Let me start this blogpost with a confession: when i was first invited to be a trainer at the Tech Forum Central Asia in Almaty, I had to Google the place up.
I had never heard of it before and when I discovered that it was the old capital of Khazakstan, thought that I at least knew something of the country, but for all the wrong reasons, as it was confined only to Borat, him of the repulsive Slingshot costume.
The other facet of the trip was also as monumentally confounding to me – I was to join a group of technologists to help train the youth in Central Asia about social media and its uses. What did I – who grew up with a typewriter in my first job – know about technology to teach the digitally savvy youth of today?
But not being one to pass up a challenge and a hint of adventure (think Mongols, think Silk Road, think of vast plains and the Soviet system) I signed up and that was how I found myself in Almaty last Friday and Saturday (June 15 and 16).
The Tech Forum Central Asia was the first of its kind to gather youth form Central Asia to discuss how they can use social media to benefit their societies. It was organized by the Civil Alliance and sponsored by the US Embassy in Kazakhstan as well as several corporations such as Chevron.
It was apparently a feat to gather the participants from all the “-stan” counties – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgistan, Pakistan and, of course, Kazakhstan – because the governments in some of these countries are suspicious and fear the combination of youth and the internet. Although some delegates had a hard time of getting a passage out of the country they all managed to come to the forum.
The result is a very eclectic and spirited Tech Forum Central Asia where the curiousity and passion of Central Asian youth came into contact with the more exposed and savvy use of social media of the trainers who came from Britain, the US, Pakistan, India and Indonesia – represented by the very talented Hanny Kusumawati and myself.
The format of the forum was based in the Tech Camps run by the US State Department, where participants were first exposed to a speed geeking session – think speed dating but for geeks. Essentially, the trainers have five minutes to share a story or a case history, where social media has been used to great effect on behalf of an organization, to a small grpup pf participants. St the end pf 5minutes a whistle is blown and the trainers tell the story Again to them. They are allowed to ask questions.
I shared the story of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, a NGO that works to release captured Bornean orangutan into their natural habitats and how its foray into social media allowed it to be more searchable on the Net. It also allowed the BOS to become the primary source of information on the state of orangutan capture, treatment and release after a SCTV documentary put the topic on the national news agenda.
The participants were then given free reign to join groups for discussions ranging from crowdsourcing and crowdfunding to mapping, the use of video on the Net, gender issues and Net strategy. There were several discussions sessions, each one designed to sharpen their focus on their areas of concern, culminating in problem solving sessions.
Some of the problems they raised gave us a glimpse of issues important to the youth of Central Asia, namely women’s rights in male dominated societies, how to raise funds for causes, racism against Asiatic-looking central Asians in Russia and other Caucasian-dominated countries and how to help the disabled more.
What surprised Unspun was the extent of English being used in what was once a Russian-dominated region. What delighted Unspun was the warmth and curiousity of the delegates and the many volunteer helpers and translators that made the TFCA a success, at least as the begining of a discourse among the caring young Central Asians who want to do something for their societies and see the internet as a potential tool for making their missions easier and more effective.