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September 21, 2010 6:59 pm
Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of Ebay, will spend $55m over the next three years to bolster government transparency and spur innovation in the developing world.
Through the Omidyar Network, his philanthropic investment firm, he has pledged $30m for transparency efforts enabled through technology, and $25m in support of mobile innovation benefiting people in emerging markets.
The commitments, to be fulfilled over the next three years, include both for-profit investments and nonprofit grants, and were announced at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York City on Tuesday.
“We are at the cusp of understanding technology’s potential for creating positive change in the world,” said Matt Bannick, managing partner of the Omidyar Network.
The Omidyar Network has already supported similar efforts including the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in US politics, and MySociety, which organises citizen action in the UK via the web.
The new investments will continue that work, while also focusing on the benefits of broader mobile phone access in poor countries.
“One of the transformative technologies of our age is the mobile phone,” said Mr Bannick. “Among other things it has enabled people in the developing world to have access to technologies that they otherwise wouldn’t.”
These include services such as mobile banking and mobile healthcare, two fast-growing sectors that are rapidly bringing modern services to rural areas in Africa.
Rebekah Heacock of Global Voices Online’s Tech for Transparency initiative said the Omidyar Network’s investment would bring new momentum to the small but growing field.
“A lot of people are interested in these fields, but the efforts can be a bit scattered,” she said. “One of the effects of the Omidyar grants will be to focus these efforts.”
Yet, the pledge comes at a time when online government transparency efforts are under scrutiny, with Wikileaks generating controversy for its release of classified documents and obscure funding.
There are also concerns that rapid rollout of mobile technologies in the developing world can further exacerbate the digital divide. For example, when Bangalore in India made land records available via mobile phone, studies showed the data were primarily used by businesses and wealthy families to gain new property rights from already marginalised people.
“These projects can have a lot of good impact, but they can also increase the digital and information divide,” said Ms Heacock.
Last month Mr Omidyar promised to give away at least half his wealth, part of a gesture by more than 30 US billionaires.
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