Tech For Good: How can we harness technology to do more good?

Tech for GoodCassie Robinson from Tech For Good explores some of the ways in which digital has been used to find innovative solutions to social problems. Digital technology gives us access to a whole new universe of problem solving tools. Sometimes, it is only when we evolve our technology that we can acknowledge that we have a problem in the first place.

A good example would be data gathering revealing changing consumer needs, or, in the example Cassie gives, mapping sexual harassment in Egypt.

New communities, even among people who cannot access the internet, can be created, while a smart phone can be turned into a mobile optician. 

 

“Back in 2008, the pioneering Social Innovation Camp launched, bringing together a community of technology developers into a room with people trying to solve challenging social issues. It was the beginning of a movement of people trying to use technology to do “good” and the term “tech for good” was borne. 8 years later and Social Innovation Camp has added Bethnal