Amitay Korn

Ashoka Fellow
fellow-17726-Amitai_Korn-ISRAEL.jpg
Israel
Fellow Since 2012
This description of Amitay Korn's work was prepared when Amitay Korn was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012 .

Introduction

Using a wiki-based platform, Amitay Korn is enhancing citizens’ access to information about their rights and the availability of related government-funded entitlements and citizen sector initiatives and services.

The New Idea

Amitay is the founder of Kol Zchut (All Rights), which is the first online, wiki-based, and user-friendly database of Israeli citizens’ rights and eligibility for entitlements. After forty years spent in the computer and hi-tech industry, Amitay had an observation about the transparency of legal and social rights for citizens that struck a nerve: a large sum of the money that governments allocate to welfare and social service benefits is not claimed by citizens. Citizens are often not equipped with the full know-how of their rights and thus do not claim their rights fully when in need. In fact, billions of dollars of social welfare funds are left untapped each year and do not reach those most in need. Amitay realized that the smallest changes to peoples’ know-how and knowledge of their rights can bring about significant social impact. Leveraging wiki and crowdsourcing technology, Amitay created a vehicle for citizen access and knowledge of rights and benefits across a wide-range of fields. These key areas addressed by Amitay’s idea range from disability rights, single-parent rights, workers’ rights and even citizen rights relating to the use of noisy garden equipment.

Amitay’s idea is systems-changing in the way it creates transparency between communities, ministries, public agencies, citizen organizations (COs), and governments. Kol Zchut enables ministries, public agencies, civil organizations, and citizens to build a body of knowledge on rights and work together to address citizen needs without duplicating efforts. Because of its wiki technology, citizens, government agencies, and the citizen sector can constantly supplement information with up-to-date services and benefits, tips, and advice. Kol Zchut incentivizes organizations and agencies to make information transparent through this system for aggregating and disseminating information. In addition, individuals see the value in this idea because it allows them to claim their rights and connect to COs, welfare agencies, and governmental bodies that can assist them in fulfilling their specific needs.

To date, Kol Zchut is the world’s only wiki-based web platform for rights. Websites without the benefits of the wiki strategy are usually limited to one field, or to the resources of their founders. They are also limited in size, beneficiary groups, and by their ability to communicate updated information. The wiki system circumvents these barriers altogether: any contributor, after a due diligence test, can add information, and organizations can easily update information, allowing the platform to expand and scale impact with only marginal costs to the developers. Kol Zchut is evolving into an information bridge spanning government bodies and ministries, the civil sector, and the public. As a result of Amitay and Kol Zchut, more Israelis feel empowered to take advantage of their legal and social rights, while COs and the government are more equipped to offer their beneficiaries direct support and information. Discussions and planning are underway for assisting the development of similar initiatives in India and Europe.

The Problem

In Israel and other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, a large portion of the money allocated to social welfare and legal services is not actually claimed by citizens. Lack of knowledge about these eligible benefits is the main reason for this failure of social aid funding and services not delivered to those most in need. Research from the Taub Center in Jerusalem indicates that Israel’s average entitlement take-up of benefits is lower than 50 percent, which is similar to the average for other OECD countries. The information gap is markedly pronounced among groups typically marginalized within Israeli society, including Arabs, the Ultra-Orthodox, immigrants, and the elderly.

In addition to the actual uptake of funds and citizen know-how of their entitled rights, there are scores of COs addressing similar target populations and social problems, yet lack a platform to aggregate information concerning the legal and social rights and services they offer. Previous attempts at CO-run sites are limited to one or a few fields of law, and to the resources of their founders, and require constant and exhaustive maintenance. Many are unable to handle content that is not within their core competency. A CO that provides services for autistic children, for example, is usually unable to provide information regarding the intricacies of the Social Security qualifications. Amitay sees opportunity in increasing transparency of rights-based information that spans across multiple sectors, so that COs, government agencies, and citizens have incentive to work with one another and alleviate social problems.

For the majority of citizens, information about their rights is limited in scope, accessibility and relevance. If citizens reach out directly to government agencies, information is usually delivered in dense and legalistic language that is not user-friendly. In addition, only partial information is available, and even then, different ministries divide up tasks separately. Google searches, a common option to learn more about citizens’ rights, often result in information overload, or deliver information about commercial organizations that mask themselves as COs.

To increase the proportion of welfare funds that reach the legally entitled recipients there is a need to narrow the information gap regarding benefits and the means to implement them. The major challenge resides in synthesizing information into one easily accessible medium, and then initiating a “push-to-market” strategy that will successfully inform those who need the information most.

The Strategy

Using his extensive experience in information systems and technology, programing, and management, Amitay ensures that high-quality information finds its way to a growing community-of-users in need. Enabled by wiki technology, this system for aggregation and dissemination of knowledge involves dozens of key players. Amitay brings together government and social sector groups and individuals, often for the first time. The strategy enables those leading particular fields to offer and populate the information base, which helps to ensure accuracy. For those who require immediate answers to their social and legal problems, this type of accuracy is critical.

