Ann Mei Chang, executive director of USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab

Jul 29 2015

Q&A: Ann Mei Chang Brings Silicon Valley Innovation to USAID

With a new innovation lab, the government taps technology to extend its support to nations in need worldwide.

After two decades in Silicon Valley, Ann Mei Chang became the executive director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s new U.S. Global Development Lab.

A little more than a year old, the lab leverages science, technology, innovation and partnership — what it calls STIP — to help those around the world in need.

Chang recently worked as a senior engineering director at Google, where she oversaw the rapid growth of its mobile applications and services business. She talked with FedTech Managing Editor David Stegon about the role of technology in international development.

FEDTECH: What is the primary focus of the Global Development Lab?

Chang: Our mission is twofold: to produce breakthrough innovations by sourcing, testing and scaling proven solutions; and to accelerate the transformation of the development enterprise.

We do this by casting a wide net to find the best ideas to disrupt, using hard evidence and fast iteration to develop the ideas that are most promising; and by working across the agency and our partners to mainstream proven solutions to reach global scale.

FEDTECH: Your focus is primarily as an enabler. What technologies help with that?

Chang: Our world is experiencing incredible change. There is no question that every year, if not every day, new possibilities are opening up because of advances in technology. The rapid proliferation of mobile phones alone is creating amazing opportunities that will advance goals like financial inclusion and women’s empowerment.

Whether the focus is on health, food security, governance, environment, educa­tion or something else, technology can help us reach our goals. However, the opportunities that technology provides are greatly limited by the absence of a foundational enabling environment — like essential laws, policies and infrastructure — in many developing countries.

By investing in enabling technology, we are helping to lay the foundation for an integrated set of tools and services that can empower people to live more productive and resilient lives.

Without this foundation, services and applications rolled out over mobile and digital technologies are fragmented, uncoordinated and underutilized by the people who need them most. Thus, through our digital development team, we are focusing on connectivity to the Internet, mobile phones and digital financial inclusion.

FEDTECH: Does data play a huge role in that?

Chang: Real-time data can give us immediate insights into what’s working and what’s not in our programs. Data analysis can reveal trends that might otherwise not be obvious, and geospatial analysis provides visualization that helps us focus our efforts where they are most needed.

Such tools enable us to use data for our decision-making and help us increase our overall impact by adjusting quickly based on local realities.

FEDTECH: USAID was very involved during the global Ebola crisis. How did your office support those efforts?

Chang: In the fall of 2014, the U.S. government launched an initiative, “Fighting Ebola: A Grand Challenge for Development.”

As part of this multisector partnership, the lab worked with USAID’s Global Health Bureau, the White House Office of Science and Technology, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Defense Department to combat the epidemic using innovative tools and approaches.

In just two months, innovators from around the world submitted more than 1,500 ideas focused on helping front-line healthcare workers provide better, more timely care to contain the virus.

One innovation that we are particularly proud of is a redesigned personal protective suit. Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design and Jhpiego, a nonprofit international health organization, designed a more comfortable suit that allows for quicker and safer removal.

By bringing together individuals with a diverse set of skills — including a wedding dress seamstress and a sportswear manufacturer — the team came up with a design for a new suit that offered critical protection while improving the comfort of healthcare workers in hot, humid and extremely difficult environments.

In addition to working on the challenge project, the lab led an information and communication technology assessment in Ebola-affected countries.

Given the rapid transmission rate for this disease, improving collection and transmission of data helped us respond faster and more accurately to suspected cases.

FEDTECH: Are you now focused primarily on recovery?

Chang: The United States is working with the governments and people in the region to recover ground lost to Ebola by addressing the immediate needs of those made more vulnerable by this crisis and building back institutions and systems in ways that will leave them better prepared and more resilient during future crises.

As part of this effort, the lab is looking at the digital infrastructure and how we can increase connectivity to the Internet and to mobile phones so medical facilities, governments and citizens can communicate more effectively during a crisis.

We’re looking at strengthening health information management systems with real-time data systems to get better information flowing more quickly and accurately through-out West Africa.

Gary Landsman