Listen to this article
We are living in a giant Petri dish of our own making, an experiment in what it means to live in the digital age. This process is being underpinned by the unbelievably rapid advance and ubiquity of connected devices such as smartphones, tablets and, soon, glasses, watches and clothes. Yet this technological capacity far outstrips our knowledge of how to use it. We are not entirely sure what any of this is really for.
So far, the experiment has provoked three main responses: excitement from the super-optimists who believe we are on the verge of a new era of democracy, co-operation and abundance; alarm from pessimists who think we are undermining respect for authority, expertise and discernment; and scepticism from those who cannot see what all the fuss is about because most of what really matters does not come from a microprocessor or smartphone.
At Nominet Trust, one of the UK’s leading funders of social technology ventures, we wanted to find out how these digital technologies could help solve big social challenges. We believe such efforts, if implemented effectively, can make a tangible difference to people’s lives, especially in the developing world where there are severe shortages of doctors and teachers, hospitals and schools, and traditional models of providing essential services do not work.
To assess the state of social innovation, we launched the Nominet Trust 100, a project to find and recognise the most inspiring applications of digital technology for social good. From a long list of more than 400, identified by our own research and public nominations, a steering group of experts and opinion formers, led by Annika Small, the trust’s chief executive, has come up with the top 100 projects.
We have taken an optimistic yet pragmatic approach. In selecting our examples, we were looking for three things: inspiring new solutions to difficult problems; impact, at a scale affecting millions of people; and inspiration that could provide an idea or model that others might follow or emulate.
. . .
Our snapshot is necessarily fuzzy. “It is just the beginning,” says Madhav Chavan, one of the Nominet Trust judges, whose own organisation, Pratham, works to improve the provision of education for underprivileged children in India. “I particularly hope that more innovators will come forward and share what they are doing so we can build on what is the start of a very good platform.”
Still, our list hints at several distinct features that are coming into focus. Digital technologies are innovation multipliers: each new wave of technology amplifies our ability to create. Smartphones that become a platform for apps and the mobile internet lead to other innovations in mobile computing, such as the creation of low-cost tablet devices.
The selection also suggests that the way in which ideas are being implemented is changing. That is why the innovation with the greatest reach and impact may not be the latest all-singing-and-dancing smartphone or iPad but more basic technologies. So, in India, a project called Crowdring has turned the featureless “unsmart” mobile phone into a tool for fighting corruption. And in China, an old-fashioned website called Baby Come Home helps parents find their missing or abducted children.
As these examples show, social innovation is not just coming from Silicon Valley but from developing countries, too. In Brazil, an open-source culture has created Catraca Livre and the remarkable Fora do Eixo, a co-operative which organises thousands of cultural events across the country through a cashless barter system. Mexico, meanwhile, has produced Medicall Home, a revolutionary national primary healthcare service based on the mobile network. These cases highlight how innovation flowers when technology reaches people with urgent needs but few resources and no option but to come up with novel solutions.
The pace of this type of innovation is quickening. Good ideas are emerging faster than ever because once an idea such as the Khan Academy – a not-for-profit digital education start-up which provides free lessons online – proves successful, demand almost mobilises itself. The organisation, which started just seven years ago, has delivered more than 300 million lessons to 1.25 million registered users, in languages ranging from Indonesian to Xhosa.
Social innovations are also feeding off each other. We excluded from our list “grandparents” – inspirational but older ideas such as Wikipedia – because they were so well established. Yet some of them, such as the Creative Commons licensing standard for open-source content, whereby content creators allow their work to be used for free and legally by others, are enablers for other innovators. So, Viki, a Singapore-based on-demand video-sharing platform, screens licensed content on one of its channels that is then translated by a team of volunteers so that popular culture from, say, South Korea is accessible to viewers in the US.
All of this is changing what people can do and where they can do it, reducing their reliance on professionals and formal institutions. A good example is Netra, a device that turns a mobile phone into a digital eye test that can be administered by a community health worker.
Yet some of the most impressive initiatives – such as Patients Like Me and Zooniverse – create a structured way for professionals and amateurs to combine their different insights in healthcare and scientific research respectively.
