Muscat: Oman will host a Facebook Global Digital Initiative on January 18, 2017.
Three universities from the Near East South Asia region will be taking part in this competition, which looks at innovations created by college students to combat prejudice and extremism at local level.
Run in collaboration with the US Government’s Department of Defence, Department of Homeland Security and State Department, the programme is the brainchild of Tony Sgro, the CEO of EdVenture Partners, a California-based company that seeks to spread awareness and education about cultures across the world in an attempt to foster better understanding among people.
“I began this company 27 years ago, and we used to do a lot of work with companies like Shell, AT&T and Honda, as well as collect useful information about assimilating different cultures for the US Military and Intelligence forces and the National Security Council,” recalled Sgro, speaking exclusively to the Times of Oman.
“In 2014, I received a call from the White House and they told me ‘this is great, we want to be part of this because we love the fact that young people are part of the solution.’
“After picking myself up off the floor, I began a pilot programme with 23 universities in Spring 2015,” he said.“We find professors of digital media, or social media or journalism or advertising, who teach classes of students numbering between 10 and 30. They then become their very own social media agency and we provide them with $2,000 and Facebook ad credits worth $400 to create their own programme to fight extremism at a local level.
“We leave it all to them, from the target audience, which could be the silent majority, to civic minded people, to how they want to send their message across,” he added. “The government isn’t always the most credible source of information and the feedback we’ve had has been great because these are some pretty interesting campaigns and we love it because these have picked up off the ground.
“We love the fact that young people are now becoming part of the solution,” said Sgro. “The programme could be anything to combat extremism, from a middle school syllabus, to an app that detects hate in local news, to a play, to a video game. These students know what is best for the community around them, so we leave the ideas and design to them.”
“What we’ve seen is that 25 per cent of the students who enter this challenge go on to develop these ideas further,” he added. “We have about 250 universities spread across 60 nations and, by next Spring, we’re expecting to grow to about 300.
“I would love if an Omani university joins us in 2017. Every year, we also hold regional competitions to find out which group of students made the best programme and then we fund that further. We award prizes of $5,000, $3,000 and $1,000, so that the top three teams can turn this into a business. All the money outside the US is provided by Facebook, while inside the US, it’s the Department of Homeland Security.”
Sgro is hoping that success stories will help propagate the idea further at ground level.
“One of the biggest success stories was a group of university students from Finland, who made an app, which was used to help integrate refugees with Finnish culture and help people in Finland learn more about the refugees, because so many disadvantaged people from Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria make their way through Europe and ultimately end up in Scandinavia,” he explained.
“They found out that Belgium and France had done a very poor job of integrating immigrants into their societies and they wanted to change that.
“They realised that the only thing these refugees had were the clothes on their back and a mobile phone,” he went on to say. “They initiated so many events to get people to know each other.They organised football friendlies, and organised a fete where the refugees made 1,000 meals specific to their own cultures and gave them to people. They organised a clothes collection drive for the refugees because so many of them were so ill equipped for the cold weather.
“And now, they have their first clients for that app: the city of Turku in Finland was the first to officially sign up for it.”