United for Iran and ASL19 are partnering on IranCubator, a project that is seeking to create a dozen or more social-good apps for Iranian citizens in the next 18 months. United for Iran is managing the contest and coordinating the teams, while ASL19 is supporting the creation of roughly half of the apps. Here is a conversation between Reza Ghazinouri (Program Director at United for Iran) and Ali Bangi on the collaboration.
How did this idea come about and why did you choose to collaborate on this project?
We always had this idea in mind, because of the growing number of smartphone users and the growing infrastructure of mobile apps. For many people, they are using smartphones as their first computer that they have ever had access to. This is an opportunity for the human rights and the civil society community to invest in.
We decided to create a platform to allow other activists, tech enthusiasts, developers, and other people who believe in the power of technology for social good, to pair up and work on their own ideas. In doing so, we hope that this will contribute to the formation of a civic tech sector for Iran. Building the capacity of Iran’s civil society, providing technical and financial support, building the social-good sector are critical. An organization can only build a few apps. An incubator can leverage its efforts and resources to empower dozens of others to join in.
Collaboration is also a part of our organizational culture. We wanted to work with the larger community and different groups. We wanted to work with ASL19, because there is a lot of trust and history between the two organizations . We have people who work in security, who have done consultations to incubators, journalists that are focused on what’s happening in the country, etc. However, we don’t have an in-house development team.
The partnership is great because instead of hiring in-house developers, it’s easier to hire a team of developers that already know how to work together. Developers also tend to like to work with others so that they can bounce ideas off each other. You also don’t need to spend the time recruiting, hiring, training, and then getting them to work on a project. The lifetime of these projects are not necessarily very long so it’s good to work with a team that already is used to making projects come to life within a short amount of time. Everyone can focus on the thing that they excel at and let others do the other parts of the job. If they are good at networks and research inside the country, then let them do that.
There are times when people say that Iranians have a hard time collaborating. We’re showing how by not competing, but rather by cooperating with each other, we’re actually gaining a competitive edge. We’re able to do more with this model of collaboration. It’s very expensive to hire a software developer in California – the US currency is stronger, developers charge more, and it’s not ideal to hire only one developer, because people want to work in a team (front-end, back-end, systems admin, etc.). We already have built a software and design team and are able to support projects like this. The quality of the projects go up, it reduces costs, and makes it more sustainable for the organizations trying to run projects like this, and ultimately, collaborating allows us to win together. We can both do what we are good at and it ends up being great for our community. This is the model that we would like to see continue.
Why is the project important? What do you hope to see change?
Even if you don’t have a full team, but a great idea you can still apply as the program is set up so that there is a team provided for you. I want people with good ideas to be able to benefit from this project. I want them to know that there are already resources like IranCubator, ASL19, or United for Iran that are available to them. I want to see our community open up more and appeal to young talent from all walks of life. We kept the guidelines very general – it can be about different causes (water, internet censorship, environment, etc.) – to appeal to a wider audience. There is already an infrastructure that provides you with a graphic designer, funding, etc. It’s not a daunting task. It’s a really good channel for newcomers in our community around Iran human rights.
I want to see more people joining the community without being scared around lack of resources. After the revolution, the government has prevented people with critical or like-minded minds from becoming mobilized. They have made efforts to prevent people from organizing independently, even when the cause is not necessarily related to politics and human rights. New technologies and projects, however, can provide platforms for people to organize. Independent and civil society organizations have a hard time dealing with current situations. The platform should change that in some way.
What is the most exciting part of the project? What were some of the challenges?
Seeing capable people with wonderful ideas coming to us and already having a lot of things in mind that could be effective in Iranian civil society. I’m so excited about the ideas that when I go home, I can’t get them off my mind. New developers working with new people. This is the most exciting part of it.
Conveying the idea of IranCubator has been a bit more challenging than we had expected. We keep getting questions that we felt we had answered in our communications. Also, some people think that you have to have a fully fleshed out idea, but for now, if you have an idea in your mind, you can just apply with more basic answers to the questions and later you will have an opportunity to give more details. It’s important that people know that.
The most exciting part is that people who don’t have a lot of resources, but great ideas, can feel that they have the ability to do something about the problems that they see.
A lot of people still think that in order to do a project you need to know people, have access to money or a big team. Actually these resources are available to you through IranCubator. This is a new idea and it’ll take awhile to sink in. It’s actually an incubator. All you need is an idea and commitment. Just come in and we’ll give you the rest. This is the first of its kind to the best of my knowledge so I think it will take awhile for people to see how it’s done.
The deadline to apply for IranCubator is June 14, 2016. Please apply here: https://united4iran.org/irancubator