In some cases, digital innovation is iterative, supplementing and extending existing services. Thus, HemoGlobe turns a mobile phone into a haemoglobin monitor to check on anaemia levels. But in many more examples it is disruptive, threatening to upend established industries. Music and publishing have already experienced that kind of disruption; education, health and even banking may yet get the same medicine. Nothing is going to settle down soon.
. . .
Digital technology is even transforming how we see ourselves. People now expect to be able to connect through wifi or a mobile signal wherever and whenever they want to; they want to voice their view using any number of channels, share information and mobilise around causes. In the developing world, in particular, the acquisition of even a basic mobile phone is an enabler for this and a sign that while you may not be able to read or write, you count because you are connected and cannot be taken for granted as once you were.
This does not mean digital technologies are going to renew the institutions of democracy – such hopes have not been borne out. Instead, they have fed more chaotic political movements. So expect a world in which democracy is increasingly sustained by everyday culture rather than political parties; where citizens think they govern one another as well as being governed by the state; where powerful institutions are regarded as remote because they do not know how to take part in everyday life. This is the future of politics and this terrain will favour new political actors, represented on our list by the likes of Avaaz, the global campaigning platform.
Social media are often dismissed as shallow gossip. Yet viewed from a distance the web is like a mosaic of what matters to us, most movingly represented in our list by the 7 Billion Others, a site where you can watch interviews with 6,000 people from around the world, answering the same 45 questions about their hopes, memories and fears. The site was put together by a team of French film-makers who wanted to explore the commonality of human concerns across cultures.
Soon we will be able to see, perhaps in real time, where we fit into this picture. Ubiquitous, connected devices are starting to generate mountains of “big data” about our behaviour. Data is becoming sacred – what we eat, how fit we are, how much carbon we use – as it becomes more quantified. That in turn may help us to address common challenges such as how our cities use energy. At the same time biological applications of digital technologies, exemplified by 23andMe, the personal genome decoding service, will offer us possibly disturbing views of the inner workings of our bodies.
Perhaps the most perplexing question is whether all this technology is really for us or whether, on the contrary, we are for it, as we squeeze our lives into status updates and delegate our decisions to algorithms.
That is why our snapshot is only a hint of where the world is heading. By the end of the next decade, a new era will have come into being. Whereas all previous civilisations created technologies that were tools to amplify our capacities, in this mobile and networked age, technology will become more like a form of life, which we will inhabit, all of the time.
Our identities will become inseparable from these technologies and our lives impossible without them. Many people are troubled by the spread of this high-tech dependency culture. Yet our snapshot shows such pessimism is overstated. We are only just starting to come together to work out how these technologies can make available some of the basic services needed for a decent life: quality learning and healthcare, clean water and energy, open markets and more responsive political systems. The experiment has a long way to run yet. The best way to influence the outcome is to get involved.
Arduino is like Lego for electronics. The core to an Arduino is a simple, ultra-low-cost circuit board, based on an open-source design, armed with a microprocessor which can be programmed with simple, open-source software tools by the user.
The idea is that anyone should be able to turn an Arduino into a simple electronic device such as a light switch and sensor. The project was started by a group at the Interaction Design Institute at Ivrea in Italy as a way to get people making their own electronics hardware, just as simple software tools like Scratch, a project born at the MIT Media Lab and another entrant on the Nominet Trust 100 list, are helping children to learn to code.
If the Arduino follows in Scratch’s tracks it will become ubiquitous: the Scratch website currently has more than two million registered users and four million shared projects.
. . .
It is hard to underestimate the impact that internet-enabled mobile telephony has had on the world. Yet more than 70 per cent of the mobile phone market is made up of basic phones, the kind that come with a plastic casing, pushable buttons and a tiny screen.
An Australian-based internet service called biNu has come up with a clever way to close the gap between the smartphone and the basic phone. Founded by IT professionals Gour Lentell and Dave Turner, biNu holds apps and other services in a remote “cloud” and delivers them instantly to phones. It allows for easy translation to different languages, all with negligible data use and at low cost.
The service is used by more than five million people across Africa, Asia and other emerging markets, and the company is growing by 400 per cent each year.
. . .
Patients Like Me
Stephen Heywood was diagnosed with ALS (also known as motor neurone disease) at the age of 29. A devastating and debilitating condition, it leaves less than 4 per cent of sufferers with more than 10 years to live: Stephen was 37 when he died. In those eight years, he and his family searched in vain for successful new treatments through an agonisingly slow process of trial-and-error.