In addition to contributions by individual experts, Amitay works with COs, advocacy groups, welfare specialists, academics, legal advisers, government bodies (including five different ministries in Israel) and other state authorities, to supplement the information available on the web platform. He provides them with editing rights on the website, as well as easy-to-use uploading tools. Amitay has gathered an extensive amount of information that covers a wide range of topics through this methodology. Other groups have approached Amitay for permission to add information. A team of editors—both paid and volunteer—vets all newly added articles to make sure that they fit the stringent requirements of quality, both in simplicity and accuracy. Kol Zchut is committed to being completely neutral and apolitical. The website offers facts only, written clearly and simply, leaving little room for criticism, debate or misunderstanding. Kol Zchut’s neutrality and factual simplicity encourages different players and organizations to interact, even those considered traditionally antagonistic, such as ministries and advocacy groups.

In addition to creating the site and incorporating supplemental information sources, Amitay’s team is committed to training a variety of audiences on how best to benefit from the website. Because there is still significant Internet illiteracy in needy communities, the “end clients” often have difficulty using the website to access the information they need. Amitay’s team is addressing this technological challenge by training civil servants and social and welfare workers on how to take maximum advantage of the website to teach their beneficiaries. This training element, which will also be critical for scaling the idea in other contexts, involves setting the website itself as the homepage in social and welfare clinics and providing them with resources on this powerful tool to reach solutions for their clients faster and more efficiently. In fact, Kol Zchut has become a part of the curriculum in major university schools of social work nationwide. Amitay’s team trains ministry call center staff, and targets anyone who provides social service and rights information as a part of his/her job. Amitay will soon be implementing his training program to all of the social workers working in the governmental welfare department stations in the country.

Without Kol Zchut, a needy person’s capacity to enjoy his/her rights fully is limited by the time and motivation of the social worker. With Kol Zchut, the required actions can be completed more quickly and more efficiently, more citizens receive the benefits to which they are legally entitled, and the relevant services of the citizen sector can be more effectively deployed. Amitay’s vision is to bring about major changes in policymaking. He hopes to have the web platform adopted by the special governmental body in charge of rights and benefits as its official tool. A breakthrough in this direction was made recently, as the government’s special committee in charge of Holocaust survivors living in Israel decided to use the website as its main tool for reaching out to the public and cooperating with groups, bodies and individuals working with this beneficiary group. The committee accepted its model and principles of mutual work and shared information and ownership.

Throughout the last five years, Kol Zchut has become one of the country’s most important sources of information on rights. It has dramatically changed the approach to rights and benefits in Israel by expanding cooperation among ministries and major civic organizations, and growing attention to the idea in other countries. Kol Zchut is becoming a prominent and effective solution, teaching governing bodies and social work professionals how to improve their role as caregivers, and aiding an ever growing number of needy people.

Amitay’s next step is to scale the idea beyond Israel. A group of political science professors from India, along with a few organizations from Europe, are both ready and eager to assist in implementation. Amitay sees great potential in spreading his idea, and is currently seeking out these opportunities.

The Person

Born and raised in Jerusalem, Amitay became committed to social change at a very young age. From 14, he spent his summer vacations working, doing difficult construction and electrical work. These experiences taught him important lessons about coping with challenges, both physical and mental.

After graduation from high school, Amitay postponed his mandatory military service and did a year of volunteer community service in a development town in the Negev desert. Working primarily with poor families and new immigrants, Amitay felt drawn to difficult tasks because he felt morally driven to complete them. He calls this “the kitbag syndrome”: as all the campers are resting under a tree after a long day of hiking, the truck arrives with everyone’s equipment on it. The group leader shouts to the campers, “Can you lend a hand in unpacking the truck?” For some reason, Amitay says, he always feels these calls are addressed to him personally, so he always gives a hand.

After volunteering, he was drafted into the army and assigned as a teacher in a combat unit. Amitay enrolled at Hebrew University, where he studied math and computer science. His experience as a construction and electrical worker from his high school years got him a job as an electrician. Soon afterwards, he was appointed as a manger and put in charge of a group of construction electricians whose team laid the foundations for the first Intel factory in Jerusalem. He then moved with his wife to the northern city of Maalot, and worked as a minor printing officer in a newly opened computer company, one of the first such companies in the country. Trying to make his work more efficient, Amitay started programming and writing software in his spare time. His boss found out, and after six months he was promoted to a programmer position. His experience as an end user of the product prompted him to make great advances in the efficiency of the work. Working as a printing officer taught him to always think about the needs of the end user, rather than those of the developer, an understanding he carries with him today in Kol Zchut.

Because of his wife’s studies, and a mutual desire to see more of the world, Amitay’s family relocated to Boston for two years. In Boston, Amitay encountered tremendous opportunities in the field of computer innovation and entrepreneurship. After their return home, Amitay received an offer from Astea, an American company that he was in contact with in Boston, to open a development center in Israel. In 1991, Amitay’s center became one of the first centers of its kind in the country. In six years, the center grew to more than fifty workers and became self-reliant, at which point Amitay felt able to resign. With a few friends, Amitay then founded a new company in 1997: Tefensoft. After nine years of operation, he sold the company.