At the monthly tech lunch I host at Berkeley Rep, our speaker yesterday was an energetic champion of lifting the 1.4 billion people in the world out of poverty. You’d think Alexis Bonnell was the head of a nonprofit or UN agency, but she’s actually director of engagement and communications of USAID’s Global Development Lab, a one-year-old federal agency that works to end extreme global poverty.
The way it works – and it’s working – is by partnering with private and public institutions as well as with communities in the developing world. The lab is crowdsourcing problems and also crowdsourcing solutions. And it’s using technology to build a database called the Global Innovation Exchange, which will be like a mash-up of Craigslist, Yelp, and a relational database.
To cull ideas, the lab starts a challenge, and then awards what is often a network of solution providers with $150,000 to get started. If the solution scales, they can get another chunk of money.
For example, one of their challenge winners designed a solar suitcase that provides light and electrical energy to doctors delivering babies. This suitcase, Bonnell said, has saved thousands of lives. Another childbirth saver the lab helped scale and distribute is a simple suction device that helps with breech births and was invented by an Argentinian car mechanic who was trying to devise a way to extract a cork floating inside a wine bottle.
USAID claims that in 24 countries in which they’ve been heavily involved, maternal mortality declined by 40 to 65 percent.
The cool thing is that this lab is bringing Silicon Valley technology and practices into a formerly stodgy government agency. Bonnell said they’ve even simplified the application form for submitting a challenge solution. Although she’s based in D.C., she comes to the valley often to check out new ideas and drum up participation for a transfer of American technology to the developing world. If you'd like to participate, you don't need to be in tech. Just go to the site and sign up.