Jesper Frant at NDI training in Nicaragua

“Training of Trainers” Strategy Needed to Democratize Access to CiviCRM: Nicaragua Pilot

This article was originally posted on

I had the opportunity to work with NDI’s technology and Latin America teams last month to train our Nicaragua-based staff on Civi — a contact relationship management (CRM) system that makes up 1/6th of NDI’s DemTools technology suite. While it was not the first time NDI’s DC-based staff had traveled abroad to train users on this platform, this training took a slightly different approach. Instead of focusing on building the capacity of Civi users, we identified a local staff member who could serve as a Nicaragua-based Civi trainer. This “training of trainers” strategy addresses a key barrier to adoption that may be the final piece in the puzzle that will allow Civi to scale around the world.

Civi is based on an open source technology, namely CiviCRM, which is one of the most widely adopted open source CRMs in the United States, but it has not enjoyed the same scale in less-developed countries where NDI works.

NDI’s modified version of the software, and its Software as a Service (SaaS) platform, DemCloud, have sought to address barriers to scale that have limited adoption of the tool in developing countries. Specifically, NDItech has sought to lower the barriers to international adoption by: 1) expanding support for multiple languages, 2) offering the software at a cost that is manageable for NDI’s partners, and 3) taking on the technology burden that would otherwise fall on small organizations with no technology expertise. But handing a partner a piece of technology, telling them it’s free, and assuring them that they will be able to use it in their native language is not enough to make them expert users.

My trip to Nicaragua revealed two additional barriers to scale that must also be met.


Before they decide to make the leap to adoption, potential users need to be excited by the tool and how it can help them be more effective and efficient with jobs they are already doing. NDI partners in Nicaragua had an appreciation for how technologies like this might be able to make their lives easier, but they wanted to learn the detail of the capabilities of the Civi platform and how it compared to the platforms they currently use, such as Google Forms, Microsoft Outlook, and MailChimp to name a few.

My experience in Nicaragua also taught me that potential users are also very concerned about privacy. Tracking contacts and their activities — a task that Civi excels at — is inherently sensitive and could become problematic if the “wrong” people got their hands on it.

Certified Civi Trainers

Once potential users have bought into the platform, there is still a significant learning curve to becoming an expert user. Civi — even the simplified version developed by NDI — is a complex platform with a lot of interesting and useful features, but it also has a number of quirks that could become problematic for the uninitiated user. Having qualified Civi trainers work with partners to implement and customize the platform sets them off on the right direction and provides them with ongoing support they need to become accustomed to the platform.

NDItech has made great strides to reduce technical barriers that are associated with adopting Civi. I believe that the last remaining barriers to scale for this product are human in nature and will require a human-centered solution. Civi is a powerful piece of software that — as much as if not more than any of the other DemTools IMHO — has the potential to make NDI’s partners more effective and efficient in their work. Positive feedback from the Nicaragua pilot indicates that a “Training of Trainers” strategy, combining marketing meetings for potential users with building the capacity of a cadre of expert trainers in the field, has potential to be an effective strategy to drive adoption of the platform. Onwards to scale!

Photo credit: Bartolomé Ibarra Mejía


ICT Innovation Is Key to Unlocking Nigeria’s Demographic Dividend

A recent Dalberg report highlights technology-enabled innovations that have the potential to unleash Nigeria’s demographic dividend and help millions of people escape poverty.

Thirty eight percent of Nigeria’s population is between the ages of 15 and 35. Since Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, this means that the country has 64 million working-age people – or the equivalent of the population of both Malawi and South Africa combined. Economists call a large working-age population a “demographic dividend” because a big proportion of the country’s citizens is able to contribute to the economy.

Unfortunately, favorable demographics do not necessarily translate into more rapid economic development. A young population also puts pressure on many social systems – the food system must expand to feed a growing population, and the education system must be capable of preparing billions of minds for a rapidly shifting job market. The Dalberg report sees great potential in Nigeria’s tele-communications sector to improve its competitiveness in these two key areas.

Technology and innovation are driving forces behind economic growth around the world, and Nigeria is no different. In 2012, 30 percent of Nigeria’s GDP growth was attributed to information and communications technology (ICT). In a country were nearly 60 percent of the population lives on less than one dollar per day, two-thirds of the total population has an active mobile phone subscription.

Dalberg identified a number of ICT solutions that are focused on providing teachers with tools that enable them to provide quality education to an increasing number of students. EduTech is designed to deliver educational material to university students through customized tablets. English Teacher, an initiative of Nokia and UNESCO, provides pedagogical advice to thousands of Nigerian teachers through daily messages. Bridge International Academies is a chain of low-cost primary schools that provides educators not just with a well-designed curriculum and educational materials, but also administrative systems to minimize overhead and help track educational outcomes.

