Al Yamama Tarawneh barely had time for a 20-minute phone interview. She was busy with homework, family time, and her newfound role of community organizing. Tarawneh and five fellow high school students are arranging for local college students to teach their neighbors Arabic at a local community center.

“We wanted to leave an imprint on our own community,” says Tarawneh, a 10th-grade student at Al Hussainiyah secondary school in Karak, Jordan. She and her classmates conducted a broad survey of their community’s needs and identified 17 individuals interested in Arabic classes. They were mostly mothers, including one of the students’ moms, who had never found time to learn how to read and write while caring for their families.

To design and implement the project, Tarawneh and her classmates worked with Humanitas AI, a company that combines a social media smartphone app with in-person training to help young people in Jordan and beyond lead change in their communities—and to collect data from those efforts to help funders make better grantmaking decisions.

Through the app, students can complete surveys that encourage them to empathize with their community’s needs, share updates, exchange project ideas, and report valuable grassroots data about those they hope to help. Once Humanitas has collected enough data from this process, it will market a data dashboard on community needs to philanthropists and governments and give free access to certain grassroots organizations and researchers, says Philip Chow, who cofounded the company in 2015. Organizations also will be able to use the app to pose questions to supporters, such as, “What are the most interesting things we could do to help the environment?” (Noting potential privacy concerns, Chow says the app collects data only from those who choose to share it.)

Humanitas AI co-founder Aravindh Shankar discusses his app with students at Emrawa Secondary School for Girls in Irbid, Jordan. (Photo by Julia Solano via Humanitas AI)  

Last fall, Humanitas partnered with the Queen Rania Foundation’s Madrasati education initiative to pilot the app and youth engagement strategy through student clubs in six Jordanian schools. Every Saturday morning, 120 middle and high school students, including Tarawneh and her classmates, met for a 10-week program called Masahati (“my space”). They learned design-thinking concepts from the app and college-aged volunteer tutors, and developed social-change initiatives around challenges such as improving nutrition in schools and reducing stigma associated with disabilities.

Given that about 70 percent of Jordan’s population is under age 30, digital natives provide a great vehicle for communicating ideas about social change, Chow says. “For a lot of the youth, they literally can’t help but share the work that they do with their peers, like on Facebook,” he says. “Can we channel that energy?” To do so, Humanitas felt it was important to develop its own app for youth to share and coordinate social projects rather than use existing platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Sarab Matarneh, a 22-year-old accounting student at Mutah University, helped mentor Tarawneh’s group as part of the pilot. As she puts it, “Facebook is full of other things.” But with the Humanitas app, “the purpose is clear.”

Chow expects to be able to provide meaningful data to funders when the app reaches 100,000 users. He says the company is on track to reach that point after the app’s public launch this year, because of collaborations with the Queen Rania Foundation, the World Bank, and government agencies in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

“In philanthropy, we often talk about things that are not necessary for the community,” says Xin Liu, a board member of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civic Society and president of the Enlight Foundation, which funds Humanitas. Too often, “whatever they desperately need, we don’t offer,” but organizations such as Humanitas are changing this trend, she says.

Humanitas’ current partners appreciate that the organization is encouraging students both to be active in their communities and to lift up their voices. “Sometimes, foundations impose certain solutions on communities,” says Tala Sweis, director of the Madrasati education initiative. “But when you poll young people, they inform these solutions. They tell you what would work or not.”

Of course, social good can happen without apps and NGOs. What Chow hopes Humanitas can do is amplify those effects. “People already have that in them—we are just a catalyst,” he says.

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