Civil Society and Technology

posted Jan 4, 2015, 8:55 AM by Desmond Seeley

I play many roles. To my business colleagues, I am a business entrepreneur who likes to incubate and capacitate business. To my friends, I am a IT professional (whether they know what that means, I wouldn't know). Nevertheless, I constantly find myself in situations where I try to explain some complex or, alternatively, sleep-inducing ideas to different sets of people, depending on my audience. I try to put my combined interests into easily understood terms that explain what exactly it is that I believe is possible with technology. So the topic here is about using technology in civil society.


In the past few years I have been working with various NGO's, helping them utilise the technologies that commercial organisations have been using daily. The combination of business, design, and world changing innovation is game-changing as far as our traditional conceptions of technology, international development, aid, philanthropy, and collaboration are concerned. I read this interesting article on the web:  "For 10 years, HIV scientists had been struggling to crack an extremely difficult problem (to produce an accurate model of the crystal structure of the M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement), hindering their progress in the research of the virus. Then in 2011, the puzzle website, Foldit, published the HIV problem to the public and, in less than a month, the gaming community had solved the conundrum". Wow is that not awsome, we always need to remember that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Collaboration is key! 


In the same way we have the ability to make an exponential impact, on the great work already undertaken by civil society, by making use of technology.  Using technology, such as software for public data collection, visualization, and interactive mapping using multiple channels such as SMS, email, and the web, are changing the way information flows between individuals and communities. This will and could impact democracy, health, safety, disaster management, and economic development.

The rise of social media has immeasurably contributed to connecting communities, donors, beneficiaries, and organizations. Social media can provide a more tangible and measurable impact on communities, which would have been impossible by the use of face-to-face engagement only.  

For me personally, technology is most worthwhile when it makes a difference to people and more importantly when it is able to be utilised to equal the playing fields of “have’s and have-not’s”. I know that especially those (NGO’s) working in civil environments, technologies are pointless unless they enhance the lives of the people they're trying to help.


From personal experience, successful tech start-ups are not different from sustainable social ventures. Both are willing to take risks, want to be game changers in their field, and do it with burning passion and perseverance to solve problems. By making better use of technology, social innovators should be encouraged to scale their impact and better manage their sustainability. Nothing will and can ever replace the local, on-the-ground interaction, but with technology social organisations are able to make sure their content, process and resources, are getting to the people they are trying to reach, and they are able to measuring the impact


Technology is not a silver bullet to the world's complex problems. What is requires, I believe, is that we must develop a “mixing pot” of the social sector and communities with the technologies to socially innovate and make the difference required. Innovation isn't invention. Innovation is not another scientific discovery. Innovation is about continual redesign and replacement of outdated process and thinking to produce a fundamentally better experience for people!


Desmond Seeley