USAID challenge exposes development community to tech innovation

A Kenya-based NGO, Ushahidi has created a cell phone application that allows users to report basic information about humanitarian crises. After winning an internal USAID challenge, it is up for the 2008 Development 2.0 Challenge. Photo by: Erik Hersman

The potential to reach the world’s poor with affordable and useful information is immense as mobile phones are rapidly and cheaply spreading throughout the developing world. But the development benefits of mobile phones are only as good as the applications and services that can be accessed on a device.

Responding to this need for linking technology with economic growth, the U.S. Agency for International Development and TechSoup are partnering to foster development-focused information technology through its first open-source competition, dubbed the Development 2.0 Challenge.

The challenge is one of multiple projects that started under USAID’s Global Development Commons initiative, which aims to facilitate the sharing of information among donors and aid recipients. The GDC itself was established by USAID Administrator Henrietta H. Fore to seek out innovations that improve the affordability and accessibility of development information.

“USAID has over 50 years of experience in development, [but] the information on what works and what doesn’t hasn’t been shared very well,” said Wesley D. Wilson, a senior policy adviser to the USAID administrator. “That’s why the challenge is focused on mobile phones, which is the computing platform of the developing world if we are serious about getting information out there.”

Budding social entrepreneurs who enter the Development 2.0 Challenge will have the opportunity to present their ideas to a global audience and, if they are selected, receive grant funding. To submit an idea, candidates must first register and then post a proposal and business model, as well as information on the work experience and anticipated development impact.

The Development 2.0 Challenge is open to individuals over the age of 18, groups of individuals, as well as nonprofit, noncommercial and commercial organizations with less than 50 full-time staff members.

Once posted on the NetSquared website, proposals are open to feedback from the site’s 13,500 registered users. Challenge participants may improve upon their ideas until Dec. 5, the submission deadline.

NetSquared users will vote Dec. 8-12 to determine the top 15 projects. Shortlisted candidates will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to present their ideas on Jan. 15.

Three finalists will be chosen by a panel of technology and development experts from USAID, Vodafone, Wired magazine and other organizations. The first prize will be a $10,000 grant, while the two runners-up will receive $5,000 each to implement their ideas.

But, “getting their name and idea out there” to potential public and private donors may be the greatest benefit for all finalists, Wilson said.

NetSquared already lists more than three dozen submissions from across the globe. They focus on mobile technology for humanitarian emergencies, education, health, commodities pricing and other issues. Almost half of the projects address agricultural efficiency or mobile banking.

An idea from Central America, for instance, would allow farmers and buyers to exchange crop prices through text messaging or a call center that acts as an intermediary for semiliterate or illiterate farmers. Another proposal, born out of the post-election violence in Kenya and dubbed Ushahidi Mobile Crisis Reporting (ushahidi is Kiswahili for “testimony”), would allow anyone with a cellphone to report information about man-made or natural disasters. Yet another proposal, focused on education, could allow parents and teachers to receive “digital” report cards to track a student’s performance.

The Development 2.0 Challenge’s primary goal is to “bring exposure to what’s happening on the ground” and allowing participant ideas to “gain traction across the [development] community,” said TechSoup CEO Marnie Webb.

Candidates can actively engage the NetSquared community by responding to comments and sharing ideas with other participants. In fact, they may benefit from interacting with the NetSquared community.

“Reciprocal behavior gets rewarded,” said Webb, who has set up other challenges that try to link technology to poverty alleviation.

USAID hopes to make the Development 2.0 Challenge “a tradition … that will be picked up by the next administration” and “connect international development professionals with really smart entrepreneurs,” said Elizabeth Kountze, alliance outreach specialist of the Global Development Commons.

About the author

  • Oliver Subasinghe

    Oliver joined Devex in late 2008 as an international development correspondent and researcher. He previously served as a microfinance fellow for Kiva in Kenya and Uganda. During his tenure, he worked with Kiva’s field partners to improve their operations and governance. Oliver holds a master's in business from the College of William & Mary.