Mjumbe Poe at the International Conference on Appropriate Technology

For a couple weeks in November, I was away in and around Pretoria, South Africa attending the International Conference on Appropriate Technology. Appropriate technology is technology that is designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social and economic aspects of the community it is intended for. During the conference, I helped to organize and facilitate a workshop and hackathon around using mobile (telephony) technology in appropriate technology projects. The goal of the workshop was to give participants an introduction to mobile tech applications that enable new approaches to issues such as urban and community planning, economics and markets, political participation, and personal and environmental health. We wanted participants to leave with ideas of what’s possible and what some of the successes and pitfalls people have experienced are. The workshop featured presenters from Ushahidi, Esoko, and UNISA, in addition to myself.

Along with the workshop, we held a hackathon to follow up on some of the ideas generated during the workshop. Projects included apps for subscribing to localized public safety alerts, clarifying workplace rights, and a platform for requesting, fulfilling, and getting paid for real-world micro-work tasks. We will soon conclude with an additional judging round for the apps from this event, to encourage teams to continue their work.

One of the most important things I’ve learned from being involved with Code for America and OpenPlans is that creating apps is often just a small part of the impact that events like this have. While it is important to actually create tools that make a difference, a lot of the real value is the cultivation and expansion of a network of like-minded people. Some of the people in the network will be creators, and they will create whether you ask them to or not. And others are idea people, and they’ll have ideas inspite of you. The value is in placing these people in situations where they’ll have the right conversations and opportunities to expand the possibilities of what they would do otherwise. It is creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Academics from all over the world were introduced to some of the ways that developers are using mobile technology to empower people. They connected with representatives from some of the most well-known organizations in this space. Developers in Pretoria connected with students and professors from Howard University, and with members of the civic development community in the United States. Most relevant of all, there are future plans to hold events, continue projects, and stay connected. Some teams continued their projects at Random Hacks of Kindness events this past weekend.

Another important lesson from Code for America is that the rest of the world relates with what you do through the stories that you and other people tell about what you do. Over the next few weeks some of those stories will be told at http://www.icathack.org/. Slides, videos, and project descriptions will be posted, and project winners will be announced there as well.