You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Three Days in Colombia: What U.S. Digital Diplomacy Looks Like on the Ground

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, July 16 2010

As part of a State Department "technology delegation" to Colombia this week, American technologists and State Department staffers visited Escuela Marina Orth. Started by American journalist Maureen Orth, the school is known in Colombia as the first to host the One Laptop Per Child project; Photo by Scott Goodstein.

The State Department's Jared Cohen and Alec Ross are today the subject of a juicy new profile (and an "Entourage"-style glamour shot) in the New York Times Magazine, on the topic of the U.S. push for "digital diplomacy." You should go and read it and come back.

Now, as it happens, yesterday afternoon I got a call from Medellín, Colombia from Suzanne Hall, a foreign service officer with the State Department who, along with Cohen, Ross, and a handful of others, make up the team of folks inside the United States State Department who are creating, through practice, this new brand of digital diplomacy. Hall spent four years of service in Colombia earlier in her career, and she was back in-country this week, Tuesday through Thursday, to co-lead with Ross what the State Department has taken to calling a "technology delegation." State has hosted similar trips to Iraq, to Russia, to Syria, and to Mexico. Along for the ride for the Colombia trip were Scott Goodstein, the guy who headed Barack Obama's mobile program; Silicon Valley reporter Sarah Lacy; Josh Nesbit, who runs a project called Frontline SMS Medic, which uses mobile tech to facilitate public health projects; Maria Teresa Kumar, director of a group called Voto Latino; and Dave McClure, a tech entrepreneur best known for being part of the early PayPal.

So, you might be curious, just what does the sort of American digital diplomacy talked about in Times profile actually look like on the ground, around the globe? What happens when the State Department sends seven American technologists down to Colombia on a three-day mission? What follows is a brief sketch.

(I should note at the outset that I happened to ride along on one of the early State Department "tech dels," a trip to Mexico in October. And, as Jesse Lichtenstein describes in his profile of Cohen and Ross, World's Richest Man Carlos Slim was pretty infatuated with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. Sitting in a conference room at Slim world headquarters in Mexico City, the Mexican billionaire was almost giddy with mischievous delight when he prodded Dorsey to read aloud a passage from Slim's personal copy of the 1999 book, Who Owns America? The subject of the passage was on how the honorable thing to do is to build up companies, not to flip them for fast profit. Slim positively beamed at the chance to guide the business trajectory of young Dorsey. I don't have a very good memory, but that moment is going to stick in my brain for a while.)

(I should also note, consider this a second-hand sketch. I've never been to Colombia. But it jibes with my experience in Mexico in October, a swirl of meetings with school children, high public officials, activists, others, with an intense focus on uncovering possible future collaborations.)

The three-day adventure in Colombia, reported Hall, began in Bogotá. The delegation met there with the Chief Technology Officer of the Colombian National Police. The topic of discussion: the state of security in Colombia, a country which is, at the moment, in the middle of a good run of peace and stability. Moving young Colombians out of a life with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known to the world as FARC, was a focus, and the team discussed how mobile phones could be used to help folks "demobilize," or leave the FARC orbit, a process managed through Colombia's High Commission for Reintegration. Other stops included discussions on mobile banking, particularly in the context of Colombians who are currently unbanked, as they say.

On to La Macarena, a FARC stronghold. There the delegation sat down with a general in charge of reintegration of former FARC fighters into broader Colombian society. The question: how can mobile phones and other mobile tech be used to stay in contact with the tens of thousands of people who have left FARC in recent years, so that they might get the social services they need. From there to Techno-Academia, a project teaching technology to kids in what might be gently described as the slums. (Hall tells me about one girl, ten-years-old, who walked to the program from an hour away. Hall asked her what she was studying. "Bio-nano-technology," the young girl's response.) The academy, asked what it needed, replied simple, 'money.' Drawing on Lacy and McClure's contacts in Silicon Valley, a PayPal account went up. Through good ol' MeetUp, says Hall, a Bogota-based group of local techies was connected with La Macarena's Techno-Academia, to serve as mentors in the months ahead.

From there to Medellín, where I caught up with Hall on the phone. The needs in Medellín: connecting people in the area with legal services, ones already up and running and provided by the state; and beyond that landmines -- equipping Colombians, citizens and officials alike, to cope with the horrific explosives laying in wait in the ground. Medellín is remote, mountainous. "It's Lombard Street," Hall reports that the San Francisco-based McClure remarked while the group traveled winding rounds. A meeting with the Attorney General in Medellín focused on digitizing legal case files, and the group met with local legal workers who are trying to deliver legal services to the area's population. Every single case worker, the group reported, carries a cell phone. An idea was floated to connect Medellín with an American city of comparable size -- Maybe Detroit? Baltimore? -- to gather some insight about the application of technology to legal cases, including and in particular violent ones. On landmines, the discussion became, can mobile technologies be used to map the devices, alert people to when they've entered the danger zone caused by one? The visited a school run by Maureen Orth, Peace Corp Colombia '64-'66, better known in the U.S., perhaps, as Tim Russert's widow, but who in Colombia is the woman who started the school that hosts the country's first One Laptop Per Child program, as seen above. The school lacked, however, Internet connectivity, and the time was dedicated to figuring out how Escuela Marina Orth might be hooked up to the global network.

When I talked to Hall, she was about to go into an event in Medellín where Ross and others would discuss digital diplomacy, tech entrepreneurs on the trip would share lessons from Silicon Valley, and local entrepreneurs and activists would talk about their experiences, their work, their hopes. "Those people blow me away," said Nesbit of the local people, passed the phone after I was done speaking with Hall. I asked Nesbit where his experience goes from here. What is the outgrowth, the outcome, of his participant on the U.S. State Department's technology delegation to Colombia?

"I am coming back at some point," replied Nesbit. "I don't now if it's next week, or next month. But I am coming back."