Last year I took a course on “Bottom-up and Poverty Alleviation” as part of my master’s degree program in international development at George Washington University. The professor, Dr. Robert Maguire spoke enthusiastically about his experiences as a Country Representative in Haiti for the Inter-American Foundation for over 20 years. He even invited two guest speakers, Seth Jess and Jenny Petrow, both current IAF Country Representatives.
Inspired by the course, I jumped at the opportunity when I heard the IAF was looking for interns. I was fortunate to land an internship in July 2015 with the IAF’s Office of Networks and Strategic Initiatives, primarily researching community platforms.
Now, as my internship draws to a close, I wanted to reflect a little about my extraordinary IAF journey.
The prevalence of social media and mobile phones is gaining momentum at warp speed across Latin America and the Caribbean, yet there are many communities within the region that are still not connected, and many obstacles remain.
One innovative and ongoing IAF project that aims to address this issue—and in which I had an opportunity to play a small part—is the creation of a mobile-ready community platform to connect IAF grantees throughout the region. The platform is being developed by the IAF and its partner LINGOs using a participatory and agile methodology based on user feedback. This multidimensional tool will connect grassroots organizations across different nations, demographics, and sectors, helping them resolve their challenges with other like-minded organizations. The platform will serve as a source of information, learning, networking, and products for civil society organizations, empowering and promoting grassroots development in the local context through improved access to information, training, resources, and connectivity to communities and experts for activism. It will be like Facebook meets WhatsApp, Quora, Twitter, Instagram, and Coursera!
The IAF partnered with students enrolled in General Assembly (GA) – a global educational company that teaches core skills of the User Experience Design process – to research, create, and test prototype mobile applications that could feed into the larger community platform. Collaborating closely with these students in user-based design was one of the most unique experiences that I took away from this internship.
The students presented proposals for possible mobile phone applications to be included on the platform, including a news alert feed, a question-and-answer forum, an evaluation tool for organizations and their projects. I helped with student teams and familiarized them with the IAF and its grantee partners who could potentially use such applications.
The GA students demonstrated an application’s usability by, for example, creating fictional bios of users at different levels. This touches on the motivations of the user, and the effects and fluidity of the application on these users’ lives and communities.
One team of students worked with Guakia Ambiente, an IAF grantee partner in the Dominican Republic that promotes natural resource management and installs micro hydroelectric systems. The team met with the organization’s founder to gain insight into the project, and then designed a specific application for volunteer and staff tracking. The application enables the creation of badges for each individual activity such as digging wells. These badges (inspired by the Girl Scouts!) can be collected as information to track progress, which in turn can be used to generate progress reports and simplify auditing from the top down. From the bottom up, the badges enable each individual user to view and track progress in different tasks. For example, how many wells have they dug and how many more are needed to finish the job and get rewarded with a badge? Users have the option to share their accomplishment through Facebook or Whatsapp.
The team did a fabulous job of creating the application design in such a short time, but measuring the effectiveness of such an application requires conducting live usability testing to see how users respond in the field. The IAF will determine the interest of its partners in testing the prototype in the platform.
The development of a mobile-ready community platform, as well as the user-based design process, fit squarely within the IAF’s mission of community-led development. As for me, my experience at the IAF has piqued my interest in information communication technology, and I look forward to incorporating it into my internship this summer at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as well as in my future endeavors as a development practitioner.