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Revi Sterling speaks about the empowerment of women through the use of communications technology during the United Methodist Communications Game Changers Summit in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

Revi Sterling speaks about the empowerment of women through the use of communications technology during the United Methodist Communications Game Changers Summit in Nashville, Tenn.

The church can help close the technology gap for women


By Kathy L. Gilbert and Joey Butler
Sept. 18, 2015 ǀ NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Revi Stering told attendees she was impressed that the topic of gender inequity in technology had such a prominent role at the Game Changers Summit, a conference on using information and communications technology for development (ICT4D).

“At secular academic conferences, it’s always early on day one before everybody gets there, or it’s at the very end after everyone’s left,” said Sterling, whose work with NetHope centers on gender inequity in technology. “That it’s so prominent here says unequivocally that you think gender is important.”

The summit, hosted by United Methodist Communications, features innovators who are international leaders in the use of technology and communications for the social good.

Photos and Coverage

Read more about the 2015 Game Changers Summit.

See photos from the event on our Flickr feed.

On a day focused on how mobile technology can empower women in developing nations, the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko began morning worship and later shared a personal anecdote about the importance of information access. Kiboko is the first woman ordained in the Southern Congo Conference.

“My cousin, a villager in Congo, cannot even write, cannot even read, but she has a cell phone,” she said. “That is powerful.”

Sterling said that while it’s important to offer technology to help women improve their lives, it can be dangerous, which may be a difficult concept for a U.S. audience to grasp. She gave examples of villages barring women from using phones or punishing them for using them too much. “Women have been killed for using technology,” she said.

“This conference isn’t about leading with the technology, but leading with the human. We’re told culture will sort itself out but I don’t want to wait that long.”

She told of a project in Nigeria with 3,000 women participating and only two had smart phones. “Now, when smart phones arrive at a community, the men get them, and their wives finally get the old phones their husbands had.”

Fundamentally, Sterling said, the more ICT focuses on women, the more successful ICT will be for all.

“Women bear the biggest brunt of poverty,” she said, “and if you don’t have access to information, you stay under-empowered.”

On the cutting edge

In a panel on exciting new technologies that can be used for development, Game Changers attendees saw a 3-D printer in action, a fleet of drones and learned about the first “library for humanity.”

Thane Richard of Outernet displayed a device that could receive data from a satellite in an area with no Internet access. Operating the same way a radio receiver can pluck an FM signal out of thin air, Outernet’s receiver can download an endless supply of books and educational materials. United Methodist Communications recently partnered with Outernet to provide faith-based texts, the first religious institution to do so.

Richard said 4.3 billion people currently lack access to the Internet, so receiving information that doesn’t require a web connection is vital in a remote or impoverished area.

“Needs aren’t exclusionary,” he said. “Just because someone has health needs doesn’t mean they don’t also need education, and Outernet is able to provide everything.”

Another panelist, Christoper Tuckwood of the Sentinel Project, explained how drones could be deployed in war-torn areas to patrol a security perimeter around a village, or sent out on reconnaissance missions to see if a militant group is preparing to attack and alert the locals and authorities.

Sara Pitcairn, co-director of instructional design at TechChange, oversees a course in 3-D printing for social good and shared how 3-D printers could be used to create replacement parts for medical equipment — important in situations where waiting on a part to ship could threaten a life. Several programs are now printing prosthetic parts.

Pitcairn said that thanks to the ability to download online templates, “you don’t have to be an engineer to use a 3-D printer.”

Importance of church involvement

Talk of 3-D printers and drones might lead one to believe that ICT is best left to engineers and IT experts, but those same experts believe the church’s involvement is vital.

David Robinson of World Vision shared a story about a messaging project in Guinea that was a collaboration among several nongovernmental otrganizations. Because there were so many layers of agreement required to finalize every decision, the project was only able to send out 10 messages in 10 months. Robinson said when The United Methodist Church became involved in the Ebola fight, “you were able to cut through those layers because of the trust and credibility Sierra Leoneans have in their faith leaders.

“You were the first out of the blocks on this,” Robinson said. “The investment you made can be increased exponentially. Friends, keep investing in this space.”

The Rev. Bill Lawson, pastor of Briensburg United Methodist Church in Benton, Kentucky, said speakers like Sterling and others at this summit are hitting on the same issues of access to technology that some of the churches in the Memphis Conference also face.

Lawson said technology like Frontline SMS would be a great tool for some in his conference who have limited Internet and mobile phone access.

“In places where cell phone service is poor they can usually pick up text messages even if they can’t make voice calls. SMS would help even things out,” he said. Using the example that people could fill out registration forms or other conference forms using text message technology.

Lawson is also director for technical communications for the Memphis Conference. He said he was at this summit because of a scholarship grant from United Methodist Communications.

“I have already been given inspiration and knowledge and had some doors opened for our conference,” he said.

Don’t make assumptions

A common theme the panelists and workshop leaders stressed was how important it is to know and understand the culture of the people you are trying to help, and one solution doesn’t fix every problem.

During a session called “Lessons From the Field” — highlighting mistakes ICT workers have made in the past — Wayan Vota of consulting firm Kurante said, “One of my favorite sayings is the one about leading a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. Did anyone ask whether the horse was thirsty in the first place?”

One useful tool to avoid such mistakes is a list of guidelines posted at, compiled by ICT implementers who’ve learned from their own “failures” and offer advice to those newer to the field.

The Rev. Neelley Hicks, director of ICT4D church initiatives for United Methodist Communications, shared her own “fail” — trying to ship hand-cranked weather radios to Africa and underestimating the cost of shipping or the expense of getting dozens of radios through Customs.

Hicks is a big proponent of “user-centered design” in ICT work, adding that it’s not helpful to take complicated technology into an area where the locals may not be very computer savvy. “Working in a crisis, you don’t want a person living in that crisis to have to learn new software.”

Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service, and Butler is a multimedia editor/producer for United Methodist Communications. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or