NDI brought 16 aspiring young innovators from Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and the United States to Washington, DC, and San Francisco, CA, in April to meet with policymakers, technologists, civic innovators and social entrepreneurs. The visit was the culmination of NDI’s Civic Tech Leadership Program -- a unique bilingual program to cultivate young tech-empowered leaders in the U.S. and across the Middle East. Study mission participants had the opportunity discuss their ideas for technologies that address pressing political and social challenges.
The challenges participants are tackling include disinformation during electoral campaigns; corruption and nepotism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region; improving land titling in Libya to protect the rights of citizens and businesses; and creating easy-to-use tools for constituents to connect with their elected representatives. They also aim to empower vulnerable groups, including immigrant victims of domestic violence in Washington, DC, people with disabilities in Tunisia, and Syrian refugee children in Jordan.
The group visited San Francisco and Silicon Valley to meet with technologists, entrepreneurs, investors and academics.
“We’ve had a very preliminary idea regarding how our project will look, but you know meeting a lot of people, technologists, people in power, people from Congress -- that’s a very important intake to have from this program,” said Ahmed Galal Elmorshedy, a program participant from Egypt. Elmorshedy worked on a pitch for BetterVote, an online platform that would collect verified information about candidates for public office. “It has definitely helped us to develop our project in such a massive way over such a short period of time.”
The week-long study mission was the culmination of a three-part exchange program for young tech-savvy leaders from MENA and the United States, which began in August 2016. The program organized by NDI in partnership with Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and the Institute for Representative Government (IRG) recognized the synergy between youth, civic technology and governance innovation.
“Civic technology is really the field that will shape how we live in the future,” said Paula Berman, a U.S. citizen based in Brazil who has developed an online tool to facilitate meaningful engagement between citizens and lawmakers. “I believe that the internet is inherently democratic and there are great things that come out of platforms that are equally accessible to everyone, which doesn’t always happen in the physical world.”
The study mission was an eye-opening experience for participants that challenged many preconceived notions. “There isn’t a lot of innovation in DC and the system moves slowly. There's a lot of lumbering bureaucracy and not a lot of room for creativity,” said Flora Wang, a program participant from the United States. “Because of this program, I saw DC with new eyes, and I saw the potential for DC and all of the work that is being done to push DC in that direction, and that gives me hope.”
The Civic Tech Leadership Program was supported by the Aspen Institute’s Stevens Initiative, with funding through the U.S. Department of State and Bezos Family Foundation. The Stevens Initiative honors the legacy of the late U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who spent much of his career in the MENA region.
“Chris Stevens was truly one of our great public servants and ambassadors,” former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said to participants during their visit. “He was somebody that really cared about he was doing, and certainly cared about having more people-to-people relations in the countries where he served.”
Stephen Douglas Wright from the United States (left), and Ahmed Galal Elmorshedy from Egypt (right) present their project idea, BetterVote, in front of a panel of experts.
Program participants joining the study mission had the opportunity to meet their teammates in person after months of online collaboration. Many of the teams had been matched by NDI based on mutual interests.
“People from different backgrounds should work together to solve different problems because we have different skill sets and we can bring different things to the table,” said Rachel Gabriel, a participant from the United States who worked on a pitch for an education-assessment app for Syrian refugee children. “There's no reason to keep ourselves in these disciplinary boxes when there is so much more potential that we can unleash by working together.”
Each team prepared a live presentation, modeled on the rapid-fire pitches frequently given by tech start-ups, to deliver in front of diverse audiences. Throughout the week, the teams refined their slide decks and demos and received constructive feedback from experts.
“Ideally, I would like to take our project all the way to actually implementing it,” said Stephen Douglas Wright, a program participant from the United States who worked on BetterVote with Elmorshedy and another teammate from Algeria. “But I think this week will help to test whether that’s feasible or not, and how we can get to implement an idea at all of its various stages, from start to completion.”
The teams discussed their ideas and explored innovations in civic technology and policymaking through meetings with a wide range of practitioners, including:
- Innovative staff members at the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Department of State and the City of San Francisco’s Startup in Residence program, who discussed how technology and innovation are changing the practice of lawmaking, citizen engagement, diplomacy and municipal governance;
- Investors, mentors and business consultants specializing in social and governance innovation from Omidyar Network, Emerson Collective, CivicMakers, Tumml, Affinis Labs, TechWadi, Frog Design and Singularity University;
- Google, GoFund Me, Premise Data and UNICEF Innovation Lab, where participants learned about a broad variety global tools and programs for expanding key services to the world’s poor, collecting richer field data and facilitating collective action;
- Practicing civic technologists from Code for America, Caravan Studios, and Morocco’s Sim-Sim Participation Citoyenne;
- At Stanford University, Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Larry Diamond, a leading scholar of global democracy; Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) founder Bernie Roth; and d.school Consulting Associate Professor Stuart Coulson, part of the teaching team for Design for Extreme Affordability;
- Educational and cross-cultural exchange innovators at the Stevens Initiative Virtual Exchange Forum, where two program participants had an opportunity to speak on a panel;
- Start-up founders working in peacebuilding, from the PeaceTech Lab Accelerator program at the U.S. Institute of Peace;
- Civil-society activists and scholars specializing in technology and/or MENA from Article 19, SIMLab, the Arab Center for the Promotion of Human Rights, the Center of Innovation at Leiden University and Global Citizen Year; and
- Art Agnos, former mayor of San Francisco, who hosted the group’s final dinner at the Delancey Street Foundation.
“During the study mission, I met many risk-taking entrepreneurs who launched several startups that eventually failed, so I thought to myself, it wouldn’t matter if I failed,” said Wala Ben Ali, a program participant from Tunisia. Ben Ali is working with two U.S. teammates on an app to help immigrant victims of domestic violence. “I really need to take the risk, seize the opportunity, and try to make something positive in my country and in the world.”
Azzen Abidi, another Tunisian participant who is developing an app to connect people with physical disabilities with service providers, said he was pleased with the chance to participate.
“I hope when I come back to my country Tunisia, I can share this experience with the crowd and work more with the government on civic tech,” Abidi said.
For the first part of the Civic Technology Leadership Program, participants completed Stanford Online's Technology for Accountability lab, a free bilingual online course, which attracted more than 3,450 registrants from more than 120 countries. The online course, which was the first course offered by Stanford Online in Arabic, introduced participants to the different ways through which academics, experts and practitioners around the world are leveraging technology to improve democratic governance in their communities. The course comprised a series of lectures, case studies and demonstrations of relevant technological tools, and an online platform where participants engaged in cross-cultural discussion and applied course learnings collaboratively. In total, 50 project ideas were initiated as part of the course.
Eligible youth from MENA who completed the course were encouraged to apply for a virtual exchange, where they could work in cross-cultural teams to develop civic-tech ideas and receive guidance from experienced mentors. Out of hundreds of applicants, 200 participants from 14 countries in the MENA region and the United States were admitted on the basis of their ideas for technology with social impact. For seven weeks, they worked in cross-cultural teams to hone their civic-tech project ideas, and produce bilingual video pitches outlining these ideas. At the end, 30 teams submitted their video pitches to a selection committee that evaluated their submissions, and the teams responsible for the top submissions were invited to join the study mission in April.