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Prizes Help You Get Noticed (a response to Kevin Starr)

Kevin Starr is a good friend and someone I respect a great deal. He’s a surfer, doctor turned investor focused on impact over monetary returns. He’s got one of the best heads in the business, and I tend to agree with most of his assessments.

I don’t completely agree with his recent article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled, “Dump the Prizes: Contests, challenges, awards—they do more harm than good. Let’s get rid of them.”

Let me caveat this by saying that I do agree with most of what Kevin talks about with prizes:

  1. It wastes huge amounts of time.
  2. There is way too much emphasis on innovation and not nearly enough on implementation.
  3. It gets too much wrong and too little right.
  4. It serves as a distraction from the social sector’s big problem.

If you’ve read his article (please do), then you’ll notice that I agree with Kevin on every salient point he makes. Where we disagree is due to the blinders that come with Kevin’s position, an omission due to perspective, not intellect or experience.

Why then are prizes worth it?

Simply because prizes serve as a filtering mechanism for new, young and unknown startups to be found. A method for recognition when a voice is too small to be heard.

It’s hard for people with money to understand this. It’s hard for companies that have had some success to remember it.

When you’re brand new, have a prototype and just a small bit of penetration with your new idea or product, it is extremely hard to be taken seriously or to get noticed. Being at the award event gets you in front of people. Winning it helps validate the concept and people with money start taking you more seriously.

This outlook comes from my own experience. As Ushahidi, way back in the early days of 2008, we were part of the NetSquared Challenge, where David and I walked onto a stage and pitched Ushahidi for a whopping 2 minutes (crazy short!). A day later we walked out with $25,000 – which allowed the newly formed organization to become a reality. It tided us over until we received real funding from Humanity United 3 months later.

Ushahidi wins the NetSquared Challenge in 2008 for $25,000

Ushahidi wins the NetSquared Challenge in 2008 for $25,000

I’ll add two more points of my own – one of contention, one opinion:

Contention: I remember, when Ushahidi was just 8 months old, winning a prize. This was the last prize we ever applied to be a part of, as I realized that it was only $10,000 and that the cost of the award ceremony alone was more than all the prizes added together.

Opinion: When an organization gets the initial recognition and wins a prize or two, they should remove themselves from that world of smaller prizes. Applying (and even winning) a bunch of small awards takes time and energy, and it has decreasing value over time – both for recognition and for bottom-line value.

We WON!

Wow, we’re absolutely stunned, but we just won first place at the NetSquared Challenge! That means we have a check for $25,000 that we can spend on further development of the Ushahidi Engine (version 2).

Ushahidi Wins the NetSquared Challenge!
(Photo by Schipulites)

More important than the money for us though is the validation that we got from the community at large for our mission. It’s the Kenyan and African community that got us here, and the NetSquared community that voted for us to win. A special thank you to NetSquared for making this possible.

To everyone who has supported us, a BIG thank you.

We’re not done with you yet though. We hope that you will continue to be a part of the greater Ushahidi community. Helping us develop the platform further. Helping us spread the word. Most of all, helping us implement it in crisis situations.

Stay connected with us:

Ushahidi Facebook group
Ushahidi Twitter

Want to help? Here are a few of the items that we’re looking for help on:

  • Increase/ensure Geo-coding accuracy of incidents
  • Build a verification process that can be based on technical information gathered in the the reporting of the information (geo-location of incident submission) or it can be based on a verification process where a verifier confirms the details of the incident.
  • Heat mapping based on category type, location and number of incidents
  • Plugin and extension capabilities in the core architecture
  • SMS handling process (similar to FrontlineSMS or RapidSMS) including a call back/verification process
  • Customization for NGO’s to track incidents, and to report on assistance provided to alleviate a situation
  • Missing person’s index
  • Volunteer feature on the mashup showing locations for volunteers, and also links to online donation sites active in a specific location
  • ‘Lens View’ visualization of the data, for example a multimedia ‘lens’ to filter the content for the public or press.

[update: A couple people have asked for the presentation loop that we had running at our table. It is now up at Slideshare.net (I’ll try to get an audio dub over it soon).]

Thanks for Sending Ushahidi to NetSquared!

I need to write a big thank you post today. It was through you, the greater African community, that David and myself are heading to San Francisco today to present Ushahidi at the NetSquared Mashup Challenge that gives us a chance to win up to $20,000 for further development work. Your support helped us get the most votes going in, so now it’s up to us to win over the conference attendees (who are the final voters).

As I mentioned in my last blog post, we were sidetracked from our preparations a little bit this last week by an even more important event/crisis – the xenophobic attacks happening in South Africa. The Ushahidi engine is being used there now at UnitedforAfrica.co.za.

We’re also unveiling our new logo today, designed by David. Watch the flash presentation to see why we chose it.

New Ushahidi Logo

Ushahidi is now a registered non-profit in Florida, jumping all the hoops to become a 501c3, with Ory, myself, Juliana and David as part of the team. Get in touch if you’d like to be part of the growing Ushahidi community.

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