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Mercy Corps connects geeks from Gaza to Seattle

West Bank and Gaza, February 8, 2012

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Ansel Herz

The Seattle Globalist
February, 2012

We’ve got more than our share of tech-geeks here in Seattle. You know, the guys who work at startups, or Microsoft or Amazon, creating the next-generation of computer and web products.

But we can’t claim geeks as our own. You’ll find them anywhere there’s an electric current and a connection to the Internet, even in that besieged strip of land in the Middle East called Gaza.

Portland-based aid group MercyCorps is partnering with Google and Startup Weekend, a Seattle-area tech nonprofit, to bridge the chasm between American software developers and their counterparts in the Gaza strip. And they’re calling on Seattle’s tech community to support Palestinian startup companies, whether through virtual mentoring or social investing.

As the program’s leaders explained in a panel discussion hosted by MercyCorps in Seattle last week, Palestinian geeks went wild in a 54-hour marathon “Startup Weekend” last month.

“When you go to Gaza with Google, they just light up,” said Andy Dwonch, Senior Director for Social Innovations at MercyCorps.

One of the developer proposals was for Gaza Places, the Palestinian version of Google Maps (Google’s satellites haven’t mapped out the blockaded territory.) There were several pitches for applications that helped devout Muslims keep track of daily prayer times.

But in the end, the “Take Your Medicine” app took the weekend’s top prize, which can remind you or your grandmother to take your pills. The top three teams are being considered for funding of their proposal, contingent on a review of their completed business plans.

Poverty and unemployment levels are high in the Gaza Strip, in large part due to the crippling Israeli blockade. At the same time, it’s a highly-educated society, with a 99% literacy rate. Gisel Kordestani, formerly the Director of New Business Development at Google, pointed out that there’s little censorship of the Internet in Gaza, unlike places like Syria or Egypt.

Plus, she said, Palestinian developers can be employed for far less than someone in Silicon Valley. “The ultimate goal is new companies, and hopefully a lot of jobs,” Dwonch added.