Agriculture is also an important sector of the Nigerian economy. Seventy percent of Nigerians are employed in agriculture and the sector accounts for 42 percent of the country’s economic output. However, Nigerian farm yields are far below the global average. According to Dalberg, “Only four of Nigeria’s 29 most cultivated crops by area harvested (cashew nuts, yams, melon seed, and cassava) are in the top quartile of global yields.”

ICT has the potential to improve the enabling environment for Nigeria’s farmers in everything from improving market access to educating farmers about agricultural best practices. Dalberg highlights three such innovations. The Nigerian Ministry of agriculture has developed an e-wallet to make agricultural subsidies more efficient and transparent. MoBiashara improves access to inputs, such as fertilizer, by creating a market for farmers to compare prices and check local inventories via text-message. iCow, an innovation out of Kenya, provides farmers advice on raising cows and chickens throughout the lifecycle of their animals.

Innovative use of ICT is already having a positive impact on Nigeria’s agriculture and education sector. These examples are just a few of the many innovations that are driving growth. Providing the foundation for these technologies – through improved cellular networks and electrical grids – will be the key to unlocking Nigeria’s demographic potential.

NYC Tech Growth Booming, Education Not Keeping Pace, Signs of Hope

This article was originally posted on the HuffingtonPost.

NYC startup growth between 2001 and 2011 outpaced all US competitor cities, including Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Boston.

2014-04-30-1.pngNYC also outpaces other US cities in terms of venture capital growth. In fact, NYC saw the largest increase of venture capital growth of any U.S. city over the past decade. Startups and venture capital has clearly become a driver for growth, but NYC’s education system has failed to keep pace.

2014-04-30-2.pngThe number of degrees awarded in NYC schools in STEM within the same period grew at a much slower rate. Degrees in STEM education grew at only 1.1 percent, a low figure relative to other fields of study such as healthcare (5.9 percent) and social sciences (3.1 percent).

2014-04-30-3.pngOne solution outlined in a recent NYC Jobs Blueprint report by Partnership for New York City included appointing within the city a “Chief Talent Officer” responsible for workforce and career development functions. This CTO would be in charge of bridging the coordination gap between the private sector and the City’s workforce development agencies and educational institutions so that programs are tailored in response to demand.

Coordination towards collective action should definitely be part of the solution. However, within a context of tremendous innovation and decentralized technological development happening in NYC, it’s paradoxical that the proposed solution focuses on centralization and vertical organization.

Government-lead solutions are not working! New data released by the Census Bureau shows that even though the recession has ended, the city’s poverty rate continues to increase, and the gap between the rich and poor is on the rise?

Information and communication technology (ICT), however, offers signs of hope. ICT and community-led development projects could be used in a much more systemic way to bridge private and public interests and reduce socio-economic inequality.

Nothing brings inequality into focus quite like a natural disaster, as it was the case with Hurricane Sandy. The poor are overwhelmingly impacted by natural disasters and little has been done to improve their resiliency. Simply put, poorer communities lack the resources to evacuate and prepare for storms, and are more likely to be located in areas that are vulnerable to disaster.

2014-04-30-4.pngWith Hurricane Sandy, community organizations, churches and even next-door neighbors rallied to fill gaps in the government response.

One of the most successful ICT enabled projects launched in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was a project supported by Occupy Sandy Recovery — an offshoot of the inequality advocacy group Occupy Wall Street. The group developed a platform called “OccupySMS” to facilitate “mutual aid,” by connecting people with a need to volunteers offering assistance in a specific area. The application utilized an existing platform called Mobile Commons, allowing users to request donations or assistance and matching those requests to nearby volunteers via SMS. The service was specifically intended to fill individual household needs that were not being met by government-operated aid distribution centers.

Occupy Sandy’s efforts did not end with the recovery efforts. The organization followed through by creating an incubator of sorts to promote projects that address the long-term relief, recovery and resiliency of the communities affected by Hurricane Sandy.

The directory of projects includes both social and technological projects to improve coordination in the event of another natural disaster. FLO Solutions, for example, aims to help organizations implement free and open-source technology that will make it easier for them to share knowledge and data in a disaster situation. By networking non-profit, community and relief organizations together, the project facilitates the sharing of actionable information, such as requests for supplies and volunteers.

Occupy Sandy isn’t the only organization in New York that is fostering creative and technology-based solutions to issues of development and inequality.

