Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Collaboration

It's been well over a year since I left my old organization (The Human Rights Data Analysis Group - HRDAG) to rejoin The Private Sector, but a large part of my heart has been left behind. Working for HRDAG has never been easy. While one can't complain about engineering salaries in principle, I was working at times for less than 1/2 what I could have made elsewhere. Organizational funding was naturally a chronic problem which for a technology organization makes it sort of a double whammy - tech is expensive! There were very large and often rocky personalities to contend with on a day to day basis, most likely including myself. There had to be, because honestly who else would choose to do that sort of work. Such work is little appreciated, especially by authority, often its focus. I used to say we weren't a non-profit, we were the exact opposite, an un-profit, because you know, there is much profit to be had in violating human rights. Our partners were unreasonable, not because of any necessary personal failings, but because they faced the same issues I just mentioned. We would go to the most difficult places where people have endured the worst suffering that can been meted out by their fellow man-kind. Places where it was even harder to work.

I was very lucky to have had a chance to work there. I do not regret, nor shall I ever, that I participated. A lot of people in the US want to become involved with such good work. But most Yanks, like everyone else, still have to eat, and that means that they need a part of the scarce funding that is out there. I got lucky. Working for the NGO gave me a chance to go places that most of the people from my country would refuse to go, and never will. Whenever I thought I'd had enough, I would go somewhere and meet the people for whom I was really working. There are some good people out there. And it is a big world. And not everyone is as good.

So, needless to say, I was overwhelmed with gratitude when a year and a half after leaving the NGO a friend of mine hooked me up with someone at the University of San Carlos who wanted me to visit. He just to talk with his Masters students and discuss their projects with them. So I did. I didn't realize at what level the Masters program was operating at. It was just starting up! The professors are still trying to seek out information about how to teach their students and build a modern, relevant curriculum. This is a very big challenge.

Guatemala is a country that has emerged from a civil war not much more than a decade ago. While that seems like a long time ago, the legacy of these kinds of conflicts can take a while to fade to the background. The civil war was unusually long, more than 35 year, and took the lives of at least 200,000 people. Like many places in a similar situation, a whole host of problems popped up after the civil war to add to the ones they already had. An estimated 30 percent of the population, mostly in the rural areas, are illiterate. The economy is small and for foreign exchange the country is dependent on exporting commodities, which on its own is a losing game. Basically, Guatemala is a developing country.

And your country might be too. Actually all of them are developing, except for maybe places like Sweden, and everyone has room for improvement. I guess it's more like a journey than a destination. But let's be self conscious about it. No two countries situation is the same and it's wrong to over generalize. However, there are things we can learn.

I met Professor Mazariegos when I arrived in Guatemala, whom I had come to visit without anything more than an introduction over email and a clumsy phone conversation. He is the mastermind behind my visit and efforts to build the USAC information systems curriculum. This fellow is energetic and ambitious. A very dangerous combination. He harbors some pretty amazing fantasies in which Guatemala becomes a technology outsourcing country. And that got me thinking... What does it take?

One thing that strikes me living in Silicon Valley is that so many people are interested in solving the problems of the developing world. Everyone likes to go on about this thing called "The Digital Divide" and act like that's the most important issue facing the planet Earth. This inevitably leads to trying to fix things with high-tech ideas like the One Laptop Per Child project. The theory, I guess, is that African children lack for nothing but a computer. Some people look at this idea and think "aren't there all sorts of problems with giving computers to people in places that don't have regular electrical current? And who will fix it for them when it breaks?" The geeks behind this idea have taken these questions head on and have tried solving these kinds of issues, like providing a crank so the child can power the computer themselves or making it so simple that the child can fix it themselves. But the real question sitting in the middle of the room is "will a computer really give people what they need?" What do you do about the problems around the computer that can't be solved by the computer? High crime, government censorship, dysfunctional economy, local corruption, environmental degradation, etc.

Developed country solutions don't simply work in developing countries (notice I didn't say they simply don't work). US companies get to do things like benefit from computers, networks, software development and the Internet because they exist in a context and infrastructure that makes them beneficial. Electronic data storage is only useful when there is a whole bunch of people who at a moments notice can replace your hard drive, fix your network and provide you with routine maintenance at the drop of a hat. In the past, most organizations we've worked with didn't see technology as something to help with work but something that creates more work. It was another set of chores to look after it, and when it breaks, it's broken for two months.

In order for technology solutions to work, there needs to be a technology industry. It's not enough to give people technology, people have to make it. That's not to say that everyone needs to reinvent the wheel. In fact, only a handful of societies have done it on their own, and civilizations of the Americas never did! Technology innovations do spread around the world, but I think that people will serve the masters of those technologies until they learn to master it for themselves.

That's what needs to be done. There needs to be a collaboration. Technologists of the world unite! Something bigger than just sending gadgets around or trying out the new glittering tech word. If you are in a developed country, listen. If you are in a developing country, learn.

And vice versa.

Now go and enjoy being human. Today is your day!

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