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Balancing Acts

Balancing Acts

October 03 2014

By Ed Anderton
  • Education
  • Health

Searching for the most inspiring, socially valuable uses of digital technology from around the world is, essentially, a privilege. This year’s research efforts have left me feeling moved by, and grateful for, the talent, energy and persistence of the thousands of people whose work I and the team have inspected from afar. Amidst the complexity and variety of their projects, we could draw out many overlapping themes or possible trends, but a transfer of agency and power from institutions to groups and individuals can be seen to some degree in almost everything we’ve found. 

Social tech is helping a diverse and dispersed range of organisations achieve their aims and communicate their impact, predominantly outside of our existing institutions. The shifting balance between these institutions and the groups and individuals they serve is illuminated by the projects we’ve found in this year’s NT100 research: particularly in health, education and politics.

Health
There is so much here we could talk about: 3D printing (Build a Hand, Project Daniel), SMS (MAMA, PulsePoint) and Open Source (OpenWorm) are all being used to create productive, decentralised networks which enhance our health care. It is the use of a smartphone as a diagnostic device, however, which throws up the richest set of examples.

Peek, EYENETRA, DhilCare, Ostom-I Alert Sensor, MobileOCT, eCompliance, IanXEN RAPID, Skin Analytics: these projects collectively sketch out the potential for mobiles to become increasingly sophisticated and adaptable medical devices. While most of these tools are designed to provide a service where none currently exists (e.g. eye tests in remote areas of India or Uganda), as their reliability improves, will we start to see them replace the large, expensive diagnostic machines used in those countries fortunate enough to have well-funded health services?

Reduce, rather than replace, seems more likely - a ‘highest-end’ class of diagnostic machine will surely persist in areas such as optometry, while the prospect of a mobile-powered MRI-scanner is pretty distant. With such exceptions, we may increasingly see a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) health care system, which would not only reduce what we spend on ‘big health’ technologies, but also distribute previously specialised - and expensive - skills to anyone able to operate a given app correctly.

Education
We can see a parallel redistribution of access and expertise in education: we are increasingly able to learn outside of - or with a different relationship to - schools, colleges and universities.

The emergence and spread of MOOCs such as edX are a clear example of this, the implications of which are still very much playing out. Generation Rwanda’s Kepler project (a $1,000 degree course, combining MOOC materials and face-to-face teaching) is a particularly interesting example, demonstrating the work which needs to be done to enable students to access this material in practice. An institution, albeit of a quite different kind, is still required.

Duolingo, meanwhile, appears to operate entirely outside of formal education: structured foreign language teaching, which is offered available for free as students are providing a valuable translation service as a by-product of their learning. Significantly, however, they are responding to user demand by developing a certification service, for which they are planning to charge: becoming, in a small way, institutional.

Politics
The most obvious place to start here is with the extensive and valuable body of work done by organisations such as the Sunlight Foundation in making the inner workings of our governments more transparent and comprehensible. Poplus, a set of freely available tools with which you can gather and map ‘civic data’, in turn suggests that we could see a further decentralisation in this domain: groups and individuals increasingly empowered to aggregate and analyse data independently, and reach their own conclusions.

The likes of HarassMap, OVDinfo and Videre, meanwhile, all exemplify ways in which digital technology can enable groups to gather and share new, politically significant information: i.e. that which has the potential to influence institutional change. Yet some data and a map on a website is not enough: Harassmap’s community mobilisation work beautifully illustrates how they are affecting change through ‘in person’ interactions, presenting their evidence to “shopkeepers, police officers, doormen, restaurant and café owners” as key representatives of the ‘institutional’ Egyptian street culture.

None of these examples above suggest the imminent demise of our current institutions, but across these three domains, in countries with vastly different infrastructures, we can see the variety of ways in which they are being transformed by the ‘turbulence’ generated by people building and using social tech.

Setting out how the projects mentioned above – and the many more we’ve found this year – are currently having an impact on their ‘surroundings’ in this way, will be a key component of our work with our steering group, as we guide them through the process of selecting the NT100 for 2014. Existing institutions are clearly one key element of the context for each project: in fact many could fairly be described as explicitly seeking to shift the status quo. In some cases, their trajectory – if they grow to their full potential – may well be to become institutions in themselves (Wikipedia being a particularly illuminating case in point). 

Would this make them more or less inspiring? We’re very much looking forward to exploring such questions with our steering group, and presenting the 100 they choose out of the no-doubt heated debate they will provoke. 

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