Social Enterprising in Vietnam

I spent three months in Vietnam volunteering for an NGO. The Hanoi-based organization, CSIP (Center for Social Initiatives Promotion), promotes social enterprises and entrepreneurship in Vietnam through startup training, incubation, and acceleration programs. They also raise awareness about social enterprises, help NGOs become self-sustainable, and shape the political climate for social businesses through their online resources, published research, and public outreach efforts. Since 2009, they have funded and provided business support to over 40 self-sustainable enterprises, which as of 2013 are estimated to have improved the lives of over 200,000 disadvantaged people.

Operating with a double bottom line – business profit and social impact – social enterprises are gaining traction as a highly effective means to economic development. For example, in rural villages with high disability rates among children, families are burdened with providing specialized care and attention to their young while facing lost income from their children’s inability to work. One of CSIP’s social enterprises, Tòhe, offers an innovative solution. The company organizes art workshops for disadvantaged children, selects the top artwork produced, and prints them on merchandise – handbags, notebooks, clothing, etc. – that are sold across the country. Tòhe then pays the children for their art, allowing them to contribute to their family’s income while remaining engaged throughout the day. This is just one of many success stories that truly marked me over the course of my volunteering stint.

At CSIP, I was tasked with rebuilding their website. It loaded painfully slowly and was laden with inconsistent design schemes and distracting animations. The landing page didn’t define what CSIP was or did as an organization, and, worst of all, it didn’t cater to or try to solicit action from any of its target audiences. A lot of my work entailed identifying what CSIP expected to gain from their website and how they would measure success. After setting goals for their website and ranking them by importance, I was able to separate the important information from the less important and create a landing page that was consistent with the organization’s marketing ambitions.

On the technology front, administrators complained about the current website’s performance and its clunky content management interface. I rebuilt the website in Drupal, which was faster and easier for admins to use than Joomla. I also created a wireframe mockup of the new site and worked closely with a graphic designer to create a simple and attractive design. Then over the few remaining weeks I worked with CSIP’s administrators to teach them how to use the new administrative backend.

The new CSIP website, in addition to offering a greater user experience, ties more closely into the organization’s objectives. CSIP is now better positioned to attract applications to their training and incubation programs, to solicit investments and donations to fund their operations, and to spread the word about the social enterprise movement in Vietnam. Also, through the SEO techniques we applied, CSIP will also benefit from greater online traffic, finally receiving the exposure it deserves as the top social startup incubator in the country.

It pained me to leave Vietnam, a country I came to love so much. Long after my departure, I will continue to be amazed by CSIP’s approach and strong dedication to promoting sustainable social progress. I am honored to have been a part of their efforts and will certainly return there one day. So until then, to them I say: Hẹn sớm gặp lại bạn (see you soon)!

Crowdsourcing Homeless Location Data

Every day, homeless individuals, particularly those with mental or addiction issues, refuse shelter or are left unattended. Relief organizations search for these people to provide blankets, food, or transportation to a nearby shelter, but could use help tracking locations in need and coordinating among volunteers and staff.  I developed technology that addresses this information problem, and in the last year I worked with an organization in Seattle to pilot test my solution.

Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (SUGM), the largest homeless relief organization in Seattle, has been rescuing homeless individuals for almost thirty years.  Every day, they comb the streets of Seattle in their “Search and Rescue van” to locate individuals in need. They provide on-the-spot relief to as many individuals as they can find, and when they are unequipped to help, they mark the person’s location and provide relief at a later time.

I developed an Android application that SUGM staff can use during their search and rescue missions to record and view locations of homeless individuals.  When encountering an individual in need, staff can use the app to record the individual’s GPS coordinates and his or her needs.  For example, they can specify that an adult and child require food and water, or that a man with mental or addiction issues is wounded and needs first aid.  After the information is submitted, it is stored in a secure centralized server and is made available to all SUGM staff.

I also developed a web application for the SUGM staff working in headquarters to view and manage the data recorded during search and rescue missions.  The idea is for them to use the data to determine resources required by the search and rescue team and to dispatch relief and coordinate teams accordingly.  Sharing data between all parties within the organization increases transparency and information-exchange, decreases wait-time, and reduces errors associated with manually writing and reading locations.  Other benefits include improving the engagement of volunteers through the use of trendy mobile technology.

To learn more about this project, visit our website:  If you are interested in working on this project and have experience developing web/mobile applications (especially iPhone apps), please contact me.