Call of the crowd: how people power is reshaping aid

Digital networks and big data are disrupting all spheres of life – and philanthropy is no different. As more people chip in to support good causes, we examine how the crowd is changing giving and shaping the delivery of aid

DC. Barns, from Colorado, US, will have a walk-on part in the next instalment of the  mega-franchise, Star Wars: Episode Vll out this year. The part cost him $10. His entry – and those from 125 other countries – helped raise $4.26m for UNICEF’s Innovation Labs, in partnership with Star Wars: Force for Change and Omaze, a crowdfunding site that raffles off celebrity experiences for good causes.

As in most spheres, leaps forward in the digital realm are disrupting the world of philanthropy, driven by a millennial generation obsessed with data, speed and transparency. In 2012, the UN Foundation was part of the team behind the digital drive #GivingTuesday, a day dedicated to gifting time or money to charities amid the pre-holiday shopping frenzy. Last year saw some $45m raised in 68 countries.

Technology has reinvigorated the old adage that many hands make light work. Crowdfunding, the digital version of the collection tin, is the most obvious star of this trend, with platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo taking centre stage. Born as a recession-busting tool for entrepreneurs, they raised $2.7bn worldwide in 2012, financing more than one million projects of all hues. Kickstarter estimates it raised $1,000 a minute in 2014.

It is not just a rich world gig either. Households in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) could deploy $5.6bn a year by 2025 in crowdfunding investments, according to World Bank estimates.

Money is not the only thing being amassed on a grand scale. Tapping the crowd for information and expertise could prove to be a game-changer in the way aid is delivered. NGOs and charities are taking a slice of the action through platforms dedicated to good causes, such as Hollywood star Edward Norton’s CrowdRise. These platforms are particularly attractive for small NGOs with few fundraising resources of their own, as well as big philanthropic organisations keen to scout out innovative projects. Kite Patch – a device to fool mosquitoes and reduce malaria transmission in developing countries – raised more than $550,000 in 2013 on Indiegogo, or 743 per cent of its goal.

“The ability for lots of people to donate a small amount of eyeball space to help make a terrible situation visible and save people’s lives? You can’t put a dollar value on that”Crowdfunding depends on having a crowd, which can be anyone who wants to throw $1 or $1,000 into a project’s virtual pot. Far from being the preserve of the wealthy, crowdfunding means anyone can be a philanthropist.

“The younger generation like to share,” says Sandra Khalil, co-founder of HopeCan, a crowdfunding platform for social causes in the Middle East set to launch this year. “It is part of their identity, they are a champion for ideas that are important to them.”

Crowdfunding infrastructure is just starting to grow in the region, but online giving is slowly penetrating MENA’s pockets.  The UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) social media campaign #ADollarALifeline raised $80m in a week in December, after the agency was forced to halt food assistance for Syrian refugees. Just $1.8m of that came from the crowd, but almost 12,000 of the 14,000 individuals who contributed were new donors, according to communications officer Joelle Eid.

Still, organisations need to beware crowdfunding’s pitfalls, says Lucy Bernholz, co-director of the Digital Civil Society Lab, a Stanford University project. The fees charged by platforms may be low, between 3 and 5 per cent, but the cost in time required to develop a compelling pitch and to cultivate the social network that makes a project successful, is high.

More worryingly, the focus on discrete projects often overlooks overhead costs. “It may be very appealing to donors, but it’s a starvation cycle for non-profits in the long run,” warns Bernholz. “It creates a cycle of granularity that doesn’t lend itself to long-term institutional help or systemic action.”

And while platforms increase the visibility of money flows, the jury is out on whether it enhances accountability or impact.

“You can count every click, every tweet, but do any of them matter?” says Bernholz. “The good news is that we are encouraging norms of greater transparency.”

Still, this data explosion offers another avenue for the humanitarian space – crowdsourcing. A watershed moment came in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake when digital volunteers gifted their time and mouse clicks to emergency relief efforts. Students from Tufts University in the US sifted and tagged thousands of texts and tweets about collapsed buildings or trapped people to plot a real-time crisis map. Some 1,000 Creole-speaking volunteers chipped in to translate the messages. The map was critical for aid agencies overwhelmed by the urgency and confusion of search-and-rescue efforts.

