By Dr. Maura O'Neill
Dr. O'Neill is the chief innovation officer and senior counselor to the administrator at USAID.
Barbara’s mother was desperate- there was nothing in the house to feed her children or herself. All that remained was a bag of seed that she’d been planning to sow on her small plot of land. Could the seeds be eaten as food? She could no longer look at her children whose bodies were aching from hunger.
There was one huge risk: the seeds contained potentially lethal pesticides intended to encourage higher yields. As countless mothers have done, she tested the seeds on herself. Barbara and her siblings watched fearfully as their mother ate a handful. Would she die, become ill, or just be fine?
Even if eating the seeds led to survival, there would be no crops to harvest in six months. Would they starve later? Years after this harrowing experience, Barbara palpably captured this moment in her book, Change Me into Zeus's Daughter.
In Alabama that night, nobody got sick. But we must do better by our neighbors in the US and globally.
One billion people suffer from chronic hunger and face terrible choices daily. A billion is a hard word to grasp, but imagine if every man, woman, and child in the largest cities in the US- including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle, Atlanta- would never get enough to eat or had a chance to thrive.
Technology and business have recently brought dramatic global improvements in areas like health, agricultural productivity. Through social media, we can harness crowd-sourced wisdom and rapid diffusion networks to imagine a day in our lifetime where families everywhere can take pride in the accomplishments of their healthy children.
What are we seeing in this tech cauldron that’s knocking our socks off? Kat Townsend, a Special Assistant for Engagement at USAID, worked with The Chicago Council to choose six examples using big data, videos, and randomized control trials to reduce hunger. USAID showcased these examples at a Council event on food security at the G8 to demonstrate how low-cost technologies can accelerate and scale food security.
I’m especially excited about Digital Green, founded by young Indian entrepreneur Rikin Gandhi. Digital Green enables local farmers make short videos giving specific advice on many topics, with viewers rating videos just as we push 'Like' on Facebook. Farmers now watch nearly 2,500 relevant videos- which average 11,000 viewers per video- on their cellphones. Talk about a social diffusion network!
In September, USAID together with Nathaniel Manning- a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow from technology superstar Ushahidi- ran a weekend Hackathon for Hunger. Global teams of brilliant data geeks pounded out code on big data sets to solve hunger challenges. Palantir used data compiled by the Grameen Foundation on crop blights, soil, and farmer feedback to generate a real-time heat map that helps farmers identify where crop infestations are happening. Farmers also receive warning messages about looming crop diseases and where they may strike, giving farmers the chance to harvest early. PinApple’s website helps farmers can input their location for suggestions on the best crops to plant based on elevation, soil PH, and annual rainfall.
We can’t solve food security by the mere push of a button from a programmer in Maputo or a policymaker in Bangladesh. What technology can do is bring information and tools to farmers, processors, and consumers in remote corners of the world. Data point by data point, we’re reaching those who need it most…one video and SMS at a time.
Tell us what other technologies or social media techniques you’re seeing that could defeat hunger. Disagree if you have your reasons. We all have much to learn from one another.
Leave your thoughts here or continue the conversation on Twitter. Join me @MauraAtUSAID and follow Bertini and Glickman @GlobalAgDev; USAID @usaid; USAID’s Feed the Future Initiative @FeedtheFuture; Ushahidi @Ushahidi; Project Open Data @ProjectOpenData; Palantir Technologies @palantirTech; PinApple @PinApple, Kat Townsend @DiploKat; and Nat Manning @NatPManning.
Maura O'Neill is the chief innovation officer and senior counselor to the administrator at USAID. In the public, private and academic sectors, she has created entrepreneurial and public policy solutions for some of the toughest problems in the fields of energy, education, infrastructure financing and business development. She earned her PhD at the University of Washington, where her research focused on narrowmindedness and the errors it leads to in science, medicine, business and political decision making.