From smart phones to Twitter feeds, technology has become a key part of most aid agencies' daily work. But with demand for mapping software and data collection devices on the rise, many NGOs are struggling to find qualified people to develop these tools for their staff--especially in the field.
This month, Souktel teamed up with France Telecom and Orange Mobile, two of France’s largest telecom companies, to address this challenge by holding Palestine’s first ever "IT BarCamp"--an event that gave 40 local software developers the chance to learn, share, and brainstorm new tech solutions for the aid sector. Held in Ramallah, the event was co-sponsored by the Palestine Information & Communications Technology Incubator (PICTI), and France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
BarCamps are a fast-growing trend in the IT world, with regular events held in over 30 countries. The brainchild of Silicon Valley "computer geeks", they bring together IT professionals in an open-format discussion with no set agenda. Instead of following a pre-defined order of events, any participant can lead a session on a topic of their choice. It's unpredictable--and exciting.
This first BarCamp in Palestine offered seminars on topics ranging from RapidSMS, the cell phone data collection tool first developed by Unicef, to "living maps" which use GPS technology to create real-time geographic displays. Already, these tools are helping aid agencies deliver services more effectively: RapidSMS has been used to track child malnutrition in Malawi and Ethiopia, with local health workers using text messaging to relay patients' height, weight and chronic conditions to central clinics.
Christophe Aguiton of Orange Mobile, one of the event’s organizers, explains the BarCamp’s high turnout: "This is a phenomenon that has been sweeping the world, drawing software developers together to discuss their passion in a free-form setting. A place like Ramallah is the perfect venue for this—the population is young, highly educated, and very in tune with the latest developments in the tech sector.”
Adds Souktel co-founder Lana Hijazi: "These IT developers also understand the aid sector and what NGOs need. Here, we're faced with humanitarian crises on a daily basis. For better or for worse, our developers know first-hand what will work best in these contexts. This helps them create better tools for our partners like World Vision or the UN".
In an interview with local media at the event, software project manager Uqba Owda summed up the value of the BarCamp: “There’s a real need for innovative technology, especially mobile technology, that can help the aid sector save time and resources. At the same time there aren't enough people working to create these programs. It’s not because the desire isn’t there, but often because there aren’t a lot of spaces for young developers to work together".
He adds: "Workshops like the BarCamp not only show the next generation of developers what is already happening, but also give them the tools to be innovative in their own right. I believe this will translate into better technology for crisis response--and solutions that are created in the same communities where they'll be used".