January 13 2016By Guest
With thanks to Amy O’Donnell, ICT in Programme Lead, Oxfam GB and 2015 NT100 Judging Partner, for writing this guest blog post.
“This sounds so cool I’m not even sure it’s possible,” was one of comments a colleague at Oxfam shared when judging the 2015 NT100 technologies for social good. The opportunity to be part of the judging panel was hugely insightful for Oxfam staff and brought together a group of us representing different areas from monitoring and evaluation and technology and innovation to gender and livelihoods. Looking at different uses of ‘tech for good’ took us out of our comfort zones, challenged our understanding of successful uses of technology and opened our eyes to the potential of some really cutting edge applications. Here are a few highlights which we found inspiring and themes we saw emerge.
We are operating in a volatile world with more conflicts and increasing fragility, meaning that the reality for new or expecting mums isn't always a hospital bed. So a highlight for us was reading about MOM: a portable inflatable incubator for babies born in conflict zones. The WHO estimates that 75% of premature babies could be saved with access to incubation. It was the cost savings and rugged nature of MOM which really demonstrated its huge life saving potential.
Humanitarian Open Street Map’s accurate mapping system used for field workers in the Ebola crisis in West Africa was another highlight for us. Clear maps can be a game changer, especially in containment contexts, by allowing humanitarians to be responsive on the basis of real time data. Complementary to this, connectivity is vital, so we were also impressed with Vodafone’s technology in a backpack to provide communications support in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Thinking back to when I first thought about NT100, it has been interesting to discuss with colleagues and reflect on how our expectations about this process changed. Firstly, I was imagining mostly software solutions looking at data interpretation and communications, but the entries delved much more into hardware, sensors and physical tech demonstrating a shift towards approaches in the “Internet of Things” sphere. It is amazing to see the breadth of ideas in this emergent space, which can really inspire Oxfam to consider applications in our work – for example ways we could use maps or water sensors more effectively.
Secondly, I was expecting more focus on stories than on products. I think this sentiment came through in some of my colleague’s comments, we felt some projects had built some really promising tech but the impact or purpose wasn’t as clearly connected. We agree that this is an important step to ensure we are not tools driven but ensure applications are closely linked to the change they set out to achieve.
A few threads we noticed in terms of challenges were about relevance and affordability when it comes to access to technology for the most marginalised groups and how technology is being used to empower women. Linked to this are questions around scalability and business models to ensure these approaches can be sustainable and realistic. A few times we flagged concerns about privacy which often goes hand-in-hand with uses of data – a consideration which motivated Oxfam to write our Responsible Data Policy.
Technology is undoubtedly having a disruptive effect on the way different sectors can challenge power imbalances, use data to back up claims with evidence and harness the power of real time information. While there are risks and challenges, technology can be a powerful catalyst for change and we have to snap up opportunities to influence the rapidly changing future. The judging process has been a great opportunity for a subset of staff across Oxfam to step out of their day jobs and consider the potential of technology. The NT100 plays a fundamental role in celebrating and recognising the role of technology for social good – not just for profit – to encourage development and enhance debate so different sectors can come together to exploit technology’s transformational potential.