September 14, 2012

WORKING AT THE iLAB SOUTHEAST ASIA: A personal experience by Channe Suy

I first learned about InSTEDD around end of 2008 when I was working with a social enterprise in Cambodia called Digital Divide Data.  InSTEDD’s CTO, Eduardo Jezierski along with a consultant from the Argentina based Clarius Consulting company, named Daniel, visited DDD in search for potential candidates to subcontracted with. At that time InSTEDD had not planned to set up their own office in Cambodia. They just thought of working in Cambodia for a short while to support the Ministry of Health as part of Mekong Basin Disease Surveillance Network (MBDS) program.

Coming from a technology background and working with software companies, my experience had not included much social type of work. When I spoke with Eduardo and Daniel during my interview, they told me about GeoChat and how it offered geo-located SMS capabilities.  I was fascinated by this novel idea and really wanted to learn more about it.   InSTEDD brought forward a new way of using software for social good, which really excited me.  I wanted to open up a new chapter in my work career which included:  100% work for social benefit, working with a team from all around the world, develop new innovative technologies and platforms and interact directly with health official partners.

I remember at one point during my interview, Eduardo and Daniel both smiled and gave each other a high five.  I wasn’t sure if this was some sort of Argentinian greeting since I hadn’t seen this before! I officially started working with the InSTEDD iLab Southeast Asia as a Product Manager in 2008. I began working with the Cambodia CDC where I had an opportunity to learn about their work flow and identify possible ways to use technology to support their work. Another part of my work included training the Cambodia CDC’s  Rapid Response Teams on how to use SMS with GeoChat to improve team communications. To this day, the Cambodia CDC still uses GeoChat as a communication tool to reach out to all Rapid Response Team all over the country for alert about communicable disease.

My role at the iLab Southeast Asia has expanded as we now are working with more partners from many health sectors in the government, NGOs and social enterprises. In addition to working with our current partners, I also actively explore more opportunities to grow our network and projects in Cambodia and in the region.

The iLab SEA model continues to evolve over time as we keep learning better ways to assist our partners and become a regional resource for nourishing the ICT community. We are involved in many Information and Communication Technology (ICT) community activities in Cambodia such Hackerspace Phnom Penh, Startup Weekend, Annual Barcamp Phnom Penh KhmerTalk, TEDxPP, ShareVision and more. The innovation lab space itself is open to host community events such as Mini Barcamp, rehearsal of TEDxPP or Khmer Talk, Phython Dev Group, Android Study Group, training to university students by local and international volunteers.

The iLab Southeast Asia started with a team of 3 in 2008 and grew to be a team of 12 by 2012. All are Cambodian staff and 1 part time consultant. We also accepted 2 developers interns from the past 2 years.

One of the biggest challenges we face is around human resources, specifically in finding qualified software developers.  Each year there are many university graduates in this area, but very few are qualified for the type of work we do. In order for us to invest in the best people,  we take our time in searching for candidates that either qualify already or we believe to be fast learners. It’s also really important that anyone we bring into the iLab SEA shares the same values and spirit of our team.

Not very long ago, a student from the Institute Technology of Cambodia applied to the iLab SEA for his final year internship. After interviewing him we decided to hire him to be part of our developer team as we saw that his skill level was high, but even more importantly we saw his potential to grow and fit with our team. His name is Reaksmey Chea . In the early days of the iLab SEA, we invested a lot in capacity building of our developer team and we are ready to continue the cycle and have the previous generation of developers train the new generation. We believe we can do this for all future team members as well.

At iLab SEA, we design solutions from the bottom up.  This means we look at the issues from the end user’s perspective and develop low cost solutions that build on existing resources. While doing this type of work, we often come across the challenges that our grassroots users face, such as low levels of literacy and little to no exposure to basic technologies, such as SMS. Another constraint we often find is the availability of the devices such as cell phones that supporting local languages, such as Khmer, Lao and Thai.

One of the ways we overcome these barriers are by thinking creatively about how to build on existing resources and knowledge levels.  One example of a solution we developed to overcome theses issues was the creation of the Reporting Wheel and using pictures to facility end user’s understanding.  You can read more about this here:

From my perspective, the iLab SEA team feels a very strong connection with the larger InSTEDD vision of creating a world where communities everywhere design and use technology to continuously improve their health, safety and development.  The team at the iLab SEA takes this concept to heart and continually develops new activities on our own, specifically in the area of capacity building.  This means that the team at the iLab SEA goes beyond the project-based work we have by getting involved in different volunteer groups around the region. For example in 2009, the developers and myself brough together our friends from other companies and created a volunteer team called ShareVsionTeam. In addition, we run several developer groups such as the Android Study Group and the Ruby Group. Beyond the technologicial capacity building, we also invest in the health and well being of our community through other activities such as blood donations to the Kuntheak Bopha Children's hospital.  We are always looking to share our values and spirit with the larger community.  This makes me very proud of our team and it’s such an honor to work with them.

We’ve come a long way in the last 5 years by overcoming obstacles on a regular basis.  At this point, I believe that financial sustainability is the key to expanding the iLab SEA to the next level.  We have developed a rich and supportive culture by giving the team the freedom to work on their passion projects and contribute from their hearts. The iLab SEA has been contributing and growing the ICT community ecosystem in Cambodia and the region as a whole.  As we move forward, I hope to see iLab SEA as a regional incubator for social enterprise start ups. This also includes the possibility that some of the developers at the iLab SEA will also finish their degrees and launch start ups of their own.  I believe that developing a local culture of entrepreneurship is increasingly important for the regional long term sustainable development.

By: Channe Suy

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