Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 19:51 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 19:51 | SYDNEY

A dispatch from TechCamp Bucharest


Fergus Hanson


21 December 2011 09:07

What do you get when you throw technologists, NGOs and the private sector into organised chaos for two days in Bucharest? Technically, a US State Department TechCamp.

For the NGOs, a smorgasbord of opportunity to harness the power of new digital technologies and the chance to pick up funding to help them on their way. For governments, the chance to have civil society strengthened and maybe to be more effectively critiqued and pressured by it.

Hillary Clinton's video message to the Bucharest TechCamp. (Photo by the author.)

The camps, which only started in late 2010, roam the globe and their themes vary. But in the words of an Americagov tweet: 'TechCamp pairs experts with people trying to improve their governments.'.

The Romanian Government seemed to take this in a suitably liberal spirit. The Communications Minister who opened the event appeared to say (via simultaneous translation) words to the effect that, although he had to admit not knowing a great deal about TechCamp, he was sure it must be a good initiative if his American partners were involved.

The camps are a practical realisation of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Government 2.0 initiative and an example of the State Department's ediplomacy.

The Bucharest camp brought together 12 technologists (tech experts, for the uninitiated) and senior members of the private sector with around 80 heads of NGOs, the latter group being the focus of the event.

On the first day, the NGOs were introduced to the new technologies on offer by the technologists in a State Department version of speed dating. Cleverly, almost all of the tools were free.The technologies on offer covered most aspects of an NGO's activities, from fundraising, building professional and donor networks and website creation to designing online campaigns, harnessing mobile phones and using maps in ways you wouldn't imagine. With a taste of what was on offer, individuals then had the chance to do in-depth training with at least two technologists on a specific topic.

The afternoon session was focused on identifying actual problems and challenges faced by the NGOs that might have digital solutions. There were reams of them, but each group was asked to refine their list down to a top three. On the second day, the top 20 or so problems were presented on a list and everyone was asked to sign up to a group of their choice to identify, with the help of the tech experts, how to solve them using technology.

Many of the groups came up with some pretty ingenious tech solutions to their disparate challenges (some of which were up for subsequent funding), but one of the biggest benefits to the NGOs seemed to be the exposure to a whole new fleet of mostly easy-to-use digital tools that could be applied in any number of circumstances.  

The camp was a lively, bustling affair in the hands of their irrepressible coordinator Noel Dickover, and are a PR vending machine for State with civil society groups. Anecdotal evidence suggests they have also resulted in some impressive outcomes, but a more systematic approach to monitoring and follow-up is only just now commencing and will be good to watch.