Right now I’m on the ground in Thailand with Actuality Media, working with crews on short films. I’ve met a lot of locals from Southeast Asia so far – in schools, working with changemakers, and making a living on the streets – and it got me looking for more interesting changemakers in this part of the world.
That’s how I found this weeks changemaker – Digital Divide Data.
Digital Divide Data was started in 2001 by two American IT consultants. Jeremy Hockenstein, one of the founders, became the main force in starting the organization after meeting locals on a vacation to Cambodia.
“They believed the promise that globalization and technology would bring them better futures, but they were being left behind,” Hockenstein told Elyse Lightman and Rebecca Robinson at Dowser, “I went back home and told some old friends and former colleagues, and we all went to Cambodia for a month in February 2001 to ask Cambodians if there was something we could do. What did they need? The answer was always ‘jobs.’”
If Cambodia is anything like northern Thailand, I can tell you that English isn’t exactly widespread and isn’t close to perfect where it is spoken, but those that speak English best are often the more youthful natives who aren’t set in their ways, who are constantly exploring ways to improve their lives.
“We work in regions with young people who have untapped talent, ambition and drive but few attractive employment options. We connect disadvantaged youth to work by equipping them with the education and training they need to take on roles in the business process outsourcing industry” – Social Impact summary as reported by Digital Divide Data.
“We target very poor youth who can’t afford university because they need to support their families, or disabled youth who are neglected by society,” Hockenstein simplified for Dowser.
Digital Divide Data has now had offices in Cambodia and Laos for many years, currently employing some 750 locals – certainly a far cry from international out-sourcing like the India-based telephone operatorsthat serve many international corporations, both because of the more-rural location of Digital Divide Data offices and because of the work done.
Working in Cambodia and Laos, Digital Divide Data recruits eager high school students who are trapped by poverty, puts them through a several-month training program to teach them both English and computer skills, and then those recruits, now “operators,” work for Digital Divide Data for the next 3 to 4 years, before they officially “graduate” from the organization.
“Fewer than 10% of employees then continued with DDD in management roles; the rest moved on to other local firms, usually into higher-paying positions,” reports a 2009 study from MIT Sloan Management.
Those 10% are part of the local-staff that oversees day to day operations at all Digital Divide Data, and it’s certain that they are making a better living, just like those that move on to other organizations. This is a surety because even while locals are working as operators for Digital Divide Data they are making better wages, and working less hours, than locals working regular jobs.
“I feel very lucky to work here. I work less time and get better money,” Rotha Mach, a former jeans factory worker in Cambodia, told June Shih of the Christian Science Monitor.
While many international outsourcing jobs around the world are seen as damaging to the local economies that the workers are based in, it’s impossible to lump Digital Divide Data in with other organizations when they are teaching new skills to their employees, paying them better-than-average wages, and pushing them to move on to better jobs after several years.
The work itself is data entry, XML conversion and digital preservation services that are optioned to publishers, libraries, archives, governments, academic researchers and businesses like Reader’s Digest, though it all began with an initial contract to digitize the archives of the Harvard Crimson.
Part of what earned Digital Divide Data the spot as this weeks changemaker is the fact that what Digital Divide Data has done in southeast Asia is replicable elsewhere. Early last year the organization received a nearly-US $900,000 grant from The Rockefeller Foundation to open offices in Nairobi, Kenya.
While furthering international-outsourced IT work to developing countries might be easier done as a satellite of Digital Divide Data, the organization’s continuing success has proved that it’s an idea that can be replicated to the benefit of people around the world.