Juliana Rotich: Social Entrepreneurial Innovation

Editor’s Note: Juliana Rotich is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Ushahidi Inc, a non-profit tech company. She has worked in the telecommunications and data warehousing industry for over ten years. She is a Technologist, African Futurist and TED Senior Fellow. She was named one of the Top 100 women by the Guardian newspaper and top 2 women in Technology 2011, andSocial Entrepreneur of the year 2011 by The World Economic Forum. Currently she has selected as a Director’s Fellow at MIT Media Lab. You can read her full bio from here, hereand here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Juliana Rotich recently to gain her ideas and insights on Social Entrepreneurial Innovation which is given below.

Niaz: Juliana, we are thrilled and honored to have you at eTalks.

Juliana: Thanks for having me Niaz.

Niaz: You are a Social Entrepreneurial Innovator. Can you please tell us about ‘Social Entrepreneurial Innovation? How can social entrepreneurial innovation change the world?

Juliana: Social Entrepreneurial Innovation refers to entrepreneurs that create and establish resourceful and inspired ways of dealing with social problems. The core of this kind of entrepreneurship is skillfully and systematically acting, doing things in new ways to solve increasingly persistent modern challenges like poverty, health or education to have the greatest social impact. “Innovation is itself invariably a cumulative collaborative activity in which ideas are shared, tested refined, developed and applied.”  Bill gates called this creative capitalism – our ability to stretch market forces and make them work better for the poor and reduce the great inequalities that exist in modern society. For the world, it is practically the emergence of a social conscious geared both at turning profits but improving lives, incomes and turning all people in to productive beings where their inert behavior includes building their community to be a better place.

Niaz: You are the co-founder and executive director of ‘Ushahidi’. Those who don’t know about this amazing social revolution, can you briefly tell about ‘Ushahidi’?

Juliana: “Ushahidi”, which means “testimony” in Swahili, began as website set up by a collaboration of Kenyan citizen journalists, bloggers and the tech community during the post-election crisis in Kenya at the beginning of 2008. The Site Mapped incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout the country based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phones. Its Success which gathered 45,000 users in Kenya – catalyzed the realization amongst its developers that the platform had potential beyond Kenya’s borders and have relevance and use for others around the world. Ushahidi is now a non-profit technology and data company. Ushahidi creates platforms which provide services, tools and strategies for Crowdsourcing and data flow management. We focus on bottom up systems with a vibrant global community of mappers and an ecosystem of open source experts. Ushahidi demonstrates how free and open source software enables organizations and communities to improve collection of data, contextualizing issues they care about and create effective information flow of stories and engagement into localized action and change. We catalyze initiatives and communities like The CrisisMappers group, the iHub in Kenya and support many others who are trying to change the world through technology.

Niaz: What is your vision at ‘Ushahidi’?

Juliana: At Ushahidi, we want people to truly be able to collaborate and change the status quo of where they are through collaborative problem solving.  With our tools we want, individuals, groups, & organizations to be fully able to participate in their democracy, and to have their voices heard. Empowering citizens to collect and contextualize information and change the way information flows in the world by making easy to use crowdsourcing tools that provide change agents globally. Ushahidi’s mission is to change the way information flows in the world.

Niaz: As a technologist you have been working to bring social revolution in the field of social work with the art of technology. Why do you think technology is a surprising tool to solve our social problems?

Juliana: I actually think technology is a natural tool to solve our social problems. In the book What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly, defines The Technium – “We all realize that we’re kind of surrounded with technology: there’s little device here recording us, there’s tables, chairs, spoons, light bulbs. Each of these things seem pretty mechanical, pretty inert in a certain sense, not very interactive, you know, a hammer, roads. But each one of these technologies actually requires many other technologies to make and produce. So your little thing in your pocket that you use for a phone might require thousands of other technologies to create it and support it and keep it going, and each of those technologies may require hundreds of thousands of subtechnologies below it. And that network of different technologies and the co-dependency that each of those technologies have on each other forms a virtual organism, a super organism.  We can keep stepping back and realize that all these technologies are in some ways co-dependent and related and connected to each other in some way and that largest of all the networks of all these technologies together I call the Technium.”  Social problems are often ecosystem problems, and appropriate, creative use of technology is just what may help to accelerate the problem solving that is much needed for the world’s problems. Technology helps to make systems more efficient, helps to close feedback loops and to inform. I think of technology as a catalyst for change and innovation representing immense untapped opportunities just waiting to be built and utilized. What brings it all together is an ecosystem of people and technology. In my generation I have seen how African people have interacted with mobile phones, computers and how increased connectivity to the Internet across the continent has helped spur Trickle Up Innovation to address social problems. Ushahidi is an example of this as is Mpesa, apps like iCow, Mfarm and Tusaidiane are emerging as part of the growth of tech entrepreneurial culture coming out in Africa and its collaborations globally.

Niaz: As you know, we have hundreds of thousands of social organizations those who have been working to bringing sustainable social changes. Most of these organizations have been lacking behind to accept the blessing of technology and innovation. What are the core challenges for them?

