patients and remove contaminated materials.

Together with the White House Office of Science and Technology, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Defense, Fighting Ebola seeks new practical and cost-effective solutions to improve infection treatment and control and provide better care to those who need it most.

The first part of the initiative is an open innovation platform powered by OpenIDEO, one of the world’s top design firms. Through it, the global community can brainstorm, collaborate, and comment on new ideas that generate practical solutions to the Ebola epidemic. The strongest ideas may be encouraged to apply for funding later in the Grand Challenge. Our aim is to begin funding ideas in a matter of weeks.

Over the last several years, we’ve found that Grand Challenges not only generate inventive tools and breakthrough technologies, but inspire us to confront seemingly insurmountable challenges—and succeed.

Get started by joining the conversation. To learn more, please visit http://ebolagrandchallenge.net/

Health workers in personal protective equipment (PPE) wait to enter the hot zone at Island Clinic in Monrovia, Liberia on Sept 22. 2014. PPE is their primary protection, but it is also the greatest source of stress

Health workers in personal protective equipment (PPE) wait to enter the hot zone at Island Clinic in Monrovia, Liberia on Sept 22. 2014. PPE is their primary protection, but it is also the greatest source of stress. / Morgana Wingard, USAID

The Power of Scientific Research Investment in Africa

On Friday, August 1st, Mr. Melvin Foote and Dr. Nkem Khumbah published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing persuasively that scientific and technological progress is the key to African development. In their words:

“Scientific and technological advancement will help eradicate poverty and promote homegrown economic development by providing Africa with the tools to address its own challenges and expand its industrial productivity.”

In the days before the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., Mr. Foote and Dr. Khumbah encouraged the U.S. Government to embrace “a science-led agenda in Africa” by pairing American higher education institutions, scientific research centers and tech entrepreneurs with African counterparts to spur economic growth and reduce dependence on aid.

Mr. Foote and Dr. Khumbah’s vision is one that USAID fully supports and has already taken significant steps to catalyze. Today, Africans are the architects of their development, not just beneficiaries. This new model for development focuses on partnerships — with African governments, businesses, universities and civil society.

USAID-related science programs assist in expanding training for women. / Zahur Ramji (AKDN)

USAID-related science programs assist in expanding training for women. / Zahur Ramji (AKDN)

Building lasting partnerships with African leaders, thinkers, entrepreneurs and innovators is at the core of USAID’s approach, which seeks to end extreme poverty by investing in Africa’s greatest resource: its people. Many of our newest initiatives reflect not only our renewed commitment to science and technology, but the central importance Africans play in global affairs throughout the 21st century.

USAID is constantly seeking new African partners in an effort to support great ideas from people all over the continent. Under efforts like USAID’s new Global Development Lab, which brings together diverse partners to discover, test and scale new solutions to chronic development challenges, we have identified 200 promising innovations that are currently being tested and evaluated.

Many of these solutions come from developing country entrepreneurs, including African entrepreneurs. A prescription medication verification and tracking system invented by Sproxil, a Kenya-based company (and USAID partner) has reached over 2 million customers in Ghana, Nigeria and East Africa by placing scratch cards on packs of medication. The scratch card reveals a numerical code, and when texted to a Sproxil-provided phone number, will verify whether the drug is genuine or fake. Dozens of similar innovations that have the potential to save millions of lives are currently being tested in Africa, including inexpensive chlorine dispensers in Uganda, Kenya and Malawi and stickers to encourage passengers to urge bus drivers in Kenya to slow down, thereby reducing traffic accidents and related deaths.

Site supervisor Haji Huessen Ngwenje of Symbion Power analyses cables at the Mtoni service station in Zanzibar, Tanzania. / Jake Lyell for the Millennium Challenge Corporation

Site supervisor Haji Huessen Ngwenje of Symbion Power analyses cables at the Mtoni service station in Zanzibar, Tanzania. / Jake Lyell for the Millennium Challenge Corporation

Power Africa is another example of USAID’s new model in action. Through the U.S. Government’s partnerships with African governments, private investors, developers and others, not only is Power Africa saving lives by, for example, bringing electricity to a rural clinic, but it is also spurring long-term growth by scaling new technologies, generating new jobs, and reducing the risks for foreign investment.

