May 31 2015By Ed Anderton
On Sunday, as part of the Southbank Centre's WebWeWant festival, Tech for Good TV hosted a discussion on the 'Brave New World' of social tech /digital social innovation / civic tech/ (insert preferred term here)
It was a pleasure to have been invited to share a few international examples gleaned from our research efforts on the Social Tech Guide - see the Prezi above for a swooshy graphical rendering, with some brief comments on each example below.
I was on a panel alongside Paul Miller (Bethnal Green Ventures), Carrie Bishop (FutureGov) and David Stevens (Citizens Advice), hosted by Tech For Good's Beatrice Pembroke. It was great to see Paul and Carrie being their usual eloquent selves, explaining their splendid work, with which I am happily already very familiar (but if you're not, do please check them out). Via another great organisation, DataKind, I had also previously seen the Citizen's Advice Live Dashboard which David talked through. What I hadn't fully appreciated was that this was just one of a whole group of digital projects/products that he and the rest of CA's 'Alpha team' are working on: it's really heartening to hear that an organisation of their size and history is exploring the potential of digital in such an ambitious way.
Once we'd each done our 'bits', Beatrice ran us through a quick Q+A: and the question which sticks in my mind concerned the "inside/outside" choice for aspiring digital innovators. Is it more effective to develop techie goodness as a nimble start-up (of the type Bethnal Green Ventures nurture), or within a large institution, promulgating change from within (as David and colleagues are doing at Citizens Advice)? I'd suggest that FutureGov's MO sits somewhere in the middle, specialising as they do in being trusted outsiders invited to "work within" - as exemplified by Patchwork.
At Nominet Trust, we've funded projects right across that spectrum, and to be honest it is still too early to draw any firm conclusions - as Carrie pointed out, our distinguished alumni have suggested that it takes between 5 and 7 years for the most successful digital initiatives to achieve scale, and we've only supporting these types of scalable projects for less than 4. It seems clear that we don't want to sit around waiting for big organisations to follow the example of Citizen's Advice (or GDS), and it is thrilling to see the quality and range of start-ups coming through BGV's doors consistently increasing, so broadly speaking, I lean towards Paul's view that the most energy and diversity will continue to come from the 'outside' camp. Yet it also behooves us to celebrate the exceptions operating on the inside, and support benevolent insurgents like FutureGov, as they are also crucial to achieving the scale of change we can all see is possible.
All in all, it was a most affirming afternoon - I hope the projects shared below leave you feeling similarly inspired...
This represents for me a 'sweet spot' social tech venture. Using the input of language learners benefitting from their free app, Duolingo drives a 'captcha' style commercial translation service which sustains their business and enables them to keep the user-facing services free. Except they are now, responding to demand, offering paid-for accreditation - they quite literally couldn't (just) give it away...
Using feature phones and low-cost eReaders to put literature into the hands of readers in poorly served parts of the world - operating in a global span of countries, as illustrated by this 'where we are' map. Notable for the eloquence of their delivery mechanism (predominantly via the type of mobile phones their target audience already have, or can access), and for their impact reporting and commitment to share what they are learning.
The limiting factor for many relying on feature phones is access to a reliable power-supply. BuffaloGrid not only provides a solution - mobile, solar-powered charging units - but has developed a profit-sharing franchise business model, allowing local entrepreneurs to make a living from keeping their communities connected.
Co-convened by MySociety and Chile's Cuidadano Inteligente ('Smart Citizen'), Poplus puts freely available tools in the hands of citizens around the world which enable them to open up their relationship with their government and other authorities. These include SayIt, which allows you to publish searchable transcripts of government proceedings, and MapIt, giving you the ability to easily display 'administrative geography' such as constituency, province or state boundaries.
12582 is a platform run by China Mobile. It runs as a loss-making, social venture, using SMS messages to connect farmers to one another as well as buyers and sellers. Known in China as Nong Xin Tong, and also as the Facebook for Farmers, 12582 helps to keep farmers abreast of developments in farming techniques, for example in greenhouse management and product labelling.
Filling one of the many gaps and inequalities in the health services available in Russia, DonorSearch matches those willing to donate, with those who need, a blood transfusion. Even filtered through the slightly mangled google-translated-Russian, I defy anyone not to be moved by the many heartfelt comments from users of their service on their site.
One of a number of 'smartphone + add-on = medical diagnostic device' projects we came across in 2014 (see this blog for a full list), EyeNetra has spun out of an MIT Media Lab project to become an ambitious start-up, bringing low-cost, accurate optometry to communities who might never otherwise have had access to such treatment.
A platform which has enabled a plethora of socially beneficial projects, Frontline is is open-source software that helps users engage their communities with SMS, with just a laptop and a mobile connection. Check out their case studies page to see the range and depth of the impact being made via the humble text message.