21 January 2010

Crowdsourcing Diplomacy

Secretary Clinton gave a very important speech today about the role of new technologies in achieving diplomatic and humanitarian goals. Of course, this topic is nothing new to groups like Global Voices Online or Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group. But here's something that IS new:
...today I’m announcing that over the next year, we will work with partners in industry, academia, and nongovernmental organizations to establish a standing effort that will harness the power of connection technologies and apply them to our diplomatic goals. By relying on mobile phones, mapping applications, and other new tools, we can empower citizens and leverage our traditional diplomacy. We can address deficiencies in the current market for innovation.

Let me give you one example. Let’s say I want to create a mobile phone application that would allow people to rate government ministries, including ours, on their responsiveness and efficiency and also to ferret out and report corruption. The hardware required to make this idea work is already in the hands of billions of potential users. And the software involved would be relatively inexpensive to develop and deploy.

If people took advantage of this tool, it would help us target our foreign assistance spending, improve lives, and encourage foreign investment in countries with responsible governments. However, right now, mobile application developers have no financial assistance to pursue that project on their own, and the State Department currently lacks a mechanism to make it happen. But this initiative should help resolve that problem and provide long-term dividends from modest investments in innovation. We’re going to work with experts to find the best structure for this venture, and we’ll need the talent and resources of technology companies and nonprofits in order to get the best results most quickly. So for those of you in the room who have this kind of talent, expertise, please consider yourselves invited to help us.

In the meantime, there are companies, individuals, and institutions working on ideas and applications that could already advance our diplomatic and development objectives. And the State Department will be launching an innovation competition to give this work an immediate boost. We’ll be asking Americans to send us their best ideas for applications and technologies that help break down language barriers, overcome illiteracy, connect people to the services and information they need. Microsoft, for example, has already developed a prototype for a digital doctor that could help provide medical care in isolated rural communities. We want to see more ideas like that. And we’ll work with the winners of the competition and provide grants to help build their ideas to scale.
Now THAT'S an open platform.

Of course, we're already seeing innovation from the ground up to meet a multitude of challenges, like mapping technology from Ushaidi's work in response to the earthquake in Haiti to the work of innovators like Lalitesh Katragadda. But it's amazing and inspiring to see this kind of open call from the most influential diplomat in the world.

I'm looking forward to learning the details of this contest. I'm wondering if they will make all the submissions public - it could become one of the largest (if not the largest) repositories of technology-based innovative solutions to the worlds problems ever built.

I don't think I'm exaggerating at all to suggest that this project could become Secretary Clinton's legacy. The potential here is absolutely enormous.

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