The Tip of the Spear with Matt Berg of Ona

Aid, Evolved
The Tip of the Spear with Matt Berg of Ona

Today’s episode is a far-ranging conversation with Matt Berg, founder and CEO of Ona. We peel apart the many layers of Matt’s life as an immigrant, a celebrity, a geek, a maker, and a founder. We marvel at all the crazy technologies we thought might work in the 90’s. We hear the surprising role music had in bringing Matt back to this continent. We unpack how Matt drew from talent in Africa for Africa, when he founded jointly in Kenya and the United States. In the second half, Matt highlights the untapped potential of new satellite imagery to help us reach people in the most remote parts of the world.

Prior to founding ONA, Matt led a social enterprise initiative at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, where he served as ICT Director for the Millennium Villages Project. He has previously been Technology Director for ChildCount+ and a member of Columbia University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering research group in the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Matt was born in Cameroon, grew up in Senegal, and has worked in Africa for 15+ years. He is a PopTech! Social Innovation Fellow and was named to the 2010 Time 100 List of Most Influential People of the World. Matt has an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management, and has taught ICT4D at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University where he was adjunct faculty.

Show Notes

  • Ona is a social enterprise that provides technology solutions focused on global health and development. It is based in Kenya and the United States.
  • Youssou N’Dour is one of the most famous musicians in Senegal and Africa. Matt credits music from Youssou N’Dour with inspiring him to return to Africa.
  • GeekCorps was the volunteer organization which first allowed Matt to work in Africa. Today it is part of IESC, the International Executive Service Corps. Wayan Vota was the GeekCorps director who placed Matt in Mali. He will be featured in an upcoming episode of Aid, Evolved.
  • Wikipedia Offline: During his time at GeekCorps, Matt worked on making wikipedia available to download offline for access in rural communities.
  • Sneakernet was an informal term used to describe the transfer of electronic data via physical devices. Matt mentions one of his projects used USB keys. Sneakernet refers to the use of ‘sneakers’ as a transfer medium for the internet.
  • FormHub: Matt was a key figure in the development of FormHub. Formhub is a tool for building ODK forms from Excel. It allowed people to build large or complicated forms in Excel and use these to generate a data collection app on Android phones. 
  • Dr. Gaetano Borriello was a Professor of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Washington. Gaetano’s support for Matt helped Matt to build and release his vision for FormHub. One of our previous guests on Aid, Evolved, Yaw Anokwa, Founder of ODK, also celebrated how Gaetano introduced him to the idea that would become his life’s work.
  • TIME Magazine on Matt Berg: In 2010, Matt was named to TIME’s 100 most influential thinkers in the world. Here is Matt’s profile on TIME magazine’s website.
  • RapidSMS is an open source web framework for building SMS and web applications. Initially incubated by UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, RapidSMS was adopted and used by many organizations, including Ona, Nyaruka, and others.
  • The Millennium Villages Project (MVP) was an effort to demonstrate that an integrated approach to development could achieve development targets and lift a community out of poverty. It was spearheaded by the economist Dr. Jeffrey Sachs. Matt was the ICT Director for MVP.
  • The Modi Research Group at Columbia University: Matt spent significant time working within this research group under the direction of Vijay Modi. It was through this group that Matt met his Ona co-founders.
  • GRID3, out of Columbia University, provides geo-referenced infrastructure and demographic data for development. This kind of resource has multiple applications for aid workers. For example, we can map out very specific regions which might have limited access to health facilities and provide a targeted plan for access to health services.
  • Mapbox provides maps and location services for software developers. It uses space imagery and geospatial content derived from DigitalGlobe.
  • Ime Asangasi is the CEO of eHealth4everyone, a Nigerian organization working in digital health. Matt gives a shout out to eHealth4everyone for the large scale health implementations it has led.
  • Matt also gives a shout out to Jon Jackson of Dimagi for his work on market shaping to address failed markets and provide fair market pricing for solutions in the aid industry.
  • Matt gives a recommendation for RapidPRO, also known as, from Nyaruka. It supports a variety of SMS workflows and most recently has developed advanced chat functionality. 
  • The Four by Scott Galloway: Matt’s recommended reading is The Four by Scott Galloway. This book dissects the technology strategy which has allowed the four most influential technology companies to succeed: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.