Building a Community of Tech Awards Laureates:
The KnowledeX Project
Pedro Hernández-Ramos and Andrew Lieberman
Since its launch in 2001, The Tech Awards - Technology Benefiting Humanity program has done much to bring to the world’s attention the great work being done by a rich variety of “social entrepreneurs” around the world. With the 2008 Laureates (as the five finalists in each category are called), the total number of recognized individuals, non-profit, and for-profit organizations has reached 200.
In 2007, the Applied Materials Foundation awarded a grant to the Center for Science, Technology, and Society (CSTS) to launch a project that would be focused on enhancing the work of the Laureates. The idea was to build and maintain an online environment that would support the development and growth of a “community of practice” involving as many Laureates as possible. The reasoning behind this laureate community-building effort is precise.
Social entrepreneurs are highly dedicated individuals who are passionate about the problems they are working to address, and those recognized by The Tech Awards have developed an innovative technological solution. Yet in many cases social entrepreneurs have reached only a small percentage of the population that can benefit from their work. As with any entrepreneur, the Laureates are typically focused on building their organizations, getting their solution out to an ever larger number of people, and on adapting their technology to solve social problems. Such activities tend to be inner-focused, with the majority of the entrepreneurs’ time and energy dedicated towards fundraising, marketing, and inventing new technologies. While necessary, this focus tends to isolate entrepreneurs from each other, and usually limits the perceived value of their communication and collaboration with other social entrepreneurs.
The Tech Awards program has done a remarkable job of supporting and honoring all 25 of their annual Laureates: each of them is a “winner” even if only five of them each year receive the $50,000 prize. All Laureates and their respective organizations receive high-profile visibility and are presented with additional opportunities for funding, marketing, partnering, and technical assistance. However, all of the Laureates—not least those who did not win a monetary prize—may experience obstacles to growing their efforts after the Laureate program has come to an end.
Indeed, in past years many of the Laureates end their contacts with each other when they leave San José; and this actually represents a lost opportunity both for the Laureates and for The Tech Awards program. Recognizing this, the Applied Materials Foundation approached the Center for Science, Technology, and Society with the idea of creating a project that would help the Laureates, the Tech Museum, CSTS, and other interested parties (such as foundations, “angel” investors, and consultants) stay in touch and build a strong “community of practice” given their shared interests. With that broad goal in mind, CSTS launched the KnowledeX project in 2007 under the leadership of Steve Cisler. Steve was a former librarian and information specialist who knew The Tech Awards program well. He was a founder of the “community networking” movement in the early 1990s, and he understood well the challenges and rewards of forming online communities.
Steve’s early work in this project focused on three areas. The first was to re-establish communication with the Laureates. Second, Steve conducted a series of in-depth interviews with a few Laureates to try and understand their circumstances better, as well as their motivations and needs. And third, Steve explored technical options for a multi-purpose online platform that could serve as the foundation for projects involving the Laureates and others.
Re-establishing contact with the Laureates proved to be far more complicated than one would anticipate. Some Laureates had passed away (such as Chaz Holder, the winner of the 2001 Equality prize), and other organizations had disappeared or merged with others (such as Schools Online, a 2001 Education category Laureate). For many others there was no current contact information, and many others simply did not respond to repeated e-mail or phone requests. There were some who did reply saying they were simply not interested in any further contact.
Despite these problems Steve persisted, and with the help of The Tech Museum we now have an up-to-date database of Tech Laureates. Steve went on to conduct several interviews with past Laureates, in particular with the 2007 Laureates when they came to San José, and several insights came from them. For example, while practically all Laureates are concerned about finances (and winning the $50,000 prize is a huge motivator), many of them recognized that they had needs that could not be solved immediately even if they had more money available. One of the key areas identified was marketing and publicity, and in particular, having high-quality videos that they could use to promote their work.
As for exploring online platforms, Steve’s efforts centered on designing an open-source platform that could be built and supported in-house, while providing the functionality and expandability to meet the needs of existing and future Laureates. The system would support both content management (of a wide range of resources) and e-learning options (to have the option of offering online courses). After detailed analyses of several options, the decision was made to go with the Moodle course management system (www.moodle.org) because it met all the criteria and had a very active worldwide community of developers that are constantly enhancing the functionality of the system.
Sadly, Steve passed away in May of 2008 due to complications from multiple myeloma. In order to continue the visionary process that he began, the Center for Science, Technology, and Soceity hired Andy Lieberman, himself a former Tech Laureate (winner of the 2004 Education category cash prize for his work with Enlace Quiché in Guatemala) who had recently moved back home to the San Francisco Bay Area. Under Andy’s leadership the KnowledeX Project has advanced on all fronts. He has continued to deepen the possibilities for collaborative relationships that were ignited by Steve, most notably those associated with the Center’s other major program serving social entrepreneurs, the Global Social Benefit Incubator (www.scu.edu/sts/gsbi).
Building a Community of Practice
One key goal for the online communication, collaboration, and knowledge-sharing environment currently being designed is to create and maintain a sense of community and common purpose among all Tech Laureates. A variety of resources and activities within the online environment will accomplish this goal, taking into account the stated needs of the Laureates and the shared goals that they, by and for themselves, can define.
Networks can have two basic functions: instrumental and affective/emotional. Popular networks such as Facebook and MySpace are examples of affective networks: people use them for personal communication needs but (usually) they serve no specific work-related purposes. Instrumental networks, on the other hand, are those that people belong to for work-related reasons. Examples of the latter range from simple e-mail listserves to full-fledged online professional services (such as LinkedIn), which connect people from around the world. There are several types of projects that can be implemented using online environments. Hilarie Davies, an educator with a rich background in educational technology (see www.techforlearning.org/), identified some of the possibilities: People to People projects (most iEARN projects are of this kind); Information Collection projects (leading to pooled data sources, with Wikipedia providing a great example of the scale that is possible); Exploration and Evaluation projects (focused on finding answers to specific issues, for example); and Problem Solving projects (such as when a group collaborates specifically on a given task, like contributing a fix or new feature to an open source application or editing a shared document).
