US State Department, technology mavens, NGOs and hope - Tech Camp Mumbai brought all of them together

Photo credit : US Consulate Mumbai

“There’s good news and bad news,” said the priest to the congregation.

“The good news is that we have found the money to repair the church.” “And the bad news?” asked a church member. “The money is still in your pockets.”

This was how an NGO talked about the status of giving in India. People have the money, but what will make them donate? These, and many other such problems that NGOs routinely face, were intensely debated during the two day Tech Camp held at Mumbai on Feb 20 and 21, 2013, an initiative by the US Department of State in association with Global India Fund and Samhita Social Ventures. Tech Camp Mumbai brought together nearly 140 technology experts and young, highly-motivated participants from NGOs across India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Maldives to ideate on how technology could solve the most pressing social concerns in South Asia.

The idea for Tech Camps germinated under the Civil Society 2.0 initiative by Hillary Clinton, when she was the Secretary of State for the US. In their drive to encourage democratic movements worldwide, the Civil Society 2.0 aimed to encourage efforts that brought economic benefits to a large number of people. Technology was seen as a key enabler to this, and Tech Camps were envisaged to galvanize technology efforts in the NGO sector by tapping technology veterans to ideate around NGO problems.

Tech Camps place a strong focus on youth empowerment. The Mumbai Tech Camp was the 21st Tech Camp, and the first one in South Asia. Tech Camp Mumbai saw an assortment of over 100 NGOs selected for their area of operation and interest by the US Consulate and Samhita Social Ventures. An array of technology areas that would help these NGOs were identified, and experts were called in to help educate, ideate and facilitate application of one or more of these areas to NGO operations.

The conference format was as novel as the idea that inspired it. Unlike traditional conferences, Tech Camps are highly informal. They are designed to be participative and interactive, encouraging fluid exchange of ideas. The event started with a “speed-geek” session. Technology experts manned 17 tables to talk through their specializations. The NGOs were split into clusters, and spent exactly five minutes at each table. Every five minutes, they walked over to the next table, thus quickly getting a sense of various technologies that could help them.

These were followed by longer sessions that NGOs could choose to attend depending on their problems.

There were sessions around crowd-funding initiatives, digital storytelling, mapping technology, social media for raising awareness, low cost technology designs, SMS and voice based technologies, community radio initiatives and others. A complete list can be found here.

Over the two days, NGOs and technology mavens debated how some of these technologies could help resolve ground issues, culminating in presentations by the NGOs on future actions they would like to undertake. The NASSCOM foundation pledged to identify volunteers to help implement these solutions. Microsoft proposes to fund some of the initiatives.

All this sounds like serious work. It was. But what fun it was too! Energy and optimism ran high amongst candidates. There were frequent impromptu discussions around what NGOs faced, what technology enabled, mingled with discussions with NGOs from other countries on how they tackled issues, how we could change mindsets.

Wondering how it could be fun? Take a look at the Harlem Shake inspired warm up video this afternoon:

Tech Camp Mumbai ended with an address by the US General Counsel, lots of bonhomie and a sense of optimism that we could tackle pressing issues at hand.

More info on Tech Camp can be found here. For more photos, visit this photo stream.