Code4Good: Using ICTs for social good in Sri Lanka

Code4Good: Using ICTs for social good in Sri Lanka

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Code4Good, Sri Lanka’s first social good hackathon kicked off today, an initiative of Internews Network implemented in partnership with International Alert, and with the support of SLASSCOM, Facebook, Google Business Groups and the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.


The event today attracted a wide range of civil society organisations from as far North as Jaffna. Nalaka Gunawardene and I spoke at the event, and each of focussed on what role technology could and should play in addressing social needs. My presentation, in three parts, looked at how information and communications technologies (ICTs) could help civil society highlight the marginal or the inconvenient, better react to that which they sought to change, reform or redress and finally, use real time, citizen-generated information and content to help understand a context, and accordingly, strategise solutions to key challenges.

I prefaced by presentation by noting that not just with the advent of Google Loon to Sri Lanka (which at the time of writing, remains mired in more questions than answers), but also with continuing and indeed, increasing investment in more traditional telecommunications infrastructure as well as low barriers around access, in the next five years Sri Lanka would be more connected through the Internet, web than it has ever been in history. As current statistics indicate, many would access the web and Internet first or even exclusively through their mobile devices – smartphones and tablets.

Looking at Sri Lanka’s Open Data Portal, I lamented the fact that far too many journalists were unaware of this data in the public domain and that even without enabling Right to Information legislation, the use of this data could result in stories that could reveal, inter alia, interesting aspects of the country’s crime statistics, economy, population demographics. I flagged the Information is Beautiful site as a source of inspiration for civil society to see how raw data could be used to engage a wider public, through captivating stories told largely through well designed, interactive visualisations.

I then moved on to how ICTs could help civil society react, highlighting the example of Harass Map in Egypt. As noted on the site,

HarassMap is a volunteer-based initiative with the mission of engaging all of Egyptian society to create an environment that does not tolerate sexual harassment. Launched in 2010, we were also the first independent initiative to work on sexual harassment and assault in Egypt.

I said that through the use of a customised version of the Ushahidi mapping platform, Harass Map was able to name and shame cities and locations in Egypt that allowed Gender Based Violence (GBV) to flourish. I then showed the story I did after the devastating Koslanda landslide on Groundviews, where I used Google Earth’s historical imagery along with post-landslide imagery to communicate the scale and extent of the tragedy. I also talked briefly about my work on using Google Earth to document mass graves after the war and the conditions in the so-called No Fire Zones, towards the end of the war. Tools like Google Earth I submitted could help civil society both see and showcase challenges otherwise hard to communicate through just text. I ended up showing a fascinating large scale social experiment by the London School of Economics (LSE) to ascertain, through an app, the happiness quotient of those in the UK – called mappiness. As noted by LSE,

We’re particularly interested in how people’s happiness is affected by their local environment — air pollution, noise, green spaces, and so on — which the data from mappiness will be absolutely great for investigating.

I then talked about real-time technologies and how they could be employed by civil society to address key technologies, including the generation of big data. Looking at’s Android based ride sharing app, I also touched on Waze and how similar apps for example could help map, in close to real-time, flood prone areas in and around Colombo. The resulting data over time could be fed into the CMC’s flood prevention programmes, and if ride sharing apps took off, contribute to lower congestion.

Asked by Internews to come up with a concrete problem statement for the event, I instead thought of an app based on solutions journalism, to capture invention, innovation and resilience, in the face of austerity or violence, in Sri Lanka. The crowd-sourced app would record instances where something had gone right, or someone had gone over and above their responsibility to do something. It was about celebrating what was good about the country, instead of focussing always around what is not working, breaking down, corrupt or violent.

Called, for want of a better name, Seeing Good Sri Lanka, the app would allow for photo, video and audio input, the results would be gamified, so as to increase interest in recording events, and the data would be aggregated, suitably anonymised and displayed on the browser. As noted in the presentation, I said the value of such an app would be,

  • Capture organic solutions that work
  • Capture hyperlocal innovation
  • Celebrate creative individuals, communities and institutions
  • Showcase Sri Lankan inventions
  • Help in replication across the countryChannel content to relevant line ministries
  • At macro-level, showcase a country that’s resilient, innovative, hard-working

Teams went on to discuss and pitch their own problem statements at the plenary, and I’m looking forward to working with a few of them around the development of their problem statements and indeed, interactions with the tech communities.

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