Apps for good – two things I learned in Ukraine this week

This week, I sat in on a presentation by a tech company here in Ukraine regarding the development of a citizen reporting system – one that could be accessed by a computer or a smart phone, where citizens could report on a particular issue, and these reports could be mapped and shared, etc. You’re probably familiar with these in other countries: where citizens can report pot holes, infrastructure problems after a disaster, incidents of corruption, incidents of street harassment, etc. Like in Chilé or Egypt.

The presentation was the best I’ve ever sat through on this topic, better than anything I have ever experienced in the USA.

Why?

The vendor used the language of the UN – and used it with real familiarity. He didn’t try to use some new snazzy jargon that’s big in the IT world now to talk about ideas we all understand: goals, clients, etc. In other words: he respected the audience to whom he was speaking as experts, and demonstrated that respect by being well-versed in the words they use and how they communicate. So, for instance, the representative talked about people’s capacities and the time and expertise needed by his staff to develop the tool – he didn’t substitute the word “bandwidth” for that.

He also talked to us, making eye contact, without constantly turning to his computer to show something shiny or colorful or otherwise just distracting. His slide show presentation was just background. He was there to connect, to help us understand. He was human – for a very human project. He completely understood that this isn’t a tech project – it’s a civic engagement project.

What a different experience it is to be in a meeting like this. Seven years ago, in 2007, no one talked about such a tool in Afghanistan in the government office where I was working, supported by UNDP – despite these tools already existing, despite the permeation of cell phones throughout the country, despite the golden opportunity to use such a tool in some way. Using tech in the field, even in the most remote of areas, to gather information and report it back somewhere in a centralized place as a part of humanitarian, environmental or other aid or development-related efforts has been a phenomena since before the new millennium – I wrote one of the first papers reporting on such efforts, for the UN, published online in October 2001. Back then, the UN yawned. I’m so glad things have changed!

Another great day on the job in Ukraine. Less than seven weeks to go.

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