Ben and James, Stephen’s brothers, founded Patients Like Me in 2004, a little more than a year before his death. Their aim was to allow patients and their families to share their experiences of symptoms, treatments and sources of support. The ALS model inspired other families affected by different conditions to follow suit. By 2013, Patients Like Me had more than 200,000 members, a 200-strong team and references to more than 2,000 conditions.
Patients Like Me believes in a mixture of peer support, social networks and hard data. Members are encouraged to share data (treatment history, side effects, symptoms, weight, mood, quality of life) in standard ways. This data is then aggregated and presented back to them so they can easily compare their experiences across the whole cohort. It is also a rich and growing resource for medical researchers. The in-house research team has published more than a dozen peer-reviewed papers and the site has been cited in thousands of published scientific articles.
. . .
The Brazilian site Catraca Livre wants people to socialise more cheaply. Established in 2011 by journalist and social activist Gilberto Dimenstein with the support of the MIT Media Lab, Catraca Livre, which means “free turnstile”, has become so popular that its name is used as slang to describe any free event. The site, which began in São Paulo, was already one of the 10 most popular in Brazil long before it spread to 12 more cities.
Catraca Livre’s mission, to recommend activities that are free and worthwhile, reflects Dimenstein’s belief that cities can become “learning communities” through fostering the free exchange of ideas, skills and experiences.
Visitors to Catraca Livre, which is available on the web, on mobiles and on screens on most São Paulo buses, can browse through free talks, concerts and exhibitions, find introductory yoga classes and doctors prepared to provide free consultations to poorer patients.
. . .
A drab office block in a busy inner suburb of Mexico City is the epicentre of one of the most revolutionary approaches to primary healthcare anywhere in the world. A team of 20 paramedics, dressed in starched white coats, sit in cubicles waiting to answer phones. The medics are supported by computer systems loaded with protocols pooled from some of the best hospitals in the world to help them diagnose conditions. This little call-centre is the heart of Medicall Home, created by a telemarketing entrepreneur, Pedro Yrigoyen, which provides a bare-bones primary healthcare service for about five million Mexicans for just $5 a month, paid through their mobile phone bill.
Access to doctors and nurses is limited, especially in poorer rural areas of Mexico. Medicall Home provides a low-cost alternative. Two-thirds of the issues raised by callers are resolved over the phone, which means patients don’t have to visit a doctor at a cost of at least $30 and miss a day of work. If Medicall Home recommends that the patient goes to a doctor or has a blood test then it connects them to one of its network of 6,000 accredited doctors or 3,000 healthcare providers, in 233 cities, where they can claim discounts of anything between 5 per cent and 50 per cent.
As mobile networks spread across Latin America so will Medicall Home, starting with Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
. . .
Jon Wallace is a teacher with a global following: in two years, the 218 worksheets, activities, games and tests he has uploaded to TES Connect have been downloaded nearly 200,000 times by 65,800 teachers in 173 countries. He is just one of hundreds of thousands of “big sharers” who have helped turn TES Connect, a website created by the Times Educational Supplement, into a vast repository of teaching resources created for teachers by teachers. The site had 667,867 teaching resources in October 2013 but that is increasing by 20,000 items a week. At peak times there are 3.7 million downloads a week from the site.
The Times Educational Supplement first launched a website in 1997, which quickly began providing discussion forums for “early adopter” teachers. As the technology – and the user base – developed, the forums started to be used by teachers informally to share teaching resources. As the number of teachers posting, sharing and downloading resources grew, the TES responded and in 2006 set up a “resources bank” whose popularity made it an obvious step to launch the first incarnation of TES Connect in 2008.
. . .
Baby Come Home
On March 17, a 21-year-old man called Xu Yang was reunited with his family after 15 years’ separation by registering on the remarkable Chinese website, Baby Come Home.
As a five-year-old, Xu and his brother were out shopping with their mother when a group of men forced her down an alleyway, where she was killed. The children were then trafficked across the country and eventually sold to different foster parents.
More than 20,000 children a year go missing in China, sold to desperate adults who want children or, worse, into slave labour, prostitution or begging. For parents, finding their children in a country the size of China is almost impossible.
Baby Come Home helps families first by publishing missing profiles on the site – Xu’s story was viewed 100,000 times.
