Note from Beth: I’m in Jordan and Morocco this week for the culmination of the E-Mediat program, a dynamic technology training and capacity building program developed to help grassroots organizations around the world use digital technology to tell their stories, build membership and support, and connect to their community of peers around the world. I’ll be sharing blog posts about my experience here. E-Mediat is funded by the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) of the United States Department of State with support and in-kind donations from Microsoft, Cisco and craigslist Charitable Fund. The program is managed by the Institute of International Education (IIE), and implemented with a coalition of leading new media experts and local and international partners from the public and private sectors. E-Mediat is working with more than 220 NGOs in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen.
I’m looking out my hotel window at the Dead Sea in Jordan. During the next two days, I will be facilitating a two-day social media bootcamp for NGOs from Jordan and Lebanon that have been through the E-Mediat program in their respective countries. My colleague, Rami Al-Karmi, who served as the social media specialist for the Jordan e-Mediat team and works for N2Vlabs, invited me to do a mini-workshop at the N2Vlabs Talks series and meet with the fellows in Amman before coming to the Dead Sea. This post is brief re-cap about what I learned about technology innovation investments to develop new social media platforms and apps for the Arab World.
N2V is one of the largest investment companies in Middle East, focused on building and investing in Arabic consumer web & mobile ventures (e-commerce, digital publishing, social media, Games, mobile apps, web forums, and user generated content). N2V also continually launches innovative initiatives focused on fostering digital entrepreneurship in the Arab World. One of those initiatives is the N2VLabs, the brainchild of Rami Al-Karmi who is the most famous Geek in Jordan.
N2VLabs provides support for the best of the best Arabia geeks who have a promising technology idea or social platform. The fellowship offers these talented entrepreneurs funding and support so they can work on scaling and monetizing their technology products and get assistance from experts. The physical space is an open lab space, with lots of white boards, fast wifi, turkish coffee, and lots of geeks sitting on bean bag chairs or at tables with laptops on their laps coding and hacking on their projects.
Rami Al-Karmi, a serial technology entrepreneur, is the visionary behind this project. Rami has based this program on the ideas in the Lean Start Up model and translated the concept for the Arab World. Every fellow accepted to the lab is given a copy of the book to read before starting their fellowship. Rami has experience both with technology start ups in the for-profit and non-profit world. He founded Shabakat Al Ordon, the first networked nonprofit that I discovered in the Middle East and that provides youth ICT training 300 communities in Jordan.
He has developed the lab in Amman and is replicating it on other countries in the region like Saudi Arabia. The projects brought into the lab by these fellows are a wide range of mobile, social, and online applications and platforms that leverage existing web 2.0 APIs to make social technologies more accessible to the Arab market place – both for developers and consumers. I met with each entrepreneur who pitched me on their concept and gave me a quick demo – and then I provided some coaching and answered their questions. I saw some amazing projects – from an online social chat platform, a mobile app directory, and blogging platforms.
What I really like about the start up culture is the commitment to using metrics for learning and continuous improvement. As I quizzed each fellow about their key metrics and how they measure, they gave solid answers about their conversion rates, registration rates, and more. And, the use of rapid prototyping was impressive.
The spirit of experimentation and learning in the lab is not only inspiring, but a terrific example of how organizations with agile cultures work. For example, one start-up, an embedded chat-room that connects social streams with live streaming and can be easily incorporated into the forum software that is so prevalent in the region shared a wonderful story. They found that there was a lot of “cursing” on the chat rooms and that this to be a barrier to user adoption. The option of developing a sophisticated filtering system to edit out the offensive words was not possible due to the complexity and expense. So, the workaround was to post “Allah is watching” on the site and the cursing rate dropped dramatically.
In my conversations with these technology founders at the N2VLabs, one of the questions I asked was what inspires them about their work in technology? I met Mohammad L. Azzam who is working with a team to develop a user friendly blogging platform (think Arabic Posterous). His previous team had won 3rd place in the Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, a three-year, $3 million competitive grant program for student technology and social entrepreneurs. Azzam’s software and hard project allows people with quadriplegia, those who do not have use of their hands and arms, to use a computer. Specifically, it tracks head movements and translates these movements into mouse movements where users get full control of a computer and a cellphone, can browse the internet, type and connect with ease and at a low cost.
Azzam light up when he talks the design and testing process. “We tested it first hand and we saw how technology can light up the darkness for people who lost hope in being able to communicate and be productive again, we have got to a point where there’s no turning back, that’s why I always get excited whenever this subject is being brought up.” He was invited to attend Davos in January and had an opportunity to meet Microsoft founder, Bill Gates and demo their project. His passion is clearly evident and it what drives him, like the other start up founders I met that day.
I gave a mini-workshop on the principles of social media success – it was a public talk and the audience was a mix of nonprofit leaders, social technology entrepreneurs, and local geeks. I shared some of stories of how I got started and my experience in social fundraising to help raise money for the Sharing Foundation. I also spoke about content curation and some best practices for social media measurement.
It is also fun to re-mix presentations for an audience outside of the US. I go through my slides and think will this metaphor or idea translate to this cultural context. For example, I have the used the metaphor of “Wine Sommelier” to describe what a content curator does (picks out the best wines from all the cheap red wine on the Internet), but that metaphor would not have been appropriate for the Muslim audience.
I’m always surprised at the questions and reflections I get when I lead workshops in different parts of the world and how they are the same or different when I’m in the US. One universal I heard – no matter the local cultural context – is a question about how to do social media if you don’t have a lot of time. I was happy to see that the answer I usually offer in other parts of the world perfectly fits the Arab context.
I met Dina Masri, a talented engineering student and change maker at the University in Jordan. She shared some of her work and experience working on women and technology issues in her country.
Afterwards, I had a dinner with Rami at local restaurant famous for their Arabic sweets. When the billed arrived, I saw the first example of what Lucy Bernholz calls “embedded giving.” In restaurants all over Amman, when you get your check, you are asked to make a small donation (roughly $ USD) to The King Hussein Cancer Foundation. You have to opt out of it, but most people give because many in Jordan have been touched by cancer.
Right now, however, most NGOs in Jordan or elsewhere are not doing online fundraising to get small gifts from the many. There are not the platforms yet to support this, although NGOs have been leveraging their social presence for fundraising from the donor community. One can only imagine that perhaps some day one a Geek from Arabia will be working on such a platform testing it in Rami’s lab.