When most people picture a technology entrepreneur they probably imagine some hoodie-clad bright spark in Silicon Valley creating the next consumer gadget or piece of enterprise software. A group of mothers in Bangladesh or a 12-year-old Lego enthusiast might not spring to mind so quickly.
But a new field of innovation is emerging and gaining momentum – one that is focused on harnessing the power of digital technology to tackle major social problems. That 12-year-old boy, for example, has created Braigo, an affordable Braille printer from his Lego and recently announced major investment from Intel, while those mothers in Bangladesh are using simple mobile technology to stop more than 8000 newborn deaths every day via lifesaving MAMA health information texts. As people around the world share ideas and inventions, this wave of ‘tech for good’ is proving that anyone with the passion to drive change or build something new can be a technology entrepreneur. In doing so, they can have a radical impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.
The annual Nominet Trust 100 (NT100) celebrates some of these unsung heroes. As a showcase of the 100 most inspiring projects using technology for social good, it includes global giants like Google’s self-driving car and Freecycle alongside small local projects, all tackling major social issues such as health, education, civic empowerment and the environment.
Educational ventures comprised the largest portion of this year’s list, from the MOOCs and code clubs close to home, to ventures promoting access to knowledge in emerging markets. One of the projects that stood out for me was pop-up media centre initiative, Ideas Box. Run by Bibliothèques Sans Frontières, it brings much-needed education and resources to refugee camps, where children and adults all too often lose access to opportunities for learning, entertainment and achievement. In little more than a year since its launch, Ideas Box has already enriched the lives of people in some of the most challenging circumstances. They are working in partnership with Kahn Academy to understand and share the impact they are having, encouraging others to follow their example wherever there is a need.
Health was also a major focus this year. While big players in the medtech industry often make headlines, some of the most remarkable solutions are considerably less high-profile. In the UK, for example, there is an interesting trend of medically-focused tech entrepreneurs turning smartphones into diagnostic devices, some of which have been highlighted by the NT100. Examples include Cambridge-based Skin Analytics, which has made an attachment that allows you to use your mobile phone to photograph, measure and diagnose skin moles to see if there’s a danger of them into a melanoma. Working further afield is Peek, an app and 3D-printed $5 (£3.30) clip that together turn a smartphone into a tool for detecting visual impairments, from cataracts and glaucoma to macular degeneration. Also IanXen-RAPID, an iPhone app and clip-on microscope attachment that accelerates the process of detecting Malaria parasites in a blood sample, cheaply and easily.
Both Malaria and blindness are for the most part preventable if diagnosed early, and technology is a powerful tool to help achieve this. The key here is overturning preconceptions of medical technology necessarily being expensive and hard to transport – we often hear the buzzword ‘disruptive’ bandied around in tech, but nowhere is it more genuinely apt than in the realms of digital social innovation.
With many countries in the West facing pressures of aging populations, improving quality of life for those that are living longer is another pressing social issue. One project demonstrating that admirably is LiftWare, a tremor-cancelling spoon developed in the US, which empowers Parkinson’s sufferers to eat with a steady hand. The technology recently attracted the attention of Google X Labs so we will no doubt be seeing more of them as they develop a full range of ‘smart utensils’.
Driven by a similar incentive to restore independence is UK-based Ostom-i Alert, a relatively simple device developed by a bowel transplant patient that automatically monitors ostomy bags, giving fellow patients back their dignity and freedom. The invention has the potential to help five million people worldwide and is part of a trend of health solutions that use tangible technology to put control back in the hands of patients.
There is an astonishing variety of different kinds of tech being utilised to achieve social goals. GPS, for instance, has come a long way from its military origins to be the facilitator for crowd-mapping technologies, from HarassMap’s logging of sexual assault incidents in Egypt to the recording of accessibility hotspots demonstrated by Wheelmap and Euan’s Guide. Similarly, US naval research project Tor, the counter-surveillance ‘onion router’, is now enabling projects like WildLeaks to protect wildlife whistle-blowers, providing an anonymous platform for them to report conservation crimes.
This kind of civic empowerment is also embodied by Poplus, a global network of coders and transparency advocates creating an international suite of tools that will allow citizens the world over to hold their governments to account. One of the amazing things the Internet has provided is this potential for instant, worldwide communication and collaboration. It is giving people the chance to take action on issues that matter to them, without waiting for governments to introduce policies or big businesses to give financial backing to their cause. Poplus has the remarkably ambitious aim of building an agreed set of open-source components required for 21st century accountability, designed to be adapted to individual political systems.
These are just a few examples of some of the fantastically creative work happening in communities across the world. Even those at an early stage have tremendous potential to shake things up – both in terms of new applications of technology and the social problems they are applied to – and those a little further down the line are leading the way for others to follow.
The NT100 is by no means an exhaustive list, as demonstrated by the ever growing catalogue of ground-breaking ventures that Nominet Trust is collating on the Social Tech Guide. We are aiming to build a community of like-minded innovators, who can collaborate and learn from each other’s approaches. I hope these examples prompt conversation and debate, and inspire others to apply themselves in creating the next generation of digital social innovation.