Baby Come Home’s mobile phone app also allows anyone with a smartphone to become an instant search volunteer, just by taking a photo of a child they suspect may have been abducted. The Missing Children app then compares the photograph to the missing persons database using facial recognition software. The results are almost instantaneous. There have been 686 successful reunions to date and 13,167 people are still searching for lost relatives through the site.
. . .
Zooniverse is the internet’s most popular citizen science platform, where professional scientists invite hundreds of thousands of volunteers to help them with their research. About 880,000 people have taken part so far; one project to map the surface of Mars involved more than 70,000 people classifying four million images.
The platform was created by the Citizen Science Alliance, a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators, and includes institutions such as the University of Nottingham, the National Maritime Museum and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.
Zooniverse has been so successful that it has already spawned a spin-off, a project called Cellslider which is helping cancer researchers to find rogue cells.
By using thousands of willing helpers, many of them students, scientists engulfed by a flood of data get their research done more quickly. The volunteers also learn from being deeply engaged in real scientific research.
. . .
Anaemia is regarded as unavoidable in the developing world: each year, 115,000 women and 600,000 babies die in childbirth due to anaemia caused by a lack of haemoglobin in the blood.
HemoGlobe, created by a team of undergraduate students at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, might help provide a solution: it turns a mobile phone into a light, portable and low-cost haemoglobin monitor, so women can easily get the right diagnosis and start taking the iron supplements needed to save their lives.
Traditional anaemia tests require a trained nurse to draw the blood and a lab technician, working in controlled conditions, to analyse it. The HemoGlobe uses a technique called pulse oximetry to read haemoglobin levels by shining light through parts of the body.
Software allows the mobile phone’s computing power to translate the haemoglobin readings into colour graphics: green for mild anaemia, yellow for moderate, red for severe.
. . .
“Give me a missed call” is part of the daily currency of communication for millions of frugal Indian consumers. Imagine two people are planning to meet. The first person to get to the rendezvous signals that they have arrived by calling the other but deliberately ending the call before it is answered. The call shows up in the “missed call” log of the recipient, who knows her friend has arrived but neither of them is charged for the call. It’s a very basic, free form of communication.
Social justice activist Anna Hazare has turned the missed call into a tool for political activism involving millions of people. In 2011, he pressed for the adoption of an anti-corruption law by asking the public to send a text in support of the campaign: 80,000 came in. Hazare decided that was not enough so he asked people to join the movement by sending a missed call to the campaign’s local numbers. In two weeks he got more than 35 million.
Used in this way, the missed call allows people to register their support for a campaign, while the campaign team gets hold of their number, which they can use to send out information by text. It’s an ultra-low-cost way to build a database.
Thanks to a campaign on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform, Crowdring is being turned into an open-source platform to be used anywhere. It is being piloted in Rio de Janeiro, Bangalore and Nairobi.
. . .
The story of Pandaman, the heroic Korean detective trying to prevent a criminal gang from taking over the world using a device that controls the brain of anyone who encounters it, might not seem like a promising place to start a global community to share popular culture. Yet Pandaman is just one of thousands of television shows from around the world available on Viki, a Singapore-based site on which avid fans can translate content for other fans who do not speak the language in which the material was made.
Launched in December 2010 as a joint project between Harvard and Stanford graduate students, Viki attracts tens of millions of users every month, watching and sharing TV shows, movies, music videos and other content from around the world, translated into 160 languages. Viki screens licensed content on one of its channels, and the content is subtitled by a team of volunteers from the community under a Creative Commons licence using translation software developed for the company.
With more than two billion video streams and 400 million words translated to date, Viki, a private company, brings global primetime entertainment to new audiences and unlocks new markets and revenue opportunities for content owners.
The judging panel for the Nominet Trust 100 was: Caroline Daniel, editor of FT Weekend; Madhav Chavan, co-founder of Pratham, an Indian educational non-governmental organisation; William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute; Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology correspondent; Jeremy Heimans, founder and chief executive of Purpose, the campaigning platform; Lord Jim Knight, former education minister; Catherine McCarthy, initiator of BBC Janala, an English-language education programme in Bangladesh; Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of Nesta; and Annika Small (chair), chief executive of the Nominet Trust.
Icon illustrations by Alberto Antoniazzi
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published