“Ten years ago if there was a disaster on the other side of the world your only option was to send money,” says Bernholz. “The ability for lots of people to donate a small amount of eyeball space to help make a terrible situation visible and save people’s lives? You can’t put a dollar value on that.”

Digital mapping has been part of almost every disaster since, she adds. And in 2012, the UN set up its own Digital Humanitarian Network.

While emergencies lend themselves to cutting-edge technology, everyday development work is testing more prosaic tools such as SMS messages. The resulting data can improve essential services and give citizens a say.

In the Indian state of Karnataka, a social enterprise is using crowdsourcing to improve water access and quality. NextDrop sends an SMS, alerting subscribers to when the water valve in their area will be turned on. Such information is vital to reduce wasted trips in cities such as Hubli where people typically wait three days for water. Crucially, the information flow is two-way: subscribers report water delays, too.

Six months into the programme, NextDrop started receiving feedback about pipe damage and water contamination, explains Bindu Susheel, head of utilities business. Now, NextDrop informs water companies where complaints are clustering via a map-based dashboard, so they can hone in on the problem. Depending on the issue, repair times have dropped from 10 to three days. NextDrop currently has 50,000 subscribers in Hubli, Dharwad, Bangalore and Mysore.

“Crowdsourcing democratises the whole system, it improves transparency” “Collecting feedback helps utilities visualise [the problem],” says Susheel. “It is more efficient and people feel the utility is more responsive.”

The service is free for individuals while the water company pays between four and 10 rupees ($0.06-$0.15) per person per month. NextDrop aims to expand to some 50 other cities in Karnataka in the next two years.

Trust is at the heart of effective crowdsourcing, according to Susheel. NextDrop had to win over the utility companies and its crowd – each city’s residents – by demonstrating how it could be useful and investing in training subscribers to give feedback.

“Crowdsourcing democratises the whole system, it improves transparency,” observes NextDrop’s Susheel. “Direct access to information will go from ‘nice to have’ to ‘must have’.”

“We’re going to get smarter about the underlying nature of digital data and less enamoured of the gadgets”Another challenge is picking the right crowd. Big data can mean useful reports get drowned out in the tsunami of information, something Medic Mobile has filtered right from the start. The non-profit’s platform collates and analyses texts from community health workers in remote locations to give doctors the big picture on the area’s health status, and identify potential hot spots.

“We layer technology over networks of people. For example, a hospital’s community health manager is looking after messages from 100 community health workers. And each of them are looking after 100 families,” says Josh Nesbit, Medic Mobile’s CEO. “Trusted community contacts will increase your signal-to-noise ratio tremendously.”

Nesbit is adamant information is key to improving services where resources are tight. “We’re always pushing for new vaccines, better treatments. But the big story is we need to figure out efficiency and distribution. Community members and patients are going to play a big role in that,” he says.

Managed in the right way, the wisdom of the crowd offers great rewards. “We’re going to get smarter about the underlying nature of digital data and less enamoured of the gadgets,” adds Stanford’s Bernholz. When it comes to philanthropy, every little helps.  

Click to save

Sometimes it takes a crisis to spur innovation: and the UN’s refugee agency is no stranger to crisis. Almost half its 2014 funding needs for Syrians in the region went unfulfilled.

In response, UNHCR launched the Private-Sector Partnership Platform, an online portal through which corporates can pledge cash in $25,000 units, in-kind donations, or cash assistance.

The platform allows donors to see urgent needs quickly and makes clear what they get for their money: $25,000 buys 12,500 jerry cans, for example. The platform will also cut processing time, says Ziad Ayad, UNHCR’s external relations officer.

UNHCR has already received five cash pledges (of between $25,000 and $150,000) and one in-kind gift since February.

The first phase of the platform targets GCC firms. UNHCR hopes to introduce crowdfunding by World Refugee Day, on 20 June, where individuals can club together to raise $25,000, or groups of corporates to fund an entire need. If successful, the portal could be a template for UNHCR’s other underfunded emergencies worldwide.

“The digital platform is primarily a tool to make us, and the response, more effective,” explains Ayad.

Vital signs

Planning how many doses of a medicine to order is hard when you have no numbers. When Josh Nesbit, Medic Mobile’s CEO, saw this at St Gabriel’s hospital, Malawi, he knew he had to act: “There was just a black hole [of data]. They had to guess.”

