When a team of students from Parsons The New School for Design began designing a system for rural public health officials in Guatemala to monitor their inventory of medical supplies, it seemed natural to have the workers send text messages to a central authority when they were running low on supplies. Upon visiting with the officials, however, they soon found out that they had things backwards, due to the consistently low supply levels. “We discovered that it makes more sense to text what they do have,” says MFA student in Parsons’ Design + Technology program Paweena Prachanronarong. “Otherwise, it’s going to be a lot of texting.”
That’s just one example of the kind of on-the-ground knowledge that strengthens the school’s work with The Open Societies Foundation (OSF). Through the program, Parsons students are connected with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world, selected in collaboration with OSF. Through a combination of fieldwork and collaborative design work in the studio, students develop ways to help the organization through digital technology: devising social networks, websites, mobile technology platforms and more to help those organizations serve their client populations.
Now half a decade old, the program has engaged more than 20 NGOs in more than 15 countries on a broad range of public health and human rights issues. In previous years, Parsons students have helped an LGBT advocacy group in South Africa rebrand themselves to appeal to a wider audience; designed the branding and outreach strategy for a Croatian organization working on rights for disabled people; spearheaded an extensive web re-design for a Georgian addiction research center; and created an SMS-text-enabled system to alert the public, government officials and the media to medicine stock outs in Africa.
Due to the success of the program, it has significantly expanded in the past year from a summer intensive into a yearlong program. In summer 2012, Parsons OSF Fellows worked on-site with their respective NGOs, which then became the focus of fall and spring design studios where they collaborated with other Parsons students to identify actionable, long-term solutions to challenges facing these NGOs. Throughout the year, the fellows returned to the field to test, then further refine and develop these prototypes.
“NGOs often don’t know what’s possible. We try to meet the needs they communicate to us, while opening the door to something more exciting,” said David Carroll, Director of the MFA Design and Technology graduate program at Parsons. “The OSF partnership makes it possible to reach people in the developing world in a way that was impossible before, increasing and deepening the potential for meaningful change.”
Prachanronarong recently concluded her second visit to Centro de Estudios para la Equidad y Gobernanza en los Sistemas de Salud (CEGSS), an organization dedicated to monitoring public health issues in Guatemala. The system she and her team designed allows CEGSS—via mobile communications and a website—to show the true level of medical supplies in hard-to-reach communities. CEGSS will share this with anyone – journalists, the government, and beyond – who cares about the state of public health.
“Our grantee organizations advocate passionately for the advancement of health and human rights in very challenging contexts,” says Brett Davidson, Director of the Health Media Initiative of the Open Society Foundations. “The partnership with Parsons gives them access to the cutting edge technology and communications expertise they need in order to have an impact.”
“CEGSS seems really pleased,” says Prachanronarong. “They’re running with it, and hiring people to maintain the system. I think that’s amazing. It’s nice to be able to do something that’s real, and helps real people.” The 2012 fellows are winding down their commitments, making final presentations to their classmates, professors and to OSF this May. Then they will hand off their work to a new crop of fellows for 2013, who will continue the work with the partner organizations through summer 2013, and beyond.