Call centre jobs, climate change, murders and tiefing – are among Jamaica’s most pressing existential questions, jokes David Soutar of SlashRoots, the Kingston-based social impact organisation that uses technology to tackle some of those issues here and abroad.
Starting out as a still-online Caribbean developers’ community in 2010, SlashRoots’ vision is realised through what most people have in their hands: a mobile phone; and in the other hand, or not as the case may be; decent access to government services. The intersection between governance and tech is where SlashRoots has built a reputation with clients from multi-laterals like the World Bank and to design agencies like Reboot in NYC.
For when you see goats riding on the backseat
The question for every project they choose is simple: is this going to benefit the everyday citizen? My favorite is their app for the Ministry of Agriculture to help prevent predial larceny (agricultural theft). Finally, ready to be launched and available for police to use in the field, the app allows officers to verify the validity of produce and animal purchases against the Ministry’s database.
“While the new Praedial Larceny Prevention Unit continues to increase the number of persons that have been caught; an ongoing challenge has been the tools available to officers doing searches and trying to determine whether someone is legit or not,” explains Matthew McNaughton, SlashRoots Principal and Co-founder. “So now they have this on their phone and can look up information that up until this point they would have required a phone call to a farmer or police control to check.”
Reminder: 18% Jamaicans work in farming
There’s an app for that, someone famous once said. But often it’s the most unglamorous or overlooked uses that are the most essential, like protecting farming, which just so happens to be livelihood of 18 per cent of Jamaicans. In this case it means police don’t have to call a farmer at 3am in the morning when a bunch of stolen goats are found riding on a thief’s backseat, which does happen. But in future the farmer’s details and matching receipts will be a thumb of a cop away.
Surrounded by a rising sea level and residing in the naturally disaster-prone Caribbean region, climate change is also a big problem for Jamaican people, and goats. We want to do our best as country to measure emissions, but currently the required data, too often, is domiciled in the form of excel files and paper reports spread across multiple organisations and individuals, or doesn’t exist at all. This doesn’t lend itself to the most efficient way to keep track of data (their words not mine!).
One app to bind them all: lots of paper, spreadsheets and stuff
“So we’re currently working with the Climate Change Division, within the Ministry of Growth and Economic Development to create a platform where everyone can go online and share information and support Jamaica in fulfilling its obligations under the Paris Agreement. But the challenge is that it can’t be a one-size that fits all because different entities produce data differently and how you measure those gases varies across sectors; for example, if you go to the Cement Company versus the Forestry Department, you’re getting a very different kind of approach to measurement” says David.
In Haiti with the Latin America and the Caribbean Internet Community (LACNIC) they’re working on a project to increase the employment opportunities for young Haitian women via the Internet. SlashRoot’s role is to develop a training programme that will help upskill them with digital skills and match them with online employment opportunities. Though as one concern raised at a workshop showed, they and the other partners are working hard to create meaningful jobs and not just “modern freezones that replace the sewing machine with a keyboard”.
Working in Moldova, Armenia and back to Jamaica
Onto the Eastern European countries of Moldova and Armenia, where SlashRoots was brought onto a project for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) by Reboot to help integrate user-centred design and data innovation in development projects. In Moldova they are supporting a UNDP innovation unit and the Chamber of Social Insurance create a feedback programme and supporting technology to allow citizens to provide feedback on government services with a focus on ensuring that different groups, such as pensioners, aren’t being excluded. While in Armenia they’ll be helping improve public access to Judicial records and court proceedings – people want to search for murder there too.
Back home SlashRoots is working on another agricultural project to make it easier for farmers and buyers to find one another; and hopefully for farmers to get a decent price. Growth aside, SlashRoots remains committed to the Caribbean, including hosting their annual open data and ICT for development conference, DevCa. Besides, as David shrugs, “I only have a passport to one place, so better make it work.”