Their ideas include an online platform to combat misinformation during Middle East and North Africa election campaigns, an app to support Arabic-speaking victims of domestic violence in the United States, and a blockchain-based system to protect property ownership rights in Libya.
These are just a few of the project proposals submitted by aspiring civic innovators for a video competition in the National Democratic Institute’s online Civic Tech Leadership Program. During the months of Nov. and Dec. 2016, an intensive mentorship and learning exchange engaged 200 young people from 14 countries. From those participants, 16 young leaders have been selected based on their team video projects, and are being invited to join an Innovators’ Exchange Study Mission in April 2017 to meet with technologists, social entrepreneurs and policymakers in Silicon Valley, CA, and Washington, D.C. The program is supported by the Aspen Institute’s Stevens Initiative, which honors the legacy of Ambassador Chris Stevens, with funding from the U.S. Department of State and Bezos Family Foundation.
Youth need to act in order to see positive social change. Someone has to start these civic projects. Now, I believe that I can really execute a civic tech project in my local community. I can be that person! - Myriam Echeikh, program participant from Tunisia
“The selection committee had a very difficult task, reviewing 29 videos from a wide range of amazing and inspiring teams, many of whom met in this program and worked across thousands of miles and two languages,” NDI Senior Program Officer Sarah Welsh said. “These video pitches are a jumping-off point, we hope, as participants take the project design, communication and teamwork skills they’ve practiced and apply them to challenges in their home communities or institutions.”
The teams that collaborated on the following video submissions were selected for invitation to the study mission:
- BetterVote: A team with members from Egypt, the U.S. and Algeria proposed an online platform that would combat misinformation efforts during electoral campaigns in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) by collecting and displaying independently-verified information about candidates, including their policy proposals and campaign finances.
- Saeduni: Teammates from the U.S. and Tunisia proposed a mobile application for vulnerable immigrant populations in the U.S. It would enable non-native English speakers to safely report domestic abuse and connect with support groups.
- Masahati: A team from the United States and Libya proposed a blockchain-based system that seeks to protect the property rights of citizens and businesses in Libya by digitizing land records through a transparent, secure, and multistakeholder online land register.
- Eye on Corruption: Teammates from Syria and Tunisia proposed an open-source platform that would enable citizens to submit and map anonymous reports of bribery demands, using SMS, smartphones or the web.
- Connecting People to Disability Services: Participants from Tunisia pitched an online service, starting in Tunisia, that would connect persons with disabilities to providers of essential services such as education and healthcare through a simple, easy-to-use platform.
- Assessing Education in Syrian Refugee Camps: A team from the U.S. and Egypt proposed a data collection and visualization tool that would assess the education levels of Syrian refugee children in Jordan, identify access gaps and recommend ‘best fit’ educational programs to aid workers.
This program allowed me to work hard, and unleash the creative potential within me. Instead of silently enduring the effects of [a traumatic] event, I was offered the possibililty to create positive change. - Wala Ben Ali, program participant from Tunisia
The videos honored by the selection committee, including honorable mentions, can be viewed on the program website at CivicTechLeaders.org.
Wala Ben Ali from Tunisia, one of the participants being invited to visit the U.S. as part of the study mission, worked with two women from the U.S. on the pitch for Saeduni.
“On November 25, The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, I witnessed an act of violence against one of my dearest acquaintances. I felt horrified,” Ben Ali wrote. “But I also felt I was right to work on women empowerment during the Leadership Program. This program allowed me to work hard, and unleash the creative potential within me. Instead of silently enduring the effects of that event, I was offered the possibility to create positive change. This experience has definitely helped me develop myself on so many levels.”
Awatef Riahi from Tunisia, another participant invited to join the study mission, was also motivated by a personal struggle to develop her project, Eye on Corruption, with a teammate from Syria.
“I have always been a hardworking student, and I graduated first in my class, but one of the most significant reasons I could not realize my dream of getting licensed to work as a teacher was bribery,” Riahi wrote. “The Leadership Program offered an opportunity to develop my civic tech project to fight corruption that I have always wanted to establish.”
