Tech Forum Central Asia Spotlights Innovation for Social Good

Posted by Joseph Witters
June 23, 2012
Tech Forum Central Asia Participant

Eight months of planning meetings and conference calls between U.S. Consulate Almaty and Washington D.C. led to three days of intense hands-on training and interactive discussion between technology experts, young entrepreneurs, and civil society representatives from eight South and Central Asian countries June 14-16 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Tech Forum Central Asia (TFCA) was not your typical conference where participants sat and listened to speakers. Rather, it was a high-tech, interactive social entrepreneurship event focused on youth empowerment.

If I could sum up my experience in one word it would be "inspired." I was inspired by the technologists who led training sessions. Hanny Kusumawati, from Indonesia, shared her experiences with "crowdfunding." She founded Coin A Chance, which makes use of extra change people in Indonesia often discard and collects it to help children complete school. Another trainer, Kalsoom Lakhani, the founder and CEO of Invest2Innovate, an intermediary that aims to grow the social entrepreneurship space in new markets (beginning in Pakistan), helped participants see the value of small donations and discussed how they can demonstrate transparency and build trust among donors. Nate Smith from Development Seed showed participants how free mapping technology can help raise social awareness in a community. I won't list all of our amazing trainers, but every single one of them was fantastic.

Most of all, I was truly inspired by the participants. I met a young Afghan named Abdul Ghaffar Nazari who is studying law in Kabul and was the last to present during the group exercise. Despite losing an arm to a mine explosion in Afghanistan, he had such a positive attitude and a contagious smile. We all benefitted from having met him. I also met Ryskulova Altynay, an impressive young entrepreneur from Kyrgyzstan who created "Koldo Shop." She loved that the Tech Forum wasn't just for "tech experts," but was focused on using technology for social good, which could apply to anyone. Another participant, Zulfiya Abdukhalikov from Kazakhstan, said that "the best thing about TFCA was making connections with other people from other countries and sharing common experiences. I learned how to mobilize volunteers and involve more people in social issues using technology."

Organized by the U.S. Mission to Kazakhstan, in partnership with Civil Alliance and KIMEP University, TFCA was part of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's Civil Society 2.0 initiative's series of global "TechCamps." TechCamps build digital literacy for civil society organizations by bringing in local and regional technology experts to educate, train, and work with civil society groups. TechCamps focus on exploring the challenges and needs of civil society organizations and then seek to provide the necessary training to address those challenges through low- and no-cost tech solutions.

Held in the heart of Almaty and surrounded by the amazing Zailisky Alatau Mountains, KIMEP University provided the ideal location for the event with a state of the art facility that allowed for robust discussions. The first night of the Tech Forum was a public event that featured four amazing technologists who shared their stories about blogging in Central Asia, entrepreneurship through innovative technology, the power of digital storytelling, and how Facebook can be used as a tool for social good. Check out the video here.

The next day, the audience was delighted to be addressed by Secretary Clinton in a video message, and personally welcomed by U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Kenneth Fairfax. "The advantages of greater connectivity can be achieved with the right use of these technologies, and are applicable to all aspects of life in the modern world," said Ambassador Fairfax.

Participants then took part in a process called "speed geeking," during which tech trainers delivered short pitches to small groups in a speed dating format. Each group spent about five minutes at a table before moving to the next, allowing participants a chance to see what types of technologists can help further the goals of their mission.

Over the two days, participants received small-group, hands-on training and worked to identify and solve specific problems and challenges youth and organizations face in this region. Tech Forum finished with 15 group presentations followed by warm farewells. But as they say, the end was only the beginning for many of the participants.

What's next? Many of the presentations were directly related to challenges participants are facing at home, and they are now armed with tech solutions to these problems and can take what they learned back to their countries to continue to work on solutions. Near the end of the conference, Chevron announced that it will commit $40,000 to fund civil society projects in Kazakhstan, and the U.S. Mission to Kazakhstan and other U.S. embassies in the region are already planning more "tech for social good" events in the fall.

Thank you to all the participants and technology leaders for inspiring us all!

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