Code For Tomorrow: Effective Agents for Social Innovation in Taiwan
Ivan Peng looks at Code for Tomorrow, a non-profit organization based in Taipei that raises awareness to local programmers about opportunities to contribute to socially orientated projects.
A year ago, while on my first stint in Taiwan, I wrote about my experiences at Singapore’s disappointing technology conference, Echelon. Fast forward to now, I’m on my second stint in Taiwan, and Echelon is still branding itself as the same prodigal conference and sounding just as disappointing. If beating a dead horse still draws people from Asia, why not continue?
There still might be hope after all. In researching more on Taiwan’s startup technology sector, I stumbled on Code for Tomorrow (CFT). CFT is a non-profit organization, structured roughly like Code for America, but focuses on open data and local, implementable projects. CFT motivates, trains, and – perhaps most importantly – raises awareness to programmers that there exists a domain of applications which are, and can be, socially oriented. CFT has positioned itself to be the beneficiary of growth in Taiwan’s social innovation ecosystem through a series of partnerships with Taiwan’s tech universities,open-data hackathons, and cooperation with open-knowledge organizations across Southeast Asia.
Social enterprises trying to scale upward face many challenges conventional businesses don’t. Impact metrics have attempted to show growth and potential in both conventional, business, and social impact. In western societies and progressive think-tanks, they are marketed be the solution, but it’s difficult to incentivize social enterprises here in Asia to take a high-level approach and tabulate data in a structured manner. Their prime objective is to be on the ground, dealing with marginalized groups, and most importantly, feel that they’re making a difference.
CFT has a unique way of incentivizing data collection while keeping social enterprises empowered: By requesting SE’s to simply submit data to them – however unstructured it may be – they will find some way to “make something with it”. With both sides having nothing to lose on this simple agreement, this stimulates bright minds to think about social problems in their communities, along with creating a budding partnership. Although in its infancy and no known example of such a situation yet, this potential partnership holds great potential and is a great stepping stone for upper-level management to showcase social impact.
CFT’s core values also put it in a very unique position to help social enterprises find funding from both public and private sources. Above all else, CFT’s members focus on feasible, implementable, and local projects. Most social businesses in Taiwan fit into two financial categories: privately funded, with low projections in profit; or publicly funded, with low accountability to government funding. Both these result in lack of scaling. CFT has the potential to bridge this rift between parties. Typically, publicly-funded enterprises have structured data, but no firm direction, and vice-versa for privately funded companies. CFT provides an information-sharing platform where they can learn from each other. And they’re off to a good start too; from conferences such as Data Fiesta – a creative showcase on the use of open data to public and private company representatives, and academics – to data curating and processing training sessions, the foundation is there for growth and partnership. There were many student groups that presented unique machine learning solutions to common problems in Taipei. One group did a proof-of- concept of an online dataset of restaurant reviews; by rating the popularity of hot pot restaurants, they were able to predict where all the MRT stations were, and housing prices in the area.
However, CFT still has a long way to go. In March, I attended an open data hackathon run by CFT and PIXNET, a blogging site and the 4th most trafficked site in Taiwan. PIXNET released a beta API allowing access on its data of photos and blogs, and tried to see what motivated coders could do in their spare time. The answer,unfortunately, was not that much. Many of the programs that teams built were all on the same line of thought, aggregating photos by location and popularity. The idea of open development wasn’t exactly very well directed, with a lack of brainstorming by many groups. This is an encouraging start, but more extensive data curation and processing will be required to promote creative truly open development. Still though, CFT is steadily raising awareness and continuing to take strong initiatives to the coding community in Taipei, with more hackathons and data conferences.
Also in March, I had the privilege of stopping by a startup pitch event hosted by Echelon, when they were in Taiwan. Thaddeus Koh, the co-founder of e27 (and running Echelon), gave a keynote speech in which he called this conference “the pulse of Asia’s tech innovation”. Unless we’re talking about social networking knock-off innovation, then I fail to see where the innovation is. Open data prompts transparency, and transparency prompts social responsibility. Empowering coders and tech entrepreneurs to be socially responsible opens the possibility of many more ideas outside of leveraging social networks. And yet, Singapore’s open data index (an index to assess the state of open data in a certain country) ranks 48th of 70 countries graded, losing out to countries like Taiwan, and only marginally better than South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria. So much for innovation.
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