Restart Romania Challenge: Taking it to the Streets…and to the Web (Part 1)

Since 2009 we have watched Romania adopt and experiment with social media for social change while building a network of techie friends.  As we began testing various models to get these programmers engaging with the world-beyond-code, we found a group of (mostly) young Romanians trained to think about solving problems, knowledgeable of a wide range of tool sets and just as passionate about overcoming challenges in Romanian society as their more visible NGO soul-mates.  These geeks were angry about the pace of change.  So we decided to challenge prevailing civil-society models in Romania through TechSoup’s Challenge process and see if through an ‘open-source innovation’ process we could focus some of Romania’s great IT&C human resource on grass roots engagement and solving local problems. 

Before we settled on which particular problems, serendipity intervened.  United States Ambassador to Romania Mark Gitenstein (whose grandparents were, incidentally, Romanian) got excited by the potential for a Challenge to shake things up and offered to support a process focused on social justice.  What was social justice to mean? Not really our place to answer we decided – that was up to Romania to determine through the Challenge.

Lots of people thought we were nuts – Romanians aren’t going to respond to something like this!—but we were inspired by The ‘Let’s Do It, Romania’ campaign, or as some people call it the Big Romanian Garbage Pickup campaign. This effort, in 2010, used Facebook and later a website to coordinate a nationwide trash pick-up.  I remember the week before it happened a group of NGOs were railing against the campaign with all of the standard ‘liking something on Facebook is not social change’ arguments and proclaiming (hoping?) it would fail.  Then 200k Romanians got out of bed on a Saturday morning and cleaned up the country.  Effectively 1% of the population. 

What resonated with me about this campaign was it flipped the most common Central and Eastern European (CEE) civil society model on its head.  Instead of the all-too-common foreign donor driven process which allows prominent civil society organizations to avoid talking to people on the streets, people went into the streets together.  Using the web, Let’s Do It had returned civil society’s power base to the people.  And the opportunity continues to grow – 1.4 million Romanians were on Facebook when Let’s Do It ran last fall.  That number is projected to grow to 5 million by end of 2011.  Thanks to its communicative and low-cost nature, the web is allowing Romanians to pitch ideas, concerns, hopes and fears to their peers in a relatively safe environment.  This has led to several civil start-ups like Let’s Do It and directly inspired Restart Romania.

Restart Romania allowed different constituencies to advance distinct but complementary agendas. Our ‘official’ stance was that RR was about sourcing and accelerating web-based ideas to engage Romanians in offline social justice issues (and specified areas like anti-corruption, rule of law, government efficiency and transparency). 

Individual participants were looking to make very specific changes often on a very localized level.

Ambassador Gitenstein’s, particular interest was in using the web to harness the power of participatory democracy. 

Corporations were concerned about how a weak and often corrupt regulatory environment negatively affected business concerns. Corporations, in Romania as everywhere, were also concerned about retaining talent, and they knew that allowing their software and web developers to interact in meaningful ways with social issues would be regarded as a plus.

And we at TechSoup Romania were and are interested in challenging the way NGOs engage with Romania - - and refocusing and relearning the role of individuals in civil society.

With the support of the Ambassador we invited a group of IT&C companies and activists to the Embassy to pitch the process and seek partners.  The corporate response was fantastic.  As one of the invitees later put it “here is a chance to put Romania’s best (hackers) in the ring with Romania’s worst.”  Civil society, on the other hand, was decidedly mixed.  1/3 wanted to know how soon they could sign up.  1/3 wanted to know the mechanics.  1/3 were nonplussed. 

With the potential to deliver hard-hitting web-campaigns we needed to develop a constellation of corporate, diplomatic and civil support for the winners, to show that the issues being discussed were connected, and of concern, to a range of serious actors in society.  We walked away from those meetings with a set of major supporters, such as the British, German, Austrian and Canadian Embassies, MicrosoftCisco, numerous smaller IT&C outfits and a variety of advertising agencies upon whom we could rely. After that we started knocking on doors…  

Our goal was to get 25-50 ideas on the platform, deliver a high quality discussion about the ideas and build 10 websites to launch.  In the end we received 144 ideas, and received more than 200,000 hits on the site and articles in the first 6 weeks of the process.  Not just the number, but the quality of ideas surpassed our expectation (at least 60 of the entries seemed to us both doable and worth doing). We are looking forward to building the connections between the ideas and the programmer communities on a broad scale, and not restricted to finalists.

On Monday, I’ll take a look at some of the amazing projects that surfaced through the Challenge.

By Chris Worman, The Odorheiu Secuiesc Community Foundation and TechSoup Romania

(The first installment of this series by Daniel Ben-Horin is here.   And don’t forget to check out the complementary series on the NetSquared Blog here which looks at Restart Romania from the perspective of the participants and in the context of the challenge methodology we have been evolving at TechSoup Global, under the NetSquared brand, for the last six years.)

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