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Fewer things are more emblematic of the future of work than robots. Sadly, they aren’t cleaning our homes Jetsons-style yet, but when we spoke to Trevor Blackwell, CEO of a company making adorable robot avatars for remote workers, he predicted a more immediate impact robots may have on how we live. They allow for “fractional people,” he said. “In our office we’d like to have about ¼ of a tech support guy,” and a remote controlled robot tech might fit the bill.
Robot avatars might be a ways away yet, but fractional employment — the idea of slicing professionals’ skills into smaller units and using technology to make a profit selling these bundles of hours or services — is increasingly becoming mainstream. Just look at the success of start-ups from TaskRabbit to Elance and oDesk.
This ability to purchase part of a professional’s time has obvious advantages for companies and individuals striving to be agile, but it is also impacting the ability of small organizations to afford expensive skills in small doses, including tiny operations in some of the world’s most remote regions.
Remote collaboration and “fractional” employees are part of the future of work not only in the corporate world, but also in the world of small NGOs (non-government organizations) in developing countries. How so? If you want to see these changes in action, you could do a lot worse than study the work of Minnesota-based Jay Haase and Wire Car.
Meals for Access
A former IT guy in the States with previous job titles like software engineer and large-scale database front-end developer, Haase decided to put his career on hold to give back as a Peace Corps member in Namibia. While he was serving there, a woman he met who worked with vulnerable children and orphans learned about Haase’s tech prowess and used her cooking skills to bribe him into developing a simple database for her to use to track her work.
“It’s hard to build a database. I didn’t really want to do it,” Haase admits, but his friend was persuasive. “She would make these deals: ‘You can come and stay at my house for the weekend. I’ll cook for you all weekend and you can just sit and program.’”
The end result was a simple, flexible database that allowed small organizations helping people in need to report the impact of their work to the donors who hold the purse strings, winning them more money to assist more people. Haase kept improving the database and started giving it away to other small organizations helping vulnerable people across Africa (and even one in New Orleans).
That was good for him – he ended up getting hired to build a national database of vulnerable children by a large organization in Namibia based on his work – but he found that many of the organizations he gave the database to still struggled to make the most of it.
“Even for an Access database, things go wrong. The machine gets a virus. Stuff happens,” Haase explains, citing a snafu with a memory stick at one NGO that erased months of work. “You still need IT support and the problem was I couldn’t really support them. They’d be calling me from Zambia and there was nothing I could really do.” The solution to this issue came, ironically, not when Haase moved closer to his client organizations, but when he returned to Minnesota.
Further away but closer than ever through the cloud
Back in his chilly home state earlier this year, Haase had an inspiration. By putting all the data in the cloud, he could support organizations in far-away Africa better than if he were there himself. Basing his services in the cloud means he can offer remote assistance, advice on more sophisticated queries and daily back-ups.
Haase says helping an increasing number of organizations is simplified by having everything online and amounts to a tiny monthly payment to the site’s host and the occasional trouble-shooting email or Skype chat with organizations. This enables him to offer the service at low or no cost depending on the size of the NGO and use the project as a calling card to help him win larger, more lucrative projects.
“That’s what the social entrepreneurship is,” he says. “A lot of organizations do that. They do one thing that can make money so that they can use that money to do some other good thing.”
Not all the small organizations that have the original database can afford an Internet connection to access the new cloud version – in fact, only about half can – but that percentage is still leaps and bounds ahead of what it would have been only a few years before. “In Namibia it’s just being possible now,” Haase says. “3G is really prevalent. You can get Internet almost anywhere in Namibia, relatively fast Internet, but that’s only happened in the last year or so. I think it’s probably similar for other countries like Kenya or Ethiopia.”
The ripple effects of tech
People in Namibia “go gaga” for Internet according to Haase, flocking in such numbers to get online when free internet was offered from one to five in the morning that connections became unusable in the early hours.
That’s good for a newly Facebook-mad populace, but also good for small NGOs. Previously, they faced a simple conundrum, summed up neatly by Haase: “Organizations are trying to help a lot of people. They get money to help those people, and they have to do reports on what they did with that money. The reports are getting more and more complicated every year, so you really need a database. And in a developing country where there are not many IT people, how do you get a database?”
The answer is the same combination that’s changing work in the developed world: new ideas that allow workers like Haase to slice and sell their services differently, cheap cloud computing and increased connectivity.