By Helen Blakesley
What brings together more than 170 people, from 5 continents, 34 countries and over 64 organizations, in a room in a hotel in the Rwandan capital of Kigali? Speed dating. Seriously. But all in the name of technology and development.
I feel I should explain. If we were going from table to table listening to someone’s alluring spiel, it was because we were at the 4th CRS Global ICT4D Conference, discovering the latest innovations in Information Communications and Technology for Development.
I’d been dispatched to the conference with instructions to “unleash my inner geek”. My concern was, did I have one? I own nothing prefixed with an ‘i’. I’m a firm believer that you can’t beat the feel and smell of a real book between your hands and I’ve never downloaded a song in my life. My techie credentials were not looking good. Still, off I went, to explore this new frontier, with absolutely no idea what to expect.
First day of the conference, I’m having breakfast in the hotel restaurant, overlooking Kigali’s thousand hills, when a voice asks to join me. The voice is laced with a European accent, thick with the tones of a James Bond villain. The owner of the voice is wearing a white bow tie with blue dots on it, and proceeds to explain to me the difference between GIS and GPS technology. Gulp. Could the techie clichés be true?
But a few hours later, as the opening speeches proceeded, the revelations began. Four of the five keynote speakers were women. Some, over 60, but still passionately fired up about their subject area. Some were young and petite with funky haircuts and dangly earrings, but who evidently knew what they were talking about. I started to sit up and take notice. This was inspiring stuff.
Partnerships Among Experts
I learned that extreme poverty is often due to extreme isolation, and that technology provides a means of connecting people. I learned that technology can empower people by giving them information and tools to improve their lives. I learned how CRS is using cutting edge technology to increase the impact of our programming around the world, whether it be using GPS to track crop diseases, mobile phones to improve literacy, or using software platforms to rapidly assess needs during an emergency response.
The theme of the conference was “partnership”. Its aim, to bring together the “techies” and the development experts — so they can exchange their needs, share and learn about the latest “geek tech” and find answers to practical problems in the development world.
Partnerships with governments and donors are also at the heart of this work. The conference was officially opened by Rwanda’s Minister of ICT who (rather aptly) read his speech not from paper, but his ipad, the illuminated square reflected in each of his spectacle lenses.
Opportunity to Change Lives
As I sit in the audience listening, with the background noise of people tapping notes onto their laptops and tablets, it strikes me. Here we have a bunch of really smart people who are thinking up ways to more effectively and efficiently help other people. That’s pretty amazing. The words of Carol Bothwell, CRS’s Chief Knowledge Officer, capture my attention. “We have the opportunity to change the lives of millions of people around the world through technology — what could be more exciting than that?”
So back to that speed dating…
There was an eclectic mix of nationalities (Dutch, Kenyan, American, Ivorian…) genders and styles (from gray shirts and matching gray pens to snazzy power dresses). I must admit that I was a little lost at times, when phrases like “web service interface” or “Java enabled” popped up…and I couldn’t suppress a smile at statements such as “the iform platform is mobile data collection on steroids!”
To be honest with you, I did feel a touch sleepy at certain moments, but that was probably due to my lack of tech savvy more than anything else. Because in front of me were state-of-the-art gadgets — most of which I had no inkling about but which impressed me all the same.
To wit: Solar powered iphone chargers for use in remote areas; barcode readers for recording people’s information at seed fairs with just one swipe; portable mini servers so databases can be accessed from virtually anywhere.
The Point of Technology
I heard about mobile phones being used to transfer money to families in need, to text farmers with price alerts or advice on how to tend their crops, mobile phone applications to help health workers chart their patients progress and needs. I saw mini laptops for community workers who can be trained through distance learning. I learned about GPS devices that can be slipped into a pocket, but will provide essential mapping information for planning CRS’ life saving projects.
All this is only possible because technology is evolving so quickly and communities in developing countries have increasing access to it. And amongst all the paraphernalia and data and theory of the conference, we were reminded in the closing speeches of the reason this technology is so important: the people.
As a CRS staffer who uses iphones to collect data on malaria in Sierra Leone told us – “Experiment with amazing technology, yes. But don’t forget why we’re doing this. Don’t forget the people.”
Helen Blakesley is CRS’ regional information officer for west and central Africa. She is based in Dakar, Senegal.
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