Can anything be done?

Earthquake response in Nepal

Earthquake response in Nepal

When we think about problems such as intolerance, economic justice, or climate change, should we focus on the local or the global? the short-term or the long-term? the social or the technical? Questions such as these recur in ways that often lead to discouragement, including the feeling that nothing can be done on any problem at any level.

Naomi Klein discussed this in last June’s College of the Atlantic commencement address, Climate Change Is a Crisis We Can Only Solve Together. She writes, “the very idea that we—as atomized individuals, even lots of atomized individuals—could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system, or changing the global economy, is objectively nuts.” There must be “a large, organized, and focused movement.” And yet, she goes on to say, local activism is critical: It’s winning big fights, showing us what the future looks and feels like, and inspiring bigger examples. In short, we need both.

What Klein says makes a lot of sense. But it’s often hard to find examples that bridge between the local and the global, the immediate need and the needed long-term change, or between social and organizational work and technological fixes.

Open air mapping, when buildings were unsafe

Open air mapping, when buildings were unsafe

Yesterday at MIT, Nama Budhathoki gave an inspiring talk on the work of Kathmandu Living Labs. It was titled: Nepal’s Digital Innovation for Social Good: Looking Back to the April Earthquake. His project offers such an example.

KLL uses online mapping to address a wide variety of social challenges. This can be seen most dramatically in the timeline of KLL’s response to the April 25 earthquake in Nepal. For an excellent summary of their work, see Naomi Bloch’s article GIS & the Global Community: Humanitarian Mapping.

Through KLL, a farmer in a remote Nepalese village can integrate his local knowledge of a field or stream with that of an engineer at MIT. People in Nepal, despite their own challenges, can become among the largest contributors to relief efforts following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Detailed information about a school can be used to influence government policies and actions. This connecting across levels or communities is something many people talk about but few have shown how to achieve.

There are many reasons for KLL’s success, including the dedication of Nama and his team. But what also seems clear is that KLL offers remarkable models for how people can work together to achieve common good.

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