Silicon Valley casts its nets in the Caribbean
January 7, 2014
- Jamaica and neighboring countries are preparing to leave their mark on the technology industry.
Olympic 100-meter champion Usain Bolt trails far behind the beaches in the results of image searches for Jamaica.
Google image searches first show hundreds of beaches, followed by Bolt, bikini-clad girls, Bob Marley and then more paradisiacal beaches. On the web, Jamaica cannot seem to move beyond these stereotypical images highlighting the country’s tourist attractions, sensuality and Olympic prowess.
For a nation where half of all income depends on tourism and related services, diversifying can be a daunting task. But Jamaicans are discovering that the same technology that type-casts them offers a universe of employment and business opportunities, without the geographic and economic limitations of the island.
Let’s call it Jamaica 2.0. In tandem with governments, the private sector and international organizations, Jamaica and other Caribbean nations are working to ensure that home-grown talent fulfills its potential in the virtual economy.
The region hopes to become a technology hub like that of Silicon Valley or Bangalore. It plans to provide services to the virtual economy through the development of smartphone applications, technical assistance (through call centers, for example) and even more daring proposals, such as digital animation.
At Jamaica’s KingstOOn Fest last June, judges were blown away by the quality of the animations, comparing them to those produced by other top-level hubs.
“Many people have told me that what I do (animation) is just a hobby rather than a job,” said freelance animator Coretta Singer.
But when the major animation studios praised Coretta’s work and offered to continue to support training of Jamaican youth, many people realized that they were witnessing the birth of a new industry.
In this field, Caribbean countries have advantages in that they share the same language with some of the world’s largest technology centers, are strategically located (near the United States) and have a growing number of young professionals. One strike against them is that one in five youth is unemployed.
Digital Jam has flung the doors wide open to a network of possibilities.
A new industry is born
The key to all of this is known as microwork, a concept some consider essential for 21st-century industry. In an increasingly connected world, employers do not necessarily need to hire people to work in an office. A project can be divided into its constituent parts, which can then be assigned to different people via the web.
This formula has already succeeded in other regions of the world. For the Caribbean, it represents a truly unique opportunity. Not only does it provide jobs; it also prevents young people from having to migrate or buy expensive equipment to undertake digital projects.
In 2012, the Digital Jam 2.0 virtual employment fair showcased the digital talent of the Caribbean to the world. In the 12 months following the event, more than 4,000 microwork jobs were created in Jamaica alone. This year, Digital Jam 3.0 hopes to position the region as the next global information technology center.
Networks across the sea
Through this effort, Jamaica and other Caribbean countries will join numerous business networks that stretch out from Silicon Valley to the rest of the world to connect the region’s youth with the technology giants and other employers.
“This is a worldwide revolution in the making,” said Fabio Pittaluga, World Bank Innovation Expert. “Rather than competitors there are networks of startup hubs that are helping each other, with startup companies moving from one to the other. This would be the first of its kind in the Caribbean.”
At the heart of this year’s event is an app competition that will serve as the launch pad for new talent among the region’s youth. For last year’s winner, Roxanne Wanliss, the competition proved to be the catalyst for her digital career.
“Just over a year ago, myself and my other team members only had a desire to learn,” she described. “Digital Jam has flung the doors wide open to a network of possibilities.”
This is the time, she said, for the Caribbean to become aware of the technological talent of its youth. Only then will the region be able to save a whole generation from crippling unemployment or inevitable migration.