Local Social Learning: A Resource Database and Delivery Network for Arab Digital Literacy

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Local Social Learning: A Resource Database and Delivery Network for Arab Digital Literacy

Organization type: 
for profit
Project Stage:
$100,000 - $250,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

We make citizen media training in the Arab world social and scalable while keeping it local and sustainable.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Developing training materials in Arabic for Arab audiences consumes enormous amounts of time and money, owing to the need for localization and translation as well as to technical issues encountered when formatting documents and Web pages. Once the materials are complete, even if they're posted online, they can end up languishing unused because there aren't clear paths established for others to find, retrieve, and adapt them. What's more, a lack of coordination between the organizations hosting citizen media trainings can result in duplication of efforts that not only wastes valuable aid dollars but also has a high opportunity cost, since that time could be spent localizing materials or creating ones that don't already exist. We expect this situation to persist post-revolutions, especially as international NGOs emphasize training citizens and journalists in the strategic use of digital media for self-expression, reporting, and good governance. At the same time, donors want scalable solutions. In training, this is often conceived as a TOT tree. We think we have a better idea, one that keeps learning social and local: scale through the sharing of open-license Arabic training content.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

We will gather and categorize open-licensed, Arabic-language digital and social media training materials and make them findable and retrievable via a distributed database in a variety of formats for a variety of devices. We would continue to develop and catalogue our own resources and work with other individuals, trainers, technologists, and media development organizations to catalogue and repurpose theirs. SMEXbeirut would then develop licensing partnerships with both established and new local independent Arab media organizations across the region and license access to the database, much like a university library buys access to J-Stor, from their web presence. We would also help the media outlet market the database access and provide citizen media training of trainers, if requested. Finally, the database would have social features for trainers and trainees to rate and comment on the materials as well as perhaps to design and submit agendas or materials of their own. Our idea is innovative in four ways: 1. It brings together Arabic-language training and instructional materials 2. It delivers them through local media partners, thereby enhancing the presence of that outlet and their commitment to community media and citizen participation 3. It generates income from open-licensed materials by licensing the database access to the outlets, not the materials themselves, and 4. It generates more Arabic content, through comments and because the content will be easily adaptable and localized and can be re-shared back to the database, perhaps for some benefit or credit
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Take Libya, for example, "an almost virgin territory for media," according to Jamal Dajani, vice president for Middle East and North Africa for Internews. Since the conflict began, more than 120 new publications, 5 new radio stations, 3-5 new TV stations have been established. Many will disappear after Ghaddafi goes, but many will become a part of the new media landscape. New outlets in many cities will need quick access to multimedia and social media reporters to survive. Emerging reporters will need multimedia and social media training. Both they and their trainers can access the database to find relevant, contextual materials to learn the skills they need. In addition, Libyan local media outlets who license the use of the database will establish themselves de facto as supporters of community media. They will have the trust of their local networks. They may even eventually develop the kind of community media training programs that we see with public-access television. Having the database will raise their profile and draw traffic to their websites, which in turn will spur more digital literacy, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem. Over the past three years, we've been asked many times, Why don't you set up SMEXTunis or SMEXAmman, or even SMEXBaghdad. We were, of course, flattered, but had neither the resources nor the inclination to franchise like that. Partnering with local media and technology organizations, such as Aikilab in Damascus, for example, in a way that sustains both SMEX and the local partner is much more in line with our abilities and our ethos.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

At the moment, we don't consider ourselves in competition with any other organization or company, although there are overlaps with other organizations in terms of producing materials in Arabic and conducting Arabic-language training. That said, we have learned that we do need to coordinate closely to avoid duplication of efforts. We already cooperate with many media development and tech-for-change organizations, by translating and sharing materials (directly and through open licensing as evident at smex.org/translation), which is why we believe that we have the relationships and the knowledge of the field needed to create and sustain the database. Some organizations may view the aggregation of their materials as a threat, especially more traditional international NGOs, who consider the development of trainings materials as work-for-hire and aren't as accustomed to open licensing. We have confronted this in our own contracts and have so far succeeded in convincing all partners and clients of the value of open licensing.
About You
About You
First Name

Jessica Dheere &

Last Name

Mohamad Najem

About Your Organization
Organization Name


Organization Country
Country where this project is creating social impact
How long has your organization been operating?

1‐5 years

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Select the stage that best applies to your solution

Growth (your pilot is up and running, and starting to expand)

How long have you been in operation?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Social Impact
FOUNDING STORY: We want to hear about your “Aha!” moment. Share the story of where and when the founder(s) saw this solution’s potential to change the world.

Google tells us that Arabic content comprises less than 1 percent of Web content. This means we have to create a lot of our own content, especially since Western social media content often addresses issues that, frankly, we don't face, like online fundraising.

So for three years, we've been trying to get a handle on our own original and Arabic materials production. Lots of research, assimilation, writing, and translation, that is if the Arabic terms exist. The content creation process moves so much more slowly than social media changes. But we keep trying and they keep getting downloaded, like during our Ramadan blog series. This year we hired our first dedicated translator, so we were able to produce an Arabic version of our MADskills TOT course almost exactly in parallel with the English. We're very proud, but the pace was affecting our ability to do anything else.

At the same time, we promised to make all our materials available to our trainers but I didn't think about how to do that, until we created a new contact database with Bento, and I realized we could use the software to create a materials database, too. So, we thought, why not create it once, for everyone?

Specify both the depth and scale of your solution’s social impact to date

In three years, we've given more than a 100 trainings in seven countries to more than 1,000 individuals, in offline and online environments. And many of them have given trainings too. We've also translated and distributed several guides, from Digiactive, Tactical Technology Collective, and Movements.org, all of which have distributions in the thousands.

