“Everyday, we see many of the world's challenges, and we also see amazing innovations from brilliant minds. The key is to connect our hearts and our minds with the hands that work on-ground. This collaboration, when done with scale, might be the beginning of an online revolution that actually translates to a revolution of solutions on-ground too.”—Issa Cuevas-Santos, Gawad Kalinga

There are great technology ideas, projects, and resources—including people power—flying around online, but too few of them successfully connect with communities in need on the ground. How can we work together to develop runways for technology to land in communities?

To start, we need to design concrete tasks for everyone involved. It’s important that these are the right tasks—ones that truly move the ball forward. We also need to create a sense of purpose, a sense of efficacy in contributing toward that purpose, and a feeling of connection between those who share that purpose. We need to learn how to generate a massive group of engaged people online who want to get involved in technology projects that truly connect with people on the ground. 

Partnering for online to on-ground impact

I recently spent time with Issa Cuevas-Santos and Jersey Miranda of a nonprofit called Gawad Kalinga (GK). Based in the Philippines, GK’s ambitious goal is to help end poverty for 5 million families in the Philippines by 2024. My team and I set out to learn about the organization’s work and see if there were ways to help it increase social benefit through technology.

GK empowers and “un-squats” the poorest of the poor, transforming slums into peaceful and productive communities by restoring dignity and developing self-sufficiency. Its initiatives include building brightly painted homes in sustainable communities, operating child and youth development programs, organizing community health programs, and running a social enterprise development program. While it has successfully replicated its model at half the cost of alternative interventions, what really distinguishes GK are its inspired storytelling and momentum-building capabilities.

With its formidable on-ground community organizing abilities, GK wants to work with others to pioneer new methods to connect online communities with on-ground communities in ways that create real social benefit with innovative uses of information technology.

So what does Gawad Kalinga bring to the table?

1. A specific, larger purpose and vision. People from many different backgrounds can anchor their actions to this.
2. GK community members in 2,000 poor communities who are not just recipients of help, but also co-creators and implementers of programs in their own communities, and later, other communities.
3. Volunteers—100,000 of them—in those communities. These volunteers have strong connections and relationships with community members, and offer skills and assets that the community members may not have (for example, literacy, translation skills, reliable access to the Internet).
4. A commitment to share knowledge with other nonprofit organizations and a commitment to learn from others.

How might this online with on-ground connection work in practice?

An example: In September 2009, Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) struck Manila and other areas in the Luzon province. It was the most destructive typhoon in the 2009 typhoon season, causing 747 fatalities and $1.09 billion in damage. During the disaster, some people spontaneously developed apps aimed at helping disaster recovery efforts.

Issa saw one app that allowed people to enter their location, time, and the level of flooding in their area. The app aggregated and superimposed this crowdsourced data onto online maps, which experts used to trace flood levels at certain times and recreate where the water surged.

Imagine taking this to the next level. Imagine what could happen if GK community members not only participated as “testers” and “users” of, say, a disaster recovery application, but also as iterative co-creators of the application. They may discover unexpected uses for new tools, and help identify specific needs and opportunities in the local context that make the technology more relevant. The GK volunteers could help community members articulate and communicate ideas, as well as add an additional layer of trust and credibility for both on-ground community members and online developers.

Meanwhile, TechSoup Global, with its expertise and networks, could help curate ideas from on-ground communities into actionable problem statements and projects that technology can address. TechSoup Global could also help organize communities online to connect those projects with people around the world who can offer support through technology skills or other assets.

As Issa put it, “Together we can match developers with real, on-ground operators who are experts in this field, and together we can develop very basic applications that will allow communities to do this themselves. GK believes in empowerment, and we want to see accessible technologies and applications that can be used by the majority of the public—applications that are easy to use, relevant, and critical.”