23 September 2012

Day One at SGS: A Missed Opportunity and Some Hope

Yesterday marked the first day of the 2012 edition of the Social Good Summit. With the Jewish holidays later this week, the events shifted to the weekend before the start of the UN General Assembly. A packed schedule featuring Helen Clark of UNDP, Jill Sheffield of Women Deliver and Valerie Amos held promise for great conversation.

Last year, the SGS was marked by celebrity appearances to serve as more of a pep rally for using social media for social good. It was a dramatic shift from the first iteration that was smaller, more interactive and filled with far more substance.

Lessons learned have led to a few new changes. The schedule is much tighter with shorter time for each panel member. In fact, timings for panels are not being released until the day of rather than advance. The proceedings are live-streamed, as was the case in the past, but there are translators in the back who are trying to take it global. Further, the organizers facilitated meet ups and satellite events in places like Nairobi to make it a truly global event that is even reflected in the event hash tag #sgsglobal.

A tighter set-up makes for what is a quick pace, but little opportunity to get into any depth. The opening discussion with Helen Clark brought little in actual information. Jill Sheffield felt like she was reading from a script and there was an awkward moment when the London Family Planning Summit was brought into the conversation as a way to show how women's rights can be supported through social media. Valerie Amos was the last event and the focus ended up on I Was Here campaign which was really an excuse to show Beyonce singing.

A panel that discussed e-diplomacy carried a lot of promise, but had little time to really engage in a conversation. The first question should have been a reflection on the way that the US Embassay in Cairo used Twitter to respond to protests earlier in the month and engage with the feed of the Muslim Brotherhood. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Digital Strategy, U. S. State Department, Victoria Esser, was lobbed a question that hinted at the problem but allowed for her to focus on the inability of State to control every office and feed.

The conversation did touch on the way that social media can be a way to interact with constituents. The current and former ambassadors shared their ideas and styles for using social media, but the conversation did not look into ways that they filter feedbacks and provide selective responses to interactions. Though social media does allow for more access in theory, it is also a way to continue communications as have always existed via a new platform. Straying away from controversial discussion, which is absolutely understandable, means that the only change is the tool.

Surprise guest Peter Gabriel (whom I am surprised to learn that few people actually knew) was one of the only people to touch on the potential problems of social media. While cheers for what social media can do for the world, he was careful to mention that it can be used to shut out conversation. One criticism that is important about social media, especially in the international development space, is that it is still an exclusive space for Westerners to talk about the poor people in the global South.

However, all should not be considered a loss at the event. U.S. Chief Technology Officer, Todd Park delivered a 20 minute talk on open government that was full of enthusiasm for what seemingly is a boring topic. The entrepreneur started his remarks by saying that his most entrepreneurial work has taken place over the past three years with the US government.

He brilliantly illustrated the challenges of big data remarking that you can't pour data onto a broken bone, but said that it can be channeled by providing platforms for people to access data and information. The talk led to what was certainly the line of the day as Teddy Ruge, during the panel on the African Diaspora, remarked that, "the US government has a hard-on for data."

Day two kicks off today with a full schedule running from 1PM to 9PM. The listed speakers and events are again interesting, but the schedule is packed. Hopefully conversations with Susan Rice, Mohammad Yunus and Jeff Sachs will deliver.