KnowledeX has been developed so that it can support its community members in all of the functions and projects. As a community-driven project, the Laureates will decide how they want to use the online community space to enhance their efforts. Our team, in turn, will support and champion the Laureates and their expressed needs.
At this stage of development, the most important content on the site is the database of Tech Laureates, some of which will be input by KnowledeX staff and some by the users themselves (for example, how Laureates define their needs and what they have to offer in their own terms). The information is structured to facilitate “search and discovery.” When a user comes to the database interested in finding others who may share interests, have resources, or with whom a specific collaboration is desired, the database should be able to provide that information. Through this function Laureates and others will be able to “connect the dots” and establish communication and collaboration opportunities with this information at hand. [See sidebar: “Connecting the Dots.”]
Further, this database provides an efficient, effective mechanism for other organizations and individuals to identify social entrepreneurs, whom they can support by providing funding, technical assistance, or other opportunities that respond to a given Laureate’s immediate needs. KnowledeX is a conduit for making and supporting these connections. The Tech Awards program and the Center receive frequent inquiries from people that would like to support the inspiring efforts of the Laureates, and the KnowledeX team is now able to work with supporters to find the right Laureates to contact based on mutual interests.
While we hope that the database will make many more such connections viable, we also intend to continue promoting collaborations among Laureates and others through personal introductions that may speed up the process of discovery.
In our efforts to best reach the goals with which we set out, an iterative evaluation strategy has been put into place. The criteria by which KnowledeX will assess the degree to which it is being successful include the following:
- Community and Engagement. Although the organizers of The Tech Awards and we at the KnowledeX project would like to think that the Laureates see themselves as a “community,” the reality has been that even within each category it has been difficult or downright impossible for Laureates to see themselves as a community with much to share. (This is similar to a problem that is observed in educational settings, where students generally don’t recognize that they have much or anything to learn from and with their peers.) Thus one of the first challenges is to define clearly tangible benefits for Laureates who participate in this community. Beyond the very real benefits Laureates derive from the week of activities around the gala event each November, the opportunities and resources made available through the KnowledeX online environment should be seen as important components of The Tech Awards experience, one that extends on indefinitely after the gala presentation. Thus, a reasonable target in this area is to better understand the motivations of the Laureates and what types of projects and activities will be most meaningful to them. Our indicators here will include the volume and types of communications among participants, along with data that reflect the frequency of participatory contributions.
- Products. In order to be meaningful and valuable, Laureates and all other constituencies must derive real value both from their access to concrete resources in the online environment and from their participation in the creation and/ or development of specific products (e.g., software tools for social entrepreneurs, e-learning courses and resources). These resources will be shared with the KnowledeX community and with the broader community of practitioners of social entrepreneurship.
- Research contributions. The KnowledeX project is an innovative example of design research, in which the KnowledeX team is using an iterative process to create new services and content, evaluate the impact, and improve our service offerings based on the feedback. We expect groundbreaking advances in CSTS research areas, including knowledge infrastructure, design and maintenance of virtual communities, systems of incentives and rewards for participation, and capacity building for social entrepreneurs. We will share these findings by publishing academic articles and presenting at conferences and other public venues
The Near Future
The Center for Science, Technology, and Society recognizes that the online collaboration that KnowledeX fosters is crucial to the success and growth of other CSTS programs. With this in mind, CSTS is now developing a broader online social innovation platform that will include KnowledeX for Tech Laureates, as well as features and content for the Center’s Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI) program. In this way, the Center will be able to respond to the community building and e-learning needs of all its programs, while cultivating opportunities for synergy among all of our constituents.
In sum, KnowledeX is evolving into a vibrant online community of Tech Laureates collaborating on a Center-wide platform that helps them discover and build relationships with GSBI alums, other social benefit entrepreneurs, and all others interested in working with them. It also presents us with an opportunity to conduct meaningful research as well as short-term projects that can help us advance the state of the art in our understanding of communities of practice, both online and “in the real world,” all in the interest of serving and benefiting humanity.
| “Connecting The Dots” |
At the 2007 Tech Laureate Venture Network, an event designed to showcase each year’s Tech Awards Laureates, Pedro Hernández-Ramos visited all the Laureates and struck up a conversation with Stace Wills of ElluminateLive!, an Education Laureate nominated for its project titled “Fire and Ice” which connects schools in the southern (fire) and northern (ice) hemispheres. Stace commented that one of the problems they had faced was finding schools interested in benefiting from the free conferencing software the project would provide them, in support of collaborative projects with other schools. Pedro realized that at least two past Education Laureates (iEARN and Global SchoolNet) would be ideal partners to help them locate schools, and offered to make introductions by email since he had ongoing contact with iEARN. Once introductions were made, it didn’t take long for Stace and Lisa Jobson from iEARN to figure out ways in which both could benefit from an active collaboration. By May of 2008 (not quite six months from the original email introduction) Stace wrote to Pedro with the following report:
Just wanted to thank you again for your outstanding referral for our Fire and Ice project to iEARN. We’re currently in pilot with them and have successfully completely a handful of live, collaborative events with iEARN schools from around the world such as the one mentioned in the attachment. We’re planning a global launch to the iEARN membership this summer at their annual conference in Uzbekistan. I’ll keep you posted!
Again, thanks to you for making this possible.