The tech world in Russia can be more cynically viewed as predominantly commercial and filled with clones of services and products that never made it through the language barrier. But there are some fresh organisations working on changing this for the better and they’re not all making this happen within the Russian border.
Alexey Sidorenko is the head of Teplitsa Social Technologies, an organisation that works on civic change. Roughly translated the name means “Greenhouses of social technologies” and it works on the development of civic culture online applications by pairing activists with IT specialists.
It’s a loose connection that hopes to inspire new ideas. As quoted on the site, “We believe that both techies and social activists can help each other, we just do not know how. Our aim – to introduce them.”
The organisation’s site carries a database of applications and projects that people can choose to follow or join as well as providing a way for technologists to spot things they might like to work on.
Sidorenko feels that although there is a high level of Internet penetration in Russia and plenty of programmers, there are a lot of initiatives that do not realise their potential through technology.
“According to our research, aside from the open-source technologies, the civic applications are not so popular,” he says. “IT specialists may be interested in civic technologies but they have no idea what the NGOs and grass-roots movements are doing. We want to bring them together.”
It’s already common knowledge that Russia is not at a loss for technologists and engineers, but they are also in demand in other parts of the world. Sidorenko observes, “We have a brain drain. It’s hard to find a city in Russia now where people from Silicon Valley have not come to find programmers.”
But this is not entirely a loss for Russian society, while programmers work abroad, they are still able to organise decentralised networks to create sites and applications that are useful back home.
Grakon.org was created by Mikhail Panko who moved to work on the East Coast of the US. It’s a social network for civil society activists. “The good thing about civil technologies is that they can be developed by a distributed team,” notes Sidorenko. “There can be almost no contact with the territory they are working on.”
Sidorenko notes that there is a handful of civic applications in Russia and he hopes that the movement is growing. A site of note is Rosyama, which started as a sort of Fix My Street service where users could take photos of potholes and ensure that they are noted.
Rosyama took this further by finding out that potholes of a certain depth have to be fixed by local authorities. The site now carries a PDF form that users can easily fill in and put in the post. To date, 5634 defects have been mended.
“It’s the connection between the offline and online worlds that is important,” says Sidorenko. “It’s not just naming and shaming if there is something wrong, but an interaction between activists and technologies that can get things fixed.”
Hopefully Teplitsa Social Technologies will be able to bridge the gap and increase its database of civil activists and technologists. With the programming power available in Russia today, it’s likely that the West will be looking copy home-grown solutions that come out of these partnerships.
Image Credit: Thomas Depenbusch