Matt Halprin and Stephen King on using technology to catalyze large-scale social change

Matt Halprin is a Partner leading Omidyar Network's Media and Stephen King is the Director of Investments and is based in London. They introduced us to the work of Omidyar Network which invests in market-based efforts to give people the technology tools they need to improve their lives.

The network was set up in 2004 by Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, and his wife Pam.  It comprises both a venture capital fund and a grant-making foundation.  The network has a strong focus on individual empowerment and is committed to market-based solutions, believing that business is one of the best mechanisms for achieving sustainable social impact. Omidyar looks to invest in projects that have potential to impact large numbers of people and that show signs of real innovation - for example, new business models or new markets.

So far $307 million has been committed, with $138 million going to for-profit investments and $169 million to non-profit grants. There are two broad areas of focus:

  • Access to capital: This encompasses projects around microfinance, entrepreneurship and property rights.
  • Media, markets and transparence: This encompasses projects around social media, marketplaces and government transparency. Omidyar are particularly interested in the role of journalism in ensuring accountability of governments.

Projects in the Unities States include:

  • The Sunlight Foundation - works to make information about Congress and Federal government more accessible and meaningful to citizens; created the first searchable site for all federal government contracts to monitor where money is going.
  • Global Integrity - uses quantitative and qualitative analysis to provide a scorecard tracking governance and corruption in different countries.

In the developing world, Omidyar looks to supports access to greater information and government transparency, which it views as key drivers of prosperity. The network is supporting global organizations, national partners in three African countries (Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya) and is establishing a pan-African mechanism for smaller grants. Current global projects include:

  • Ushahidi - an open source platform to report and share data in the aftermath of a crisis. Omidyar will be working to help Ushahidi to build traffic to the site and to tackle the challenge of verifying reports.
  • Infonet - a web portal that acts as an information hub for all national and devolved budgets in Kenya; currently used by NGOs, citizen groups and the media.
  • Mzalendo - a one stop shop for citizens to track the activities of parliamentarians in Kenya.
  • FrontlineSMS - a two way communication tool using laptops and mobile phones for organizations without internet access.