Switching it up: Boosting civic tech in Eastern Europe & Central Asia

Switch is designed for anybody with an idea that uses technology – in the broadest sense – to transform their society, spread their message, push for change or improve their community. This year we invited nearly 20 civic tech projects to Prague to pitch for funding at our annual Pitching Day.

Switch is the Prague Civil Society Centre’s grant scheme for tech based solutions to social issues across Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Convincing people to dig into their pockets and support your idea is never easy. Even the most confident entrepreneur can find pitching for funding a nerve-wracking experience. For many in the civic sector, unused to the process, the challenge can seem even greater.

That’s a shame because in Eastern Europe and Central Asia activists are increasingly turning to tech to come up with incredible solutions to all kinds of social problems. Already apps are being used in Ukraine to provide up to date legal advice for IDPs, bots are crawling through public databases in Kyrgyzstan to expose corruption, and chatbots are allowing NGOs to reach anyone with an internet connection.

There is so much potential for civic tech in this region – so we developed Switch to find the best ideas, invest in them, and give them the boost they need to become reality. Switch is designed for anybody – not just activists. If someone has an idea that uses tech for social good then we’re interested.

Whilst we’re open to all and any ideas, the Switch process is designed to be tough. Shortlisted applicants must come to Prague and pitch their idea in front of an expert jury to be in with a shot of a cash injection. They are given a strict four minutes to present followed by a grilling by the panel.

This year we welcomed 16 hopeful projects to our pitching day in Prague. The solutions were as diverse as the participants themselves – From an app that allows residents of Tashkent to inform the authorities about broken streets, and sensors that monitor pollution in Ukraine, to a game that encourages recycling in Russia, we were treated to an incredible array of ideas for tackling some of the region’s most pressing issues.

This year’s hopefuls

Although the Switch hopefuls have to get through the pitching day, getting to the final stage of the process means much more than turning up for a four-minute pitch. Finalists undergo a mentoring process – first through online webinars and then an intensive pre-pitching day workshop. This allows them to fine tune their presentations, develop their public speaking skills, and accelerate their project ideas.

This year the competition was tough. The jury, which noted the quality of ideas had jumped since last year, selected five winners. The winning projects tackled different issues – ranging from an online crowdfunding course and platforms to monitor corruption and state spending in Central Asia and Ukraine, to apps that encourage environmental awareness. What they all had in common was an innovative use of tech and plenty of opportunity to scale and become sustainable.

The feedback from the jury was always constructive. “I know how difficult start ups can be”, said jury member Douglas Arellanes, himself co-founder of start-up Sourcefabric and no stranger to the pitching process. “Persevere, keep going, keep pushing, keep trying – make the project part of your life.”