[notice]In a recent interview in Port Elizabeth, Gateway News spoke to Cape Town social media and IT entrepreneur Marlon Parker whose innovative use of social media is making a positive impact around the world[/notice]
Four years ago university lecturer and PhD student Marlon Parker felt God challenging him to use his IT skills to make a difference in his troubled Western Cape community. He obeyed the divine prompting despite warnings from well-meaning friends not to waste his talent and lucrative career prospects on drug addicts and gangsters. Today he heads up RLabs, a rapidly growing multinational movement that uses technology to solve social problems.
Started on the dusty streets of the Cape Flats, by Parker and reformed drug addicts, RLabs has provided counselling solutions that have helped hundreds of thousands of people facing crises such as drug addiction, HIV-Aids and matric examination failure. Currently RLabs is forging ahead with the commercial launch of its homegrown JamiiX social media aggregation platform that is used by the World Health Organisation in Indonesia to aid communications during natural disasters.
“All of the work that I do is inspired by God. They are God’s ideas, not mine,” said Parker, whose life changed radically when he encountered God at the age of 17. “I did not meet God as a religious figure but as the father that I had never had,” said Parker who grew up in a poor household headed by his mother.
By 2007 Parker was an IT lecturer at the Western Cape University of Technology and was embarking on his PhD. Around him, his community was disintegrating under the influence of rampant drug abuse and gangsterism. His elder brother was in jail as a result of drug dealing and gang activities. God called Parker to start using IT to help the crippled community.
“It all began with helping one person, who was a new Christian and an ex drug addict and gang member. I taught him basic computer skills and how to share his story of hope through blogging. When other people who knew him saw the positive change in his life they wanted to learn the skills that he had learned.”
The project, which Parker carried out in partnership with Impact Direct Ministries, struck a chord with other groups, and soon mothers, younger “children at risk”, and elderly people learned to blog their stories of gaining victory over seeminly hopeless situations. The stories were posted on the Reconstructed Living (later RLabs) blog where they gained a huge following of people who gained hope of victory over their own struggles.
Parker said he trained just 14 people in basic computer and social media skills. They in turn trained over 1 000 people and so RLabs was transformed from a project into a movement.
Parker and his team quickly recognised the potential of using social media, especially MXit which was used by over 20 million South Africans, to offer counselling support to the many people who felt trapped in the expanding web of drug addiction. The team began achieving great results using the technology that was used and trusted by the young people, which cost next to nothing to use, and which allowed them to remain anonymous if they wished. The frontline counselling was done by former drug addicts who understood what the young people were experiencing. They succeeded in encouraging many of them to undergo more intimate face-to-face counselling at Impact Direct or other places of support.
The RLab team developed the JamiiX platform in order to speed up the process of reaching people in need of counselling. It is a web-based tool allowing counsellors to manage multiple conversations from different social networks and instant messaging platforms — effectively delivering low-cost call centre type services via cellphones or computers. JamiiX allows eight counsellors to have 300 instant messaging conversations in one hour, massively increasing their ability to assist those who need help. The National Aids helpline, for example, reports that, since using JamiiX, they are able to deal with more queries in two hours than they previously did in a week with the more traditional call centre set up.
Jamiix has partnered with South African success story MXit to make its interface available through a special gateway on the popular instant messaging application and is rolling out the platform commerically with an eye on organisations that provide support services such as counselling, information and education, marketing, and call centre operations.
Parker says that the while RLabs did not actively promote Christianity its core values of bringing hope and wellbeing to communities were Bible-based and that he relied on God for direction at every step of the way. RLabs did not preach or evangelise, yet 2 000 people have made first-time commitments to Jesus as a result of the relationships they have built with RLab counsellors. “People just see that our counsellors have something special and they ask them to share their testimonies,” he said.
To date RLab has bases in six countries on three continents and is in instant message contact with 300 000 people. “Our goal is to reach 2 billion people in one lifetime,” said Parker.