In the Internet age many people utilise technology to spread information, make themselves heard, organise demonstrations, or simply click like to show their support for a cause. The latter is sometimes belittled as the equivalent of a couch potato’s self-gratifying response to a pressing issue. It gives you a warm feeling but has no impact. In the last years, though, there has been a development that allows each of us to help. The problem was that for the thousands of people who like and (re)tweet an issue, there are only a few that are willing to put themselves forward and do something about it. Unfortunately, a million likes won’t buy them equipment, pay for materials, or feed them when they spend months of their lives to change something which you, I and so many others agree should be changed. Until now, enter crowd funding.
Crowd funding brings interested individuals together to support a project or idea. The contributions can be tiny or large. Often the supporters receive varying benefits for the size of their support, e.g. being mentioned as a supporter, receiving a product made with the money, or meeting the project team. There are many websites where someone with an idea can go, setup a project, and ask the world to support it. The majority of the projects are commercial. However, activist can use it too and ask the us, the supporters, to put our money where our mouth is.
The most prominent crowd funding site is Kickstarter.com. (I am intentionally excluding micro-financing sites like Kiva for this article since they have a different focus.) In 2012 Kickstarter had 2,241,475 people from 177 countries pledging $319,786,629 (this is not a typo, 319 million dollars) of support and successfully funded 18,109 projects. The equivalent of $606 per minute on one crowd funding website alone! The projects’ foci are commercial, cultural, scientific, fun, and for the public good. For example, it helps fans to fund projects they want see made like the Elite: Dangerous computer game. Inventors can get their ingenious ideas funded and make a commercial hit as the Pebble E-Paper watch did, collecting $10 million dollars instead of the initial request $100,000. Many projects are small, though, like the non-commercial Yow Dance, which successfully raised $1,315.
First Dhaka Bus Map
Last month I got excited when I found a crowd funding project for Dhaka. The First Bus Map of Dhaka is a great example of how we all can support the dedicated individuals that go out there and want to fix something but need a helping hand. A few guys from MIT started the Urban Launchpad to solve tangible urban problems. They teamed up with volunteers from Bangladesh to help Dhaka’s bus riders. There are countless buses in the city but which bus goes where, when, and which one is crowded, fast or slow; a perfect problem to be solved by technology, and volunteers on the ground. The volunteers took their smartphones with special apps and rode countless buses in Dhaka collecting information about routes, crowding of buses, speed, who rode them (male, female), and much more. They already generated insight that bus riders prefer a less crowded bus over a fast one, bigger buses are generally less crowded, and the less crowded a bus is the more women use it; helpful information for bus operators and government policies. But now that they have the data how do they finance maps, bus decals and stop signs? They could have started asking and waiting for support from NGOs or government departments, or they could reach out to the crowd – you and me.
They reached out on Kickstarter. We were able to back the project from $5 to $500 (it successfully concluded recently). The money is going to printing paper maps to be distributed around Dhaka at chai shops and bus stops. And if I know Bangladeshis they will quickly become copied and sold after the initial launch. Which is perfectly within the idea of the project, which makes the collected data freely available for commercial and non-profit projects to continue to improve it and spread the information far and wide.
Why would you back a project like this? Besides the obvious warm and fuzzy feeling you get by helping others and being part of something bigger, you can also get some fun stuff. If you pledged $25 you will not only have the knowledge that you distributed 10 maps in Dhaka with your contribution but also get a copy for yourself. For higher pledges you received a rickshaw totem, a lunch with the project team, a bus decal, a bus stop sign, and an increasing amount of maps distributed from your money.
The project set itself a goal of $10,000 and collected $15,000 in the end. On Kickstarter you pledge money that you only pay if a project succeeds in it’s funding goal. Collecting more money is ok and it usually means that the project is more likely to succeed and more of the benefits are distributed.
Recently, I came across another Bangladesh related funding request. Some may remember the case of a 14-year-old girl, Hena, who was raped by her 40-year-old cousin in Shariatpur. She then was whipped and tortured following a fatwa. Hena was denied immediate medical care and died from the injuries. It inspired Kristy, a journalist from Seattle, to collect money through crowd funding to fly to Bangladesh and live in a rural community to investigate village courts and the gender violence. Kristy collected $3,211 and will be able to start her investigation. The idea behind the project is to raise awareness, record interviews and collect data to support informed, effective change. Kristy plans to join forces with local NGOs like Nijera Kori.
Bangladeshis Are Needed
These two examples show what is possible with little money and a good idea. What we need is more awareness in Bangladesh itself to the opportunity crowd funding poses. If you are an entrepreneur or activist then consider crowd funding the next time you have an idea. Make it a project, plan it, scope it, put it online and encourage others to reach for their credit card. If you are one of the couch potatoes, skip a coffee shop visit and put a few dollars down to support an activist or an entrepreneur. It has never been easier to change a little part of the world you care about with a fistful of money. You do not even have to get up from the couch.
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Note by the author
In Data Scientists, do good with Big Data I wrote about the potential of a data dive for Bangladesh. The idea is to bring professionals who work with data, analysing, predicting, extracting, and visualising it, together with NGOs or government agencies that have data or problems around data but lack the in-house expertise. We have already some data and some individuals willing to help. Sadly we are missing use cases. I will be in Dhaka until end of January. Please get in touch if you know of anyone that could benefit or you work in an organisation with such challenges. I would love to have a chat to get some use cases and help you in the first Dhaka data dive.
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Christian Prokopp is a Data Scientist in London, UK, and focuses on big data, cloud computing, and machine learning. Christian has a BSc from Germany, a MCom and a PhD from Australia. You can follow him on Twitter @prokopp, read his blog and all his ClickIttefaq columns.