Power Africa may have been conceived by the U.S. Government, but the private sector has since taken the lead — the U.S. Government commitment of $7 billion in financing and loan guarantees has given both international and African businesses the confidence to invest in Africa’s emerging electricity sector to the tune of more than $20 billion to date.

As Mr. Foote and Dr. Khumbah note, it is critical to train the next generation of Africans in science and engineering. USAID supports a number of efforts to this end currently, and is hoping to do more in the near future. In November 2012, USAID and seven universities launched the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) with the goal of bringing their intellectual power and enthusiasm closer to real-time development innovations in the field. This network currently collaborates with labs at four African universities to support studies of how communities respond to changing conditions such as urbanization, changes in local climate, and post-war recovery.

In addition, members of the network collaborate with and support existing S&T based African-led enterprises and emergent community led technology development. The Higher Education for Development (HED) program has supported dozens of partnerships between U.S. universities and African peer institutions. These partnerships typically last years beyond the U.S. investment and result in broad and deep connections between the U.S. and Africa.

Forest monitors in Western Tanzania receive training on how to collect field data using Android smartphones and Open Data Kit (ODK).

Forest monitors in Western Tanzania receive training on how to collect field data using Android smartphones and Open Data Kit (ODK). / Lilian Pintea, Jane Goodall Institute

Similarly, the Research and Innovation Fellowships (RI Fellowships) program and Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) program foster science and engineering partnerships on the individual level. RI Fellowships currently supports more than 60 African scientists to collaborate with U.S. fellows in applying their scientific and technological expertise to local development challenges. The PEER program funds scientists who see problems in their midst to do the in-depth research required for creative solutions, while simultaneously expanding research ecosystems in the developing world.

One hundred and fourteen PEER scientists around the world tackle local challenges with tenacity and intellectual vigor, guiding the local development agenda and building an academic foundation for progress. The recent 2014 PEER awardees’ meeting brought 39 PEER awardees from 10 African countries to Arusha, Tanzania to build new connections. As part of the conference, the Vice President of Tanzania, His Excellency Mohamed Bilal, delivered the keynote address in which he said, “Science, engineering and technology education in Sub Saharan Africa holds the key to unlocking the continent’s great potential that could propel sustainable growth and development.”

Mr. Foote and Dr. Khumbah are right on the mark that a new model of development for Africa must be inclusive, grounded in the latest scientific and technological advancements, and focused on African priorities. Working with counterparts across Africa is the best way to catalyze the technological and scientific change that will be necessary to make the continent’s economic growth sustainable far into the future. Great ideas backed by 21st century science and technology – many of them home-grown in Africa – are the surest path to lifting hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty for good.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jerry O’Brien is the Director of the Center for Data, Analysis, and Research in the U.S. Global Development Lab. Follow the Lab @GlobalDevLab

Making for a Stronger Africa

This post has been cross-listed with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy blog

This month, the first class of the President’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Mandela Washington Fellows converged on Washington, D.C. for their inaugural Presidential Summit. During the Summit, many of the Fellows joined the US Global Development Lab and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy at Fab Lab DC to discuss the role of making in Africa’s economic and community development.

Mandela Washington Fellows gather to discuss how making will help shape Africa’s future. / Mike Star

Mandela Washington Fellows gather to discuss how making will help shape Africa’s future. / Mike Star

The Maker Movement is transforming the way we design and produce things – both here at home and overseas. At this year’s first-ever White House Maker Faire, President Obama described making as “a revolution that can help us create new jobs and industries for decades to come.” In recognition of the potential of young African visionaries to advance the Maker Movement, YALI is working to equip change-makers with the tools they need to foster progress across the continent.

