The Economist: Geeks for Good
In the summer of 2010, a team of self-confessed "socially conscious nerds" came together to create TechChange, a start-up to further the use technology for development. But instead of moving to Silicon Valley, they picked Washington, D.C. as their home. And instead of talking to venture capitalists and incubators, they reached out to government offices and international organisations - even amid budgetary cuts and a recession.
Why? At the time, the hype around mobile services in the developing world, such as M-PESA, Safaricom's hugely popular mobile payment service in Kenya, was at its peak. Kiva.org, an American crowdfunding site for development projects, was widely praised. As a result, more and more NGOs were seeking to use mobile phones for development and adopt crowdfunding platforms. But they didn't know how to best use these new tools, which also include text messages and social media.
That left a gap in the market for TechChange. "There was a divide between those who create tech tools and those who wanted to use them," says Nick Martin, the firm's founder and chief executive. "We started by taking dozens of online courses - and found that most online learning was pretty awful, leaving us tons of room to innovate."
Two years later TechChange has taught more than 600 students in more than 70 countries through their online classroom. Its most popular course to date has been "Mobiles for International Development". Enterprises such as Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS have developed open source software that lets NGOs collect information via text messages and look at the results in real time. Students gain hands-on experience, for instance by analysing data gathered by mobile-phone surveys in Tunisia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those interested in conflict resolution can dig deeper by enrolling in a special course designed around case studies from Libya and Syria.
Although TechChange is in the business of helping technology make a big impact, Mr. Martin is quick to point out that gear itself is only a small part of a development solution. "We like to say that tech is only about 10%. It can't really do anything without the right human intent and contextual considerations."
Hence TechChange's focus on localising its courses. One such, put together to teach 40 Pakistani youth, was adapted by working with a local partner, the Pakistan Youth Alliance. TechChange brought in guest speakers from the region and used local examples, such as the floods that swept the country in 2010. Working with a team member from Ushahidi, the students learned how to crowdsource data about the impact of the floods and then aggregate the results so NGOs can allocate their resources more efficiently.
Yet TechChange doesn't only have to adapt to local conditions-but to the intricacies of government funding at home. The bulk of the firm's clients are government departments, UN agencies and other international organisations. "A brilliant proposal that's too risky or doesn't have enough good metrics, or is simply presented at the wrong time of the year, will fail," says Mr Martin. It sounds like fodder for another course - or even another start-up.Nick Martin '04 graduated from Swarthmore with high honors in English literature. He earned his M.A. in peace education from the United Nation-mandated University for Peace (UPEACE).