Saturday, April 24, 2010

Alec Ross - Advisor, Innovator and Guru

30 journalists from all over the world were at the Diplomatic Reception Room of the US Department of State in Washington DC. We were on a reporting tour and the topic was Social Media. We had just met the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and were still highly excited about the meeting.

This time we were eagerly awaiting the arrival of Alec Ross, the Senior Adviser for the Innovation in the office of the Secretary.

His role in leading the State Department's efforts to find practical technology solutions for some of the globe's most vexing problems on health care, poverty, human rights and ethnic conflicts was of high interest to me; as it involved many innovative methods in which social media can be successfully utilized in tasks as diverse as the ones they are engaged in.

Alec Ross walked in with a charming smile as he greeted us. Then he let us in on a little bit of history about himself. Ross’s background is in the NGO world. In 2000, Ross and 3 colleagues co-founded “One Economy”, a global non-profit that grew into becoming the world’s largest digital divide organization, growing from a team of four people, to having programs on four continents.

During 2007 and 2008, he ran technology, media and telecommunication policy for Barac Obama’s presidential campaign. Then literary just a year ago he came to the state department to build an innovation agenda for America’s diplomatic and development agenda.

Alec Ross commenced his speech with a little story about a friend who goes to the same shop to buy toys made of scrap metal from a very rural part in the world, Until one day - the guy who sells the toys tells her to email him and pre-order what she wants, thus demonstrating the global connectedness that is evolving.

Then he described one of the successful efforts made by his team just after the tragic earthquake in Haiti. A member of the staff had come up with an idea to encourage people to donate small amounts of money – a maximum of 10 dollars – over their mobile phone. With a prompt okay from the Secretary of State, they set it up, so that when people awake the next morning, it would be the first thing that would come up on their mobile phone, prompting them to take quick action.

And action they took… Their effort raised more than 30 million dollars in about 3 weeks. In 10 dollar increments – that’s response from about 3 million Americans for the earthquake victims in Haiti !

Ross gave another example to demonstrate how they are attempting to use technology is with regard to the continued narcotics and cartel fueled violence in Mexico.

One of the biggest issues that have come up recently in Mexico is that people are afraid of reporting criminal activities in their neighborhood to Police for the fear retribution, as they are afraid that they will be killed for reporting crime. Therefore, Ross and his team have been developing an idea with the Mexican government for the past several months to set up a Web based and SMS based crime reporting program.

With this program, people can confidently report a crime directly from where they are, and an NGO then makes the content and the source anonymous and post it on a special public website. The police are then given a particular number of minutes, within which they have to report back to the website, regardless of what they find. The idea here is to introduce anonymity, transparency and accountability – into fighting narcotics and narcotics fueled violence in Mexico.

Meanwhile, Alec Ross pointed out that there is a perception about the United States in recent years that they are attempting to ‘overpower’ other countries. He further said that one of the significant shifts since Hillary Clinton has become the Secretary of State is that there is less reliance on “overpowering” and an increased focus on “empowering”.

He also said that his role and the role of his team was, within that broader frame of empowerment, how technology can be a platform that can empower different communities and nations. He also let us in on an example to illustrate how dedicated the Secretary of State is, to bring the latest technology into handling US government activities.

He said Hilary Clinton met about 15 to 20 young people who are involved with new media technology in the State department. He pointed out that for someone who sits down with heads of state, kings and queens – to sit with youngsters who are not seniors at the State Department was kinda cool and that it shows the level of her dedication.

Finally he said that as someone who has the opportunity to interact and engage with Hillary Clinton quite frequently, it’s a real treat to work with her.