I’m passionate about the critical role technology plays in driving systems change: I can’t imagine how we focus on addressing social problems impacting millions of people without the smart use of technology. So, the Tech Matters team is focusing on doing just that with our two new social enterprises:
- Aselo is designed to upgrade the entire field of crisis response helplines with modern contact center technology, helping them respond to the urgent needs of people in crisis. We’re already live in six countries and expect to be in twenty by the end of this year.
- Terraso will enable local leaders to address the realities of the climate crisis. We believe that national and international efforts are not enough: we need to deliver the tools, knowledge, and funding to regional projects led by the people who live there.
In addition to these two systems change initiatives, I am spending more time on building the tech for good field, helping others envision new tech-enabled systems change applications in far more fields than Tech Matters can possibly launch new social enterprises. Read on for more details, and definitely reach out if you’d like more information!
Our Approach to New Social Enterprises
With both Terraso and Aselo, we’re applying the best practices of modern software and data enterprises, but through a social impact lens. Our users are both our customers and our partners in delivering social change. Tech Matters’ projects are driven by the needs and wants of our users, not what we think they should want! The software we build is open source and the data belongs to our partners, not us. Technology can be a terrific way to shift power to people who need better tools to better help themselves and their communities.
We launched our first major enterprise, Aselo, a crisis response platform for helplines, in Zambia and South Africa this year. Since then, we’ve launched in Ethiopia, Malawi, Brazil and India. We started work on Aselo in late 2019 in partnership with the global child helpline movement. Helplines generally suffer from antiquated technology that hurts their efficiency and limits their reach to the children and youth that need their help. What’s worse is that most helplines essentially “rolled their own” tech solutions even though the core of their work was similar. This is both expensive and inefficient.
Our goal is to triple the effectiveness of helplines through modern (and affordable!) technology. We are bringing the ability to connect counselors to kids in need on social media channels like WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook Messenger, in addition to traditional voice lines. Our job at Tech Matters is to be the tech developer who helps crisis response helpline partners become much more effective in responding to people seeking urgent assistance. We’ve been overwhelmed with interest from all over the world, and expect to operate Aselo in close to 20 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Jamaica, Chile, Zimbabwe, Thailand, and the Philippines, by the end of 2022. We’re expanding from the child helpline field into gender-based violence and online abuse helplines as well. There is clearly a need for this solution!
Our second enterprise, Terraso, began when I was approached by a nascent coalition of major conservation organizations, called 1000 Landscapes for 1 Billion People. They wanted to work together to bring knowledge, tools, and funding to local community leaders, who are on the front lines of building the sustainable and regenerative economies of the future. We’ve spent the last two years talking to dozens of these local leadership teams, typically at the state/provincial/district level (in over twenty countries). As a result, we’ve started building Terraso, our landscape action platform, in partnership with these groups to focus on meeting their expressed needs. Our initial (early) software release was in late 2021, and we expect to have a great platform built by the end of this year, 2022.
Terraso will be a set of software services and applications that let communities chart their own futures in the face of immense climate challenges. By focusing at the local rather than national level, we will be filling a critical gap in global climate response. And, it’s already clear that Terraso will not be based on the creation of a single magical tech tool (plenty of those being created), but instead mainly weaving together incredible tech tools and data which already exists, bringing a single-minded focus on serving these local communities.
After thirty years of learning how to create and scale technology nonprofits, I’m explicitly dedicating more time to sharing these insights. I believe that software and data, smartly applied, will be an indispensable part of accomplishing systems-level change. Every week, I’m doing karmic consulting with high-impact nonprofits and donors, helping them understand what tech can actually do for their social good missions. Frequently, I’m talking them out of bad tech ideas (my “anti-consulting” practice), like why they don’t need a blockchain or why nobody will download the app that’s been proposed!
I’m committing more time to speaking, writing, and interviewing to expand the tech for good field. With Nithya Ramanathan and a couple of our colleagues, Stanford Social Innovation Review has just published our “Decolonize Data” article (paywalled). Techonomy shared my views on why nonprofits don’t “have the tech they need.” We launched the Tech Matters podcast, where I get to interview terrific tech for good social entrepreneurs with important stories to tell. I wrote a piece for the World Economic Forum about why reaching the Sustainable Development Goals is going to require much better tech for the social sector.
This new phase in my career is surprisingly thrilling and fun. I’m spending the majority of my time building new nonprofit tech enterprises and helping others do the same. We have found risk-taking donors, such as Schmidt Futures, McGovern, Peery, Facebook, the Jenesis Group, Okta, Rainforest Alliance (thanks to IKEA), Twilio.org and the End Violence Fund at UNICEF, willing to make major bets on us, believing that we can rapidly go from zero to impact. And, our partners in the nonprofit sector are ready for better tech, because they see so clearly how important tech is to achieving their social missions of serving people and the planet.
If you are wondering how to accelerate social change by a factor of three (or ten!), definitely reach out and we’ll brainstorm about how technology can do more good on purpose.
All the best, Jim