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Geeks without borders

How technology workers are doing their bit for the developing world

Globe and Mail Update

In the last issue of TQ, I wrote about the need for the information and communications technology sector to learn from other, more mature professions. While that's still true, there is at least one area where we're definitely pulling our weight. In 1999, the founders of Médecins Sans Frontières won the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing life-saving medical treatment and practitioners to Rwanda, Sudan, Kosovo and other war-torn, famine-ravaged countries. More recently, volunteers with Engineers Without Borders have helped build critical infrastructure and facilities in the same regions. Now, thanks to organizations like NetHope and Geekcorps, IT professionals can say that they, too, are helping those in need.

Whether it's setting up wireless infrastructure in rural Mali or training non-governmental organizations on project-management best practices, IT volunteers with these and other organizations have been part of countless projects for humanitarian causes.

IESC Geekcorps (a division of International Executive Service Corps since 2001) helps small- and mid-sized businesses, governments and NGOs in developing countries learn how to use IT more effectively. From e-learning modules to on-site implementation, the organization's programs are carried out through an international database of more than 3,500 ICT volunteers. As founder Ethan Zuckerman puts it, "it's a Peace Corps for geeks."

Zuckerman founded the group in 1999, after his company, Tripod (the precursor to today's user-generated content communities), was acquired by Lycos. Today, Geekcorps is funded by organizations such as HP and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and it has projects in a variety of countries such as Afghanistan, Mali, Ghana, and Lebanon.

One of the organization's success stories is the African Virtual Open Initiatives and Resources (AVOIR) project. Run out of Cape Town's University of the Western Cape, AVOIR collaborates with 13 other African universities in a capacity-building initiative based on the development and promotion of free software. One of its main outcomes is a rapid, Web 2.0 application development platform called Chisimba, named for the Chichewa term for "framework."

IT volunteers from Geekcorps helped design the development process and testing procedures for Chisimba, and served as technical mentors to local interns.

While Geekcorps works directly with stakeholder groups, NetHope focuses on collaborative projects where senior IT execs help NGOs become more efficient. The organization is made up of 22 NGOs that have a combined presence in 180 countries and who spend more than $30 billion annually. "Our focus is on helping NGOs be more efficient and productive," says William Brindley, CEO of NetHope. "In essence,
we use IT to help that $30 billion go a lot further."

Member organizations comprise development, conservation and emergency response organizations (almost all with at least one academic affiliation), and the group's activities fall into five categories: connectivity, field capacity building, emergency response, shared services and innovation.

One of the group's connectivity programs aimed to launch 100 satellites across Africa to connect remote communities to the Internet. They have already launched 106 satellites with more expected to come.

To quantify the impact the organization's projects have, NetHope and its members often refer to an NGO's "pie chart" ratio—the proportion of administrative and fundraising costs to the money flowing directly to program recipients.

At Save the Children, for example, NetHope's contributions led to its pie-chart ratio decreasing from 22% to 10% over the past 13 years. "To quantify the dollar impact of this change, it has meant that, on average, $46 million more in today's dollars are going to help children around the world that otherwise would not be available," writes Edward Granger Happ, CTO of the children's rights organization.

NetHope also has at least one Canadian connection: University of Waterloo students were among participants in a global benchmarking program to identify and share best practices in humanitarian IT project management. The Waterloo project, initiated by NetHope member Plan Canada, is an example of the group's ICT Skills Building Program, and both capacity-building and emergency-response program themes.
NetHope and Geekcorps are part of a growing field of technology- and humanitarian-driven initiatives known as the information technology for development sector. IT may be an easy target for jokes—whether it's for our sometimes nerdish demographic or the fact that we're still trying to find our lot in life—but there's no question we have reason to be proud.

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