 Community maker spaces are already springing up around the world, providing public access to tools and technologies like 3D printers, laser cutters, and low-cost modular electronics, which dramatically change the rules of invention – anyone with an idea can bring that idea to life. By democratizing the means to create, digital manufacturing lowers the barrier to entrepreneurship around the world, including in developing regions like Sub-Saharan Africa.

WoeLab inventor Afate Gniko with his e-waste 3D printer. / woelabo.com

WoeLab inventor Afate Gniko with his e-waste 3D printer. / woelabo.com

 In 2012, Togolese entrepreneur Sename Koffi Abdojinou founded WoeLab, a bootstrapped maker space and business incubator built on an ethos of community design and open-access hardware in low-resource settings. Illustrating the power of this philosophy in action, WoeLab member Afate Gnikou invented a 3D printer made primarily from discarded electronics, or e-waste, scrapped from landfills. The invention’s design has been openly published, so makers across Africa and the rest of the world can leverage his ingenuity to sow the seeds of digital fabrication in their own communities. This year at the Fab10 maker conference, WoeLab’s e-waste 3D printer was awarded the Global Fab Award.

Maker spaces like Abdojinou’s WoeLab promote hands-on STEM education; they empower ordinary people to develop local solutions to the challenges faced in their communities; they encourage entrepreneurship.  In October 2013, Togo celebrated its ten most promising young entrepreneurs. Three of them came from WoeLab.

The maker movement paves a clear path toward local problem solving and entrepreneurship, both hallmarks of the Mandela Fellowship, as we learned firsthand:

Fellow Abibatou Banda Fall helps women develop products to improve their livelihoods, like a low-cost thermal basket to keep goods warm as they’re taken to markets, in Senegal.

Lukonga Lindunda operates a co-working space to support innovative tech entrepreneurs in Zambia.

Selma Neves helps struggling single mothers lift themselves out of poverty through self-employment training and support in Cabo Verde.

Ruth Lukwaro pairs inventors with business students to build sustainable social enterprises in Tanzania.

Mutoba Ngoma turns agricultural waste into consumer goods like biodiesel fuel for local markets in Zambia.

Tatiana Pereira runs a business incubator for early-stage startups in Mozambique. “I can have greater impact on people’s lives by sharing knowledge and strengthening the ones around me,” she said.  “Success is the entrepreneurs that start and succeed.”

 The Fellows also had an opportunity to speak with Emeka Okafor, founder of Maker Faire Africa, who encouraged them to cultivate a culture of making. “Making is central to leading Africa where it needs to be: a developing, problem solving region,” he said. “It’s imperative that communities from Cairo to the Cape unfetter their populations with tools from within. Making is pivotal if this is to occur.” Maker Faire Africa showcases makers’ ingenuity and strengthen their pan-African network. Started in 2009, the organization has hosted events in four different African countries. The next Maker Faire Africa will be held later this year.

 Looking forward, makers in Africa are faced with a spectrum of challenges, ranging from amplified versions of those familiar to American entrepreneurs like gaining access to venture capital and low-cost manufacturing, to more frustrating hurdles like inadequate electricity and supply chain infrastructure. Daunting though these challenges may be, the gritty determination of young African leaders like Abdojinou is unwavering. Africa’s makers and entrepreneurs will help shape the future of the continent.  “Growth,” said Pereira, “comes from people who act and make things happen – entrepreneurs. Africa is full of opportunities and young people with great potential.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eric King (@eric_m_king) is an Innovation Specialist at the U.S. Global Development Lab.
Stephanie Santoso is a Researcher at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Kate Gage (@kategage) is an Advisor at the U.S. Global Development Lab at U.S. Agency for International Development.

Mobilizing ‘Makers’ for a Better World

Making, with a capital “M,” is a new term used to describe an ancient act: creating physical things. Far from old-fashioned, a perfect storm of cultural and technological advances is fueling a revolution in Making.

