Blog Post

Young Innovators in US, MENA Develop “Civic Tech” Ideas to Improve Their Communities

Authored by National Democratic Institute

June 2, 2017

Thousands of aspiring civic innovators from the United States and the Middle East and North Africa recently participated in the National Democratic Institute’s online Civic Tech Leadership Program. At the end of 2016, an intensive mentorship and learning exchange engaged 200 young people from 14 countries. From those participants, 16 young leaders were invited based on their team video projects to join an Innovators’ Exchange Study Mission in April 2017 to meet with technologists, social entrepreneurs and policymakers in Silicon Valley, CA, and Washington, D.C. The program is supported by the Aspen Institute’s Stevens Initiative, which honors the legacy of Ambassador Chris Stevens, with funding from the U.S. Department of State and Bezos Family Foundation.

“The selection committee had a very difficult task, reviewing 29 videos from a wide range of amazing and inspiring teams, many of whom met in this program and worked across thousands of miles and two languages,” said NDI Senior Program Officer Sarah Welsh. “These video pitches are a jumping-off point, we hope, as participants take the project design, communication and teamwork skills they’ve practiced and apply them to challenges in their home communities or institutions.”

The teams that were invited for the study mission collaborated on the following video submissions:

  • BetterVote: A team with members from Egypt, the U.S. and Algeria proposed an online platform that would combat misinformation efforts during electoral campaigns in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) by collecting and displaying independently-verified information about candidates, including their policy proposals and campaign finances.
  • Saeduni: Teammates from the U.S. and Tunisia proposed a mobile application for vulnerable immigrant populations in the U.S. It would enable non-native English speakers to safely report domestic abuse and connect with support groups.
  • Masahati: A team from the United States and Libya proposed a blockchain-based system that seeks to protect the property rights of citizens and businesses in Libya by digitizing land records through a transparent, secure, and multistakeholder online land register.
  • Eye on Corruption: Teammates from Syria and Tunisia proposed an open-source platform that would enable citizens to submit and map anonymous reports of bribery demands, using SMS, smartphones or the web.
  • HopeR: Participants from Tunisia pitched an online service, starting in Tunisia, that would connect persons with disabilities to providers of essential services such as education and healthcare through a simple, easy-to-use platform.
  • Assessing Education in Syrian Refugee Camps: A team from the U.S. and Egypt proposed a data collection and visualization tool that would assess the education levels of Syrian refugee children in Jordan, identify access gaps and recommend ‘best fit’ educational programs to aid workers.
  • E-Parliament: A team from the U.S. and Algeria pitched a platform that combines an information portal with digital activism tools to expand the audience for political engagement.
  • Skip: A team from Algeria and Egypt proposed a website that combat nepotism and promote equal opportunity by publishing and crowdsourcing information about job vacancies and hirings.

The videos honored by the selection committee, including honorable mentions, can be viewed on the program website at CivicTechLeaders.org.

ENGAGING GOVERNANCE THROUGH CIVIC TECHNOLOGY

While many young leaders in MENA and the U.S. are civic-minded and interested in addressing social problems, many are also disillusioned with politics and government and looking for new models of engagement. In both regions, this new generation of digitized millennials is finding that social media, games and mobile applications can provide remedies to social and political challenges. As a result, a ‘civic technology’ movement is unfolding in universities, tech hubs and co-working spaces.

Recognizing this potential, NDI launched the Leadership Program in June 2016, in partnership with Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and the Institute for Representative Government (IRG.) The program began with Stanford Online’s first bilingual English-Arabic open course, the Technology for Accountability Lab, which attracted more than 3,450 registrants from more than 120 countries and enabled virtual teams to initiate more than 50 project ideas. Two hundred young course alumni from MENA countries and the U.S. were then admitted to the intensive mentorship and teamwork track during November and December. Participants from Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and the U.S. came together, were matched based on common civic interests and developed project ideas in cross-cultural

“Most online programs that I did before weren’t as engaging as this one,” wrote Paula Berman, a participant from the U.S. “One of the reasons this experience was really different to me was the access participants had to many top-level professionals, who answered our questions and evaluated our projects. It added a lot of value to the program, and gave us opportunities that we wouldn’t be able to achieve otherwise.”

Read more about the 16 young Innovator’s trip to Washington, DC and San Francisco on NDI’s website.

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