The NYC-based Nutri Ventures and the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) announced recently a commitment to bring “Nutri Ventures: The Quest for the 7 Kingdoms”, one of the most popular digital-only kids’ series, to over 60,000 elementary schools across America. Nutri Ventures is a multi media educative platform to change children’s eating habits worldwide through entertainment. This will be PHA’s first-ever partnership with an animated series emphasizing nutrition education and healthy eating choices for kids.

“Nutrition and obesity are among the most urgent concerns for parents, educators and for children themselves,” said Rui Lima Miranda, co-founder and managing partner of Nutri Ventures Corp.

‪Inequality remains a huge problem in New York City, but with the help of civic organizations and ICT enabled solutions we can design networked governance systems to connect market driven solutions with public development issues and ensure that the most vulnerable members of our community are not forgotten.‬‬‬‬‬‬

Jesper Frant is a Master of Public Administration student at Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs and an expert in online communications.

With 1,000 Days Left to Reach MDGs, A Look Back and Forward

Blog originally posted on the Millennium Villages website.

The 1,000-day milestone to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was on the minds of presenters and audience alike at the Earth Institute’s Sustainable Development Seminar. The seminar gathered professors Jeffrey Sachs, Prabhjot Singh, and Vijay Modi to take a critical look at how far the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) has come in the eight years since its founding and analyze what still needs to be accomplished.

Sachs kicked off the seminar with an overview of the MVP, which he described as showing a pathway to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in very poor settings in sub-Saharan Africa.

Given the time-bound nature of the goals, Sachs noted, “part of our self-assignment in this project is to run, to hurry, to try to meet a timetable, to try and promote action.” In a project like the MVP, where the goal is to break the cycle of extreme poverty, Sachs argued, “it’s better to try and miss than to slow down and not try.”

The MVP built off the epistemic community knowledge of development best practices, and initially started with the implementation of quick-wins – which include long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets and improved agricultural inputs to boost crop yield. The quick wins, however, while important are only part of the equation. As the project moved forward, ideas about how to meet the MDGs evolved along with the Millennium Villages themselves.

Sachs described the next phase of the MVP as falling into four categories: moving from demonstration to design, expanding beyond interventions to systems-based approaches, harnessing the unprecedented expansion of information and communications technology, and integrating public investments with business.

This next phase can create an environment of innovation in the MVP that has fostered the creation of new approaches to development. The health sector, in particular, has experienced a sea change.

Singh explained that moving to a design and systems-based approach forced the MVP to rethink the delivery of healthcare in poor, rural settings. Improved primary health facilities, the project realized, only get you about half the way to achieving better health outcomes due to constraints on access.

Community health workers (CHWs) extend the reach of primary healthcare systems expanding access for the rural poor. The growth of mobile telecommunication has allowed the MVP to develop platforms to enable managers to monitor the CHWs they oversee in real-time. Actionable data not only empowers managers and health workers, it provides critical information on how to improve the health system and make it more adaptive.

CHW programs have been implemented across the Millennium Villages, but the CHWs must be scaled across Africa in order to have a measurable impact on global development. The One Million Community Health Worker campaign aims to do just that.

With the 1,000-day MDG countdown underway, many countries are still far from achieving the MDGs, but new approaches to development born from the MVP have put ending extreme poverty within reach.

mDATA: New Media Taskforce app competition submission

I, along with two of my colleagues at SIPA (Ashish and Swami), submitted the following application to the New Media Taskforce’s first mobile app competition. Today, we had the chance to present our idea in front of an expert panel. There was some stiff competition and, unfortunately, we did not make the top three, but I’m encouraged by the positive feedback that we got…If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Feel free to take a look at our submission and let me know what you think in the comments section below. Also, check out the blog post I wrote (and didn’t immediately publish) that was the genesis of this idea.

Only one elective course in my first semester

I’ve tried not too think too much about the intense coursework that I have in store for me, partially out of fear and partially out of a desire to enjoy my few weeks of freedom between work and school. But, with just one week of freedom left before orientation starts, it’s time to start getting my head in the game.

Luckily (or not so luckily, depending on how you choose to think about it), I will only have one elective course in my first semester, which will be primarily taken up by math and economics classes (see chart below) that are meant to give me a solid quantitative base.

SIPA recommends that I choose an elective course that falls into one of these categories:

  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  • Cost Benefit Analysis
  • New Media & Development Communication
  • Decision Models
  • Microfinance
  • Investing in Emerging Markets
  • Budgeting for Non-profits

I’m leaning toward New Media and Development Communication because it’s the subject area that most compliments my past experience and future goals, but I want to know what you think. Vote in my poll to let me know.

MPA-DP Coursework