3D printers, modular electronics, and online libraries of open-source designs empower tinkerers and inventors to bring their ideas to life with groundbreaking speed and creativity. Thousands of community hackerspaces (and Fab Labs and maker spaces) are opening their doors to Makers all over the world. Crowdfunding and low-barrier manufacturing turbocharge the innovation pipeline from invention to market.

Developing air quality sensors for monitoring urban pollution in Africa. / Marco Zennaro

Developing air quality sensors for monitoring urban pollution in Africa. / © Marco Zennaro

Today, the President celebrates a “Nation of Makers” as a powerful force of innovation and entrepreneurship across the country. And beyond the impressive promise of revitalizing American hardware manufacturing, the Maker movement offers a truly unprecedented resource: global creation.

Great ideas can come from anywhere. How many times in human history must inspiration have struck those who lacked the means to create a prototype? How many of our great ideas have gone unrealized? By democratizing the means to create, the Maker movement is poised to unlock humanity’s power of invention.

Recognizing this potential, USAID is challenging Makers around the world to create sensor technologies that can improve the lives and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable people. Our U.S. Global Development Lab has launched a “Sensors for Global Development” Fab Award in partnership with the World Bank, Intel Corporation, and the Fab Foundation.

Sensors for Development

Sensor technology is an integral part of the Maker movement. Sensors allow homemade robots to navigate through physical space. Wearable sensors like Shine give you feedback on your personal health habits. Birdi monitors the quality of the air in your home – it’ll send an alert to your phone when you should open the window. Information about our physical world is increasingly detected, analyzed, and returned to us as useful insights that can improve our lives. The development of this so-called “Internet of Things” is owed in large part to hackers and makers.

There is a vast hole, however, in the Internet of Things. Much of the developing world, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, is a sensors desert. Here, ironically, the world’s most vulnerable people stand to gain the most from improved access to critical information on essential issues like agricultural productivity and the availability of clean drinking water.

The Internet of Things: a map of connected devices around the world.  Notice the scarcity of sensors in Sub-Saharan Africa. / thingful.net

The Internet of Things: a map of connected devices around the world. Notice the scarcity of sensors in Sub-Saharan Africa. / thingful.net

Useful information streaming in from sensors in near real-time also may permit adaptive decision-making to maximize the effectiveness of USAID programs around the world.  Much in the way that the ubiquity of cell-phones has already transformed the global development enterprise, the promise of sensor networks presents a tremendous opportunity to leapfrog traditional methods of gathering important information and empowering individuals.

The Sensors for Global Development Fab Award challenges the Maker movement to get involved. We’ve called for Makers to focus their efforts on creating robust, low-cost sensor technologies that promise to help improve the livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable. By tapping into this pervasive cadre of solvers to take on society’s most fundamental challenges, we stand ready to bend the curve toward a more prosperous, resilient, and democratic global community.

Today, at the White House Maker Faire, we announced the six Fab Award finalists:

  • MoMo (mobile monitor) – a mobile device with a sensor that collects data to track infrastructure and improve accountability in the developing world. WellDone’s water MoMo identifies where village wells are broken and alerts repair teams to fix them.
  • Fresh Air in Benin – a network of air quality sensors being developed to monitor urban air pollution in Africa
  • GrowerBot – a smart sensor system for small-scale agriculture that monitors and tracks environmental conditions, providing customized guidance to help growers optimize their productivity.
  • Nano Plasmonics Biosensor – a nano-scale optical sensor for identifying organic molecules with a wide range of applications from medical diagnostics to detecting water contamination.
  • KdUINO – a low cost DIY sensor buoy system that empowers students and citizen scientists to monitor the environmental conditions of seas and rivers
  • Safecast – an open source vehicle-mounted sensor network system to empower citizens to collect and publish data, with a focus on mapping radiation levels

The finalists will compete for a $10,000 prize at the Fab10 Conference in July.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eric King is an Innovation Specialist with the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Data & Analytics Team. Follow him @eric_m_king

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