About the Author: Suzanne Hall serves as New Media Advisor in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
What do you get when you bring tech and social media experts from Silicon Valley to Colombia for three days to dig in on issues like recruitment of youth by the FARC, bringing legal services to the most at risk populations and demining efforts?
Three pages of deliverables and huge enthusiasm to help the Colombian people sustain the already incredible advancements they have made in face of significant security challenges.
Alec Ross, Secretary Clinton's Senior Advisor for Innovation, and I were joined by Scott Goodstein, CEO of Revolution Messaging and the head of candidate Barack Obama's mobile program; Sarah Lacy, Silicon Valley author and Editor-At-Large for TechCrunch; Maria Teresa Kumar, Executive Director of Voto Latino; Dave McClure, a tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist; and Josh Nesbit, Executive Director for Frontline SMS Medic, which uses mobile tech to facilitate public health projects.
From July 13 to 16, we visited Bogota, La Macarena (Meta Department), and Medellin, to understand the challenges faced by the Colombian government and civil society, and how entrepreneurial individuals in Colombia are using creativity and ingenuity to develop solutions.
21st Century Statecraft is about reaching beyond typical government-to-government interactions. Under Secretary Clinton's leadership, we are using technology to connect directly with people and empower them to take the lead in their own development. Over the last year and a half, we have organized several tech.dels to strategic countries of interest around the globe. Given our close bilateral relationship with Colombia and the tremendous progress Colombians have made over the last decade, we planned this delegation to see how we could leverage the power of mobile and online technologies to help bridge some of the remaining challenges.
Colombia is already a plugged in place. Colombia has a population of 45 million people, 42 million of whom have a cell phone. Colombians are big fans of social networks, and the world witnessed how millions of Colombian citizens mobilized to renounce violence and kidnapping using Facebook and other platforms during the “Un Million de Voces Contra las FARC” march in February 2008. The main ingredients already exist in Colombia to develop extremely effective applications for a population that is already familiar with social platforms.
Two visits stand out as powerful examples of how to rebuild communities in spite of extreme security challenges. One is Tecnoacademia, a Colombian-government and USAID-sponsored space where 800 kids in one of the toughest neighborhoods on the outside of Bogota can come to learn about technology and science. Ten-year old Laura (sporting pigtails) told me that she walks an hour to reach Tecnoacademia after regular school hours, and that thanks to what she has learned she now dreams of being a nano-technologist. The second was our visit to the Maureen Orth School high in the hilltops above Medellin. In a place previously only accessible by horse or on foot, Maureen was the first to bring One Laptop Per Child to Colombia, and partnered with Motorola to provide wi-fi for the entire community. By her amazing will, she has shown a rural farming community threatened by illegal armed groups that education is the way forward.
During a tech.del, it's always fun to connect with local tech entrepreneurs doing great things. Using Meetup, we got in touch with BogoTech, a group made up of hundreds of Bogota-based “geeks, investors, business people and hackers”. Over a killer chicken and “refajo” lunch at La Gallina Ardiente in Soacha, our delegation told BogoTech about Tecnoacademia, and many of them plan to now volunteer their time as teachers.
So what are some of the projects coming out of our tech.del to Colombia? We'll engage the Colombian telecommunications sector and apply global best practices to extend connectivity into remote areas of the country, including La Macarena. We'll explore using mobile to counter FARC mobilization and recruiting messages to both urban and rural communities. We'll blow out the already awesome model of Technoacademia by raising visibility of the school in Silicon Valley and structuring a distance learning center onsite. We'll work with Colombian government and non-profit partners to incorporate mobile into mapping, prevention and emergency response for landmine victims. Using mobile technology, we'll help scale and streamline the efforts of volunteer lawyers and community leaders serving the citizens of Soacha, a municipality on the outskirts of Bogota with a significant gang presence.
In short, we've got a lot to do, but we couldn't be more excited to make it happen.
Josh Nesbit of FrontlineSMS Medic summed up our visit well: "The Colombian government is making strides reconnecting their citizens to the state. For the last mile of essential services -- health care, law, education -- connection technologies like SMS can make a huge difference. It's important to meet people where they are, and the vast majority of Colombians are on mobile phones. Mobile infrastructure affords a powerful new platform for development.”