The study mission aims to help participants translate their learning experiences into real-world change by connecting them with technologists, policymakers, elected officials, and civic innovators. Many program alumni have also joined a Facebook group to keep their conversation and collaboration going.
“Unlike other programs that did not offer any resources to continue working on my project beyond the program’s end date,” Wala wrote, “the Leadership Program has provided us with enough training to tackle social issues, such as domestic violence (the subject of our project).”
Honorable mentions were given to an additional eight teams who had proposed equally diverse projects:
- An e-parliament website that combines an information portal with digital activism tools to expand the audience for political engagement;
- An information portal and citizen-engagement platform for municipal government;
- A mobile app in Yemen to track cholera outbreaks and provide information on prevention and treatment to patients;
- A website and mobile app to combat nepotism and promote equal opportunity by publishing and crowdsourcing information about job vacancies and hirings;
- An app that uses geolocation services to provide personalized data about city resources and solicit citizen feedback;
- A mobile tool that would regulate traffic stops through centralized and open data to combat bribery;
- An open-data dashboard for local governance, starting with education data for Marrakech, Morocco; and
- A mobile app that would improve ambulance services to Egyptian villages using GPS support.
ENGAGING GOVERNANCE THROUGH CIVIC TECHNOLOGY
While many young leaders in MENA and the U.S. are civic-minded and interested in addressing social problems, many are also disillusioned with politics and government and looking for new models of engagement. In both regions, this new generation of digitized millennials is finding that social media, games and mobile applications can provide remedies to social and political challenges. As a result, a ‘civic technology’ movement is unfolding in universities, tech hubs and co-working spaces.
Recognizing this potential, NDI launched the Leadership Program in June 2016, in partnership with Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and the Institute for Representative Government (IRG.) The program began with Stanford Online’s first bilingual English-Arabic open course, the Technology for Accountability Lab, which attracted more than 3,450 registrants from more than 120 countries and enabled virtual teams to initiate more than 50 project ideas. Two hundred young course alumni from MENA countries and the U.S. were then admitted to the intensive mentorship and teamwork track during November and December. Participants from Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and the U.S. came together, were matched based on common civic interests and developed project ideas in cross-cultural teams.
One of the reasons this experience was really different to me was the access participants had to many top level professionals, who answered our questions and evaluated our projects. It added a lot of value to the program, and gave us opportunites that we wouldn't be able to achieve otherwise. - Paula Berman, program participant from the United States
“My team members come from different ethnic backgrounds and speak different languages,” said Rahmoune Salah, a participant from Algeria. “At first, I thought it would be impossible to communicate with them and share my ideas, so I was not optimistic about the prospects of our project, but after I saw their amazing motivation, I knew that we could overcome barriers to communication and achieve our goals. This whole experience made me realize how inspiring and motivating this journey was.”
To support participants in identifying problems, brainstorming solutions and building compelling pitches, NDI provided a collection of readings and videos, available in English and Arabic, about how to identify and address social and political challenges using appropriate, user-centered technologies.
In addition, NDI coordinated weekly group mentorship sessions with civic tech experts who offered hands-on guidance to assist project teams in refining their ideas. NDI also hosted four live discussions for the full program cohort with design experts, entrepreneurs and former elected officials who shared their experiences and expertise. One participant noted the value of these professional networking opportunities.
“Most online programs that I did before weren't as engaging as this one,” wrote Paula Berman, a participant from the U.S. “One of the reasons this experience was really different to me was the access participants had to many top-level professionals, who answered our questions and evaluated our projects. It added a lot of value to the program, and gave us opportunities that we wouldn't be able to achieve otherwise.”
After the program activities concluded, participant Myriam Echeikh from Tunisia reflected, “Youth need to act in order to see positive social change. Someone has to start these civic projects. Now, I believe that I can really execute a civic tech project in my local community. I can be that person!”