Sendai Calling: Social Media in Real Life

The day the Sendai earthquake hit Japan, Cameron Sinclair was up until 3 a.m. Sinclair is the CEO (chief eternal optimist) of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit architectural design firm that has built more than 1,000 structures around the world—schools, hospitals, housing, etc.—in response to humanitarian crises.
After learning of the events in Japan, Sinclair called his chapter there to formulate a plan. “They were already on it,” he said. “Architects and planners were already on the ground.”
Sinclair, who founded AFH in 1999 at the age of 22 and maintains a youthful yet grounded enthusiasm, was in Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest interactive technology festival, an event that largely consists of “drinking beer and competing for VC [venture capital] bucks and zillion-dollar valuations,” as one CNN editor put it. But Sinclair had higher ambitions for the role of social media.
“Everybody has talked about social media as a place where you can talk,” he told Adweek. “I’m interested in social media as a place where you can do.”
Much of this year’s SXSW festival has focused on social media’s “game mechanics,” which applies to both social (or interactive) videogames as well as the game theory inherent in social media applications that give users “points” or “badges,” honors that very often have no use “in real life”—or “IR,” as some techies put it.
Much to Sinclair’s disappointment, relatively little focus has been given to social media’s ability to solve real-world problems.
“Instead of building fucking virtual farms, build a real farm,” Sinclair said, referring to FarmVille, a popular Sim City-like game made by Zynga. “Zynga’s great, and FarmVille’s perfect, but I would actually like to build farms for people in Africa. And there’s a way that you can do that working virtually.”

Architecture for Humanity relies on social media and crowdsourcing. In addition to using Facebook and Twitter to generate public funding—“instead of having 20 big donors, we have 10,000,” Sinclair said—AFH calls upon the public to generate ideas for design concepts. One AFH design competition for a $25,000 sports complex ultimately led to the construction of 20 different structures around the world.
Sinclair’s most recent “virtual” objective is “using the social media space for transparency and accountability.”
“For everybody who texted five bucks for Haiti, I want to see open transparency of what happened to that five bucks,” he said. “If we can move at that speed, we should have that level of transparency.”
“It’s a multibillion dollar industry, and there’s zero accountability,” he went on. “I went to the State Department and had a meeting with them—they had given $250 million to Pakistan. I was there for two days, [and] nobody knew what they had done with the money. This is money that we gave a year ago. This is our taxpayer money.”
Sinclair’s latest objective, then, is using the Internet to create a mechanism for accountability. “We’re in the process of acquiring other nonprofits, and we’re creating a system to actually do the monitoring evaluation of all this aid and development work,” he said. “That’ll happen in the summer of this year.”
Sinclair turned on his iPad to show me the Open Architecture application he built, a model for what he had in mind. The app featured an interactive globe; as you zoomed in on any location—be it Japan or Timbuktu—you could select the relevant relief and development projects for that place and access live data to measure their progress. Somehow, it felt more rewarding than FarmVille.