Juliana: The origin of not for profit organizations and their leadership at times represent the greatest challenges to technological innovations for social change and by that it takes much longer for them to develop the tools or procure the right personnel to develop the tools in house with a clear vision. We are lucky as Ushahidi that our founding and core is based on a group of developers, tech savvy change makers, bloggers, human rights activist, that bring their A game to the table in the different fields they have mastered. Our organization, leadership, commitment, culture, and mentorship in the cause has enable us to be particularly responsive.  With time and the greater adoption and exposure to technology nonprofits are picking up the pace in this area.

Niaz: How to recover those challenges to bring sustainable changes in the society with technology and innovation?

Juliana: It is not easy but can be achieved by attracting good talent. I would like to add this Harvard Business Review Article here.

Niaz: On the other hand, non profits are highly dependent on donors. Do you think technological innovation can provide them a platform to overcome this dependency and to empower them with financial independence to work to change the world to make it a better place to live in?

Juliana: It is possible. At Ushahidi, we have an external projects team that is ostensibly in charge of completing projects that bring in additional money. With our cloud based Services Crowdmap and SwiftRiver, we are diversifying the revenue base and thus on a sustainability track. It also helps to have impact investors like Omidyar Network who are not just donors, but partners in realizing the greater social and economic impact through not-for-profit technology work.

Niaz: Do you think we can bring technology and innovation rigorously for bringing social change, for removing poverty? How?

Juliana: If you had asked me this question last year, I would not have had an answer for you. This year, I can certainly say it is possible. I met Martin Burt in Davos early this year. I was completely encouraged and inspired by his work in Paraguay, he is doing extensive poverty mapping with the goal of giving the government clear data on where the critical areas are for interventions that can help lift people out of poverty. That his organization is using Ushahidi software is only a small part, the important work of linking on-the-ground data with policy is nothing short of amazing.

Niaz: Congratulation on being selected as a TED Senior Fellow. How you’re involved with TED now. What are your plans with TED?

Juliana: In 2007, I was selected as part of the inaugural class of TED Fellows. There I met other technologists, particularly Erik Hersman, whom I had collaborated with online with the AfriGadget website. I also met Ory Okolloh, Dr. Sheila Ochugboju, Mulumba Lwatula and Segeni Ngethe just to name a few.  More on what I wrote then about TED. In 2009 I was named a TED Fellow again because of our work with Ushahidi and the Technology ecosystem in Kenya. This was great, as I was not only able to enjoy the conference (It is an amazing brain spa) but to meet other amazing individuals who would collaborate with Ushahidi and iHub over the years. The network and support from the TED team, from Chris Anderson, June Cohen and Tom Rielly made Ushahidi a household name spoken in tandem with the likes of Wikipedia and Twitter. Moreso the friendships forged as part of the TED community continue to this day and make up a very important part of my life. To meet other technologists who do not fit neatly into one box was completely refreshing. It is like meeting a long lost ‘soul sister’ or rather in this case ‘brain sister’. The community is extraordinary.

Niaz: You were named one of the Top 100 women by the Guardian newspaper and top 2 women in Technology 2011, and Social Entrepreneur of the year 2011 by The World Economic Forum.  What are the set of advice you want to give to young social entrepreneurs? 

Juliana: Find a way to serve people through your work. The rest is hard work and persistence. The core is service and community. Keep the core strong and be flexible enough to handle the flux.

Niaz: How do you inspire women to come forward and lead?

Juliana: Inspiration comes in many ways. For me, it came from my late grandmother and my late father. They lived their lives making things. They taught me to first and foremost be a maker, to fix whatever is broken with whatever resources available. When you are needed, to stand up and do what you can. I hope that women can look around and find inspiration that works for them.

Niaz: Recently you have become ‘MIT Media Lab Directors Fellow’. It’s the finest place of innovation. Now you are bringing social problems and ideas at MIT Media Lab. What are we going to see in recent future with your ideas  for social change and Medial Lab’s innovation?

Juliana: I am so honored and thankful for the MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellowship. It is indeed the finest place for innovation. I often tell people that there are two places I feel most at home. The first is the iHub in Nairobi, a great space started by the Ushahidi team, led and grown by Erik Hersman. The second place is the MIT Media Lab. It is indeed Nerdvana as I like to call it. I am most excited about learning from the different research groups at MIT and linking them back to creative and innovative centers in Africa. There are incredible artists and innovators in Africa who are affiliated with emerging spaces like iHub, BongoHive, CCHub and others who would greatly benefit with that interchange of ideas, solutions, and approaches.  I suggest to read more from here and here. I am yet to fully grasp what I will do with the Media Lab fellowship, but one thing is that it will be in service of the amazing entrepreneurs I have the privilege of interacting with at the iHub in Nairobi and other parts of Africa.

Niaz: Juliana, thank you so much for sharing us your invaluable ideas and for your time.

Juliana: You are welcome Niaz.

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Further Reading:

1. Stephen Walt on Global Development

2. Jillian C. York on Freedom of Expression, Social Media and Nonprofits

3. Shaka Senghor on Writing My Wrongs

4. Ovick Alam on BridgeWee

5. Shaba Binte Amin on Poverty Fighter Foundation

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