by Suhair Khan
Esra’a Al Shafei is a blogger, civil rights activist, Senior TED fellow, tech entrepreneur, and is just 26 years old. Based in Bahrain, she runs an organization that spans countries and in every sense of the word, navigates and redefines boundaries.
Soft spoken and slight, she speaks quickly and earnestly. Esra’a works as founder/Executive Director of MideastYouth, an organization which contains in its diverse basket everything from the activism to impact. The company has even utilized Crowdvoice.org to create a platform of Mideast Tunes - it is no wonder “Fast Company”, one of the worlds leading progressive business media brands, named her one of the world’s “Top 100 Most Creative People.”
Overcoming the challenges of distance, resources and more, Esra’a’s platforms are now grantees of the most prestigious organizations - Omidyar Network and Echoing Green among them. And like any start-up, they continue to explore means of scaling and becoming self-sustaining while continuing to allow openness and information sharing for young artists and activists alike. Here is an upclose look at Esra’a and how she continues to strive for excellence through innovation and thought leadership:
On the beginnings of Mideast Youth...
I started Mideast Youth in 2006 when I really wanted to have a common place for controversial discussions with a diverse audience and membership, specifically focusing on ethnic and religious minorities that were historically discriminated against in our societies. I grew up in Bahrain, so I also wanted to create a place where we can talk more openly about underrepresented issues such as migrant rights violations which are unfortunately prevalent in the Gulf.
In 2007 we realized that we had created a decent enough following for each of these issues that we created other campaign sites, such as MigrantRights.org. News and activism crowdsourcing hub Crowdvoice.org and brilliant music aggregator Mideastunes.com quickly followed.
Most recently, we have launched the Making of a Century iPad app, with the goal of crowdsourcing the last 100 years of history!
On Mideast Tunes and Esra’a favorite songs...
Mideast Tunes is a multifaceted platform for underground artists in the Middle East and North Africa who use music as a tool for social change. It’s mission is to bridge barriers of faith and geography to unite young people committed to fostering constructive discourse in the Middle East through their music. With 630 bands and still growing, the site has expanded really quickly to serve as a primary resource for discovering up and coming Middle Eastern talents across a range of genres in many languages - rock, folk, electronic, rap - it has it all!
Naming my favourites is tough, I leave Mideast Tunes open in the background at all times and I discover a new favorite band each day. I would say that the most repeated tracks on my playlists come from the following artists, which I guess make them my favorites:
Palestinian electro-band Checkpoint-303
Iranian rock group 123
Jordanian folk band Jadal
Egyptian indie-pop sensation Maii Waleed
On CrowdVoice.org and the future of crowdsourcing...
CrowdVoice.org is an open source platform that tracks voices of protest from around the world by curating information and crowdsourcing valuable data, such as eye witness videos, images, blogs, and a wide range of news reports in order to facilitate the spread of knowledge on current social justice movements worldwide.
The idea came from us needing a platform to organize information about the specific campaigns that we were running and not being able to organize the content in a meaningful way while allowing others to also moderate, add to and help distribute the information that we were gathering.
I really think crowdsourcing content, curation and moderation has incredible power and that we've only seen the beginnings of it online; the model has really worked out for us at CrowdVoice.org.
I think people tend to trust the service more if you leave the most important parts of it in their own hands - it's important to give as much control to the users as possible, especially with the kinds of topics that we deal with. We relied almost completely on the users to submit and moderate material which was risky at the beginning, but I think the users appreciated that and kept coming back.
We're working now on a new layer of CrowdVoice pages that will provide a visual graphic of each issue, sort of like an interactive infographic where you can explore statistics and still be able to see how it's backed by the wide pool of sources that we are already curating for many issues on the site.
On using open source technology with Crowdvoice.org and managing a remote team of engineers...
Right now just CrowdVoice is open source though we're working on opening up the others, when we feel it's more or less ready. We're still doing a lot of work on all of them. With the exception of blogs, which all run on WordPress, all our applications are run on the Ruby on Rails framework.
Since the beginning our team has always been spread out and working remotely. We have some developers spread out and some in the same place working as a team, it depends on the project. It's been very manageable for us, even preferable. It’s less distracting, and affords us the ability to work from anywhere, or in our own chosen spaces.
Being a woman in Tech...
For me I never really looked at my gender as either an advantage or a hindrance. I think most people look at web products and judge them by their looks and functionality, and rarely by the genders of the people behind it.
Having said that, our team consists primarily of women, but it happened naturally as opposed to us singling women out. Whenever we worked with anyone as a team we always looked at the energy and expertise of the individual and not so much by whether or not they would fit in because of their genders.
I would say Matt Mullenweg, the developer of WordPress, is the person I look up to most in this field. I really appreciate his philosophy and commitment to open source. I learned a lot from him and his ideas.
When we began development on our three core applications: CrowdVoice, Mideast Tunes, and Ahwaa, we began to face many new and unexpected obstacles with censorship, hack attempts, and more difficulty finding financial backers.
As we have grown, as with any non-profit startup, getting enough funding to expand, build out our technologies, hire talented people, and move forward has always been a challenge. We want to core services completely free and open source while at the same time monetizing these platforms to achieve financial sustainability.
Her plans for the future...
Our plans always depend on how well or how not well we are doing with any of our projects. At the moment our main focus is on CrowdVoice and making the platform more organized, more visually striking, and easily accessible for all users in multiple formats. Beyond that, our options are open!
For more on the organizations discussed in this article:
CrowdVoice – On Twitter @CrowdVoice
MideastTunes – On Twitter @Mideastunes
MideastYouth – On Twitter @Mideastyouth
Ahwaa - On Twitter @AhwaaOrg