“All you need are slivers of information that help you make decisions” Founded in 2010, Medic Mobile uses SMS messages to transmit health updates between the crowd – volunteer community health workers who reach poor, rural patients – and hospitals. The system maps out data from a network of health workers onto a dashboard, giving doctors an accurate picture of the health landscape.

“That helps people at higher levels of the formal health system do things differently, such as redistribute stock of essential medicines, or plan their outreach vehicle to target the right places,” explains Nesbit. “All you need are slivers of information that help you make decisions.”

St Gabriel’s doubled the number of patients it treated for tuberculosis in six months as its TB monitoring officer could identify and visit at-risk communities. Medic Mobile’s technology is amazingly simple, says Nesbit. Using an extra sim card that slides into any phone, community health workers send information to a central manager about the 100 or so families in their area. Start-up costs range between $150-$190 to equip and train each health worker and running costs are $2 per health worker per year. Some 7,800 health workers used Medic Mobile in 2013, with the non-profit reaching 5 million people in 21 countries. Donors cover the $50,000 to $70,000 development costs for new products.

The system has been used to monitor polio outbreaks in Nepal since 2013, using a network of 600 reporters.

“We need to pick up any signal we can of a potential case,” says Nesbit. “Even hearing that we have no cases is really important.”

Medic Mobile has ambitious goals. It wants to add 5,500 health workers this year and, by 2020, aims to support 200,000 community health workers and 100 million people.

“We’ll see the professionalisation of the crowd in the future,” predicts Nesbit. “It’s going to help us support health systems better and faster.”

MENA means business

Very small businesses have a hard time getting off the ground. This is particularly true in MENA where crowdfunding’s growth is hampered by caution about online payments. “I call it the cash society dilemma,” says Genny Ghanimeh, CEO of micro-lending platform Pi Slice.

Instead, Pi Slice has turned to the private sector to leverage its crowd, with six corporate partners that encourage employees and social media followers to offer loans. The Dubai-based outfit works with payment partner, Mangopay, to provide one-year loans of around $1,500 to would-be entrepreneurs. The platform has a 70 per cent funding success rate, she says.

Pi Slice has helped raise around $250,000 since 2012 for 200 micro-entrepreneurs in Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. The platform plans to expand to Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia this year and add Islamic financial products, Musharakah, to its offering. There are some 3 million households in the region who could benefit from micro-loans, according to Pi Slice’s estimates.

“If we succeed we’ll be the first micro-lending, Sharia compliant platform in the world,” Ghanimeh adds.

Filling in the blanks

When Ebola struck West Africa last year, aid agencies rushing to help faced an unusual challenge: finding the victims. Alongside the tens of villages and settlements clamouring for help, were dozens more invisible to relief teams. These, like great swathes of the undeveloped world, were overlooked and for a simple reason – they don’t appear on maps.

A shockingly large percentage of the world remains unmapped. From cities in emerging countries, to vast rural regions in the developing world, whole communities exist with little to no official data on their location, geography or population size. Poor and underdeveloped, they are at increased risk of natural disasters, conflict and disease outbreaks – and without maps, humanitarian agencies can struggle to respond.

“All you need is a computer to contribute; time and skill are the donations” Missing Maps is one answer. Launched last year, it is the brainchild of the American and British Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). Backed by an army of digital volunteers, the project aims to create free, online maps for every settlement on earth.

“All you need is a computer to contribute; time and skill are the donations,” says Andrew Braye of the British Red Cross. “It’s a real collaborative effort.”

The method is simple. Remote mappers use satellite images to trace the outlines of buildings, roads, rivers, and other key landmarks in a given area, creating a basic, digital map. This is printed out and given to volunteers on the ground in the community, anyone from students to local aid workers. These volunteers add in details such as street and building names, to add colour and context. Lastly, the completed map is fed back to Missing Maps’ offices in London, where more volunteers update the information on OpenStreetMap. The result is a freely available digital map, and a vital tool for helping to shape future disaster response efforts.

“There are many people who want to offer hands-on help, rather than just money,” says Kate Chapman, executive director, HOT. “This – filling in holes in geographic information – this is something they can do.”

Illustration credit: Mark Makhlouf