Still, it can be difficult to quantify our impact, because individual lives don't move at the pace of project evaluations. We keep in touch with many of our alumni, and we see our presence as local campaigns become more digital. Our efforts return to us tenfold in the opportunities we're presented with, such as hosting Arab Techies women's gathering in 2010.

But it's the individual stories that we remember. Like a well-known young activist from Iraq, who had his first blogging experience with us in 2008. Or the journalist who wrote for a women's mag while developing his social media presence during our TOT and then was hired by Al Jazeera to work in the new media department.

In our current MADskills training, we admitted 40 instead of 20, thinking we'd have a 50% attrition rate. Halfway through, we're at 37.

What is your projected impact within the next 1-5 years? Is your idea replicable? If so, how?

With strong design and equitable partnerships, we believe that our project will grow very fast in terms of number of resources, users, and partners. Our hope is to become a significant source for Arabic content that spurs the creation of more Arabic content.

The model would be replicable, if localized, for other regions and in other languages, especially non-major languages. We believe that what will make it particularly appealing to other communities is that it build on existing resources and provides an incentive for enhancing in-region and in-country relationships. In short, we're not asking people to visit our database, we're bringing the database--or at least the interface to the database--to them.

Winning entries present a strong plan for how they will achieve and mark growth. Identify your six-month milestone for growing your impact

Have a coherent database structure and beta version partnerships with materials producers & media outlets in development

Six-Month Tasks
Task 1

Organize, categorize all existing training materials and guides

Task 2

Research and establish formal relationships with materials-producing individuals and partner media outlets

Task 3

Work with an engineer to specify the database solution and the various features and connections to it

Now think bigger! Identify your 12-month impact milestone

Testing of the beta version of the database is under way with three media outlets

12-Month Tasks
Task 1

Identify and reach out to potential local media partners in various Arab countries, develop licensing agreement

Task 2

Database development and testing

Task 3

Develop and implement a marketing plan

How many people have been impacted by your project?

1,001 - 10,000

How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

More than 10,000

Explain how your company, program, service or product is structured

Hybrid model

What barriers have hindered the success of your project to date? How do you plan to overcome these and other challenges as you grow your solution?

The never-ending hurry-up and wait grants process and the difficult process of finding core funding keeps us off-balance in terms of hiring and growth and our development as a forward-looking organization. We think that moving to a social entrepreneurship model may help with that, but we're also aware that we need to capitalize our enterprise and develop a strong business plan, including several types of revenue streams, since we want to maintain our commitment to open-licensing and open-source culture. We we're working on the plan now.

How do you see the information-technology and media sectors shifting over the next decade? How will your solution adapt to and/or drive that changing environment?

In particular, we think that a lot of the active training we do will become active learning and be delivered more frequently in online and mobile environments. We embrace that change and view the database and other plans as already preparing ourselves to deliver innovative services in this sector. In addition, we think that a whole new group of information-savvy learners, users, and viewers will enter the Arab market, while others will mature, and the Arab knowledge culture will look much different and be even more empowered than it is today.

Failure is not always an option. If your solution fails to gain traction in the next two years, what other applications of the idea could you explore?

We will explore new distribution models and, by closely watching the translation field, we may end up with much more elegant solutions than we're proposing now. We will also be immersing ourselves in mobile learning and all the options and applications that promises for delivering just enough training, just in time, for just the right person.

Expand on your selections, explaining how you will sustain funding

We have both a registered NGO and a private company. We are exploring ways of structuring both into a hybrid organization, where a percentage of profits help support the NGO, which will continue to apply for grants. This is roughly how we've been operating, by applying for grants as well as providing services for a fee, depending on the type of agreement.

For the company in particular, we're exploring a variety of potential revenue streams based on developing new content and adapting existing content to a variety of digital formats, as well as continuing to provide custom-designed online and offline trainings.

Tell us about your partnerships

We've partnered with, formally and informally, and provided services for local and international NGOs and groups, including:
American Islamic Congress
Arab Techies
ABA-Rule of Law Initiative
Catholic Relief Services
Creative Commons
Development of People and Nature Association
Iraqi Streets
Nahwa Al Mouwatiniya
Tactical Technology Collective
Women in Technology, Lebanon

What type of team (staff, volunteers, etc.) will ensure that you achieve the growth milestones identified in the Social Impact section?

We currently operate with a staff of six full-time employees and three project consultants. Full-timers include myself and my husband Mohamad Najem, trainer and operations officer; two project managers; a full-time translator; and a project assistant. Consultants include training mentors and a web developer. We have addressed major issues this year with hiring, with regard to professionalism and bilingualism. But we lack a bona fide techie for web development and engineering, someone who can help design the solutions to the problems they're solving.

Changemakers is a collaborative and supportive space. Please specify any community resources you would need to grow and sustain your initiative. Select all that apply

Investment, Human resources or talent, Pro-bono help (legal, financial, etc.), Mentorship.

Specify any resources you might offer to support other initiatives. Select all that apply

Marketing or media, Research or information, Collaboration or networking, Innovation or ideas, Mentorship.

Please elaborate on any needs or offers you have mentioned above and/or suggest categories of support that aren’t specified within the list

We also need help with reviewing contracts with clients and grantors as well as developing staff contracts. We would very much like to be connected to mentorship opportunities, as it's often difficult to find peers to talk through challenges with--everyone is so busy. As far as what we can provide, anything related to communications and strategy and the ideas that they can generate. We can also provide mentorship to a younger leader.

Define your company, program, service or product in 1-2 short sentences

We build digital literacy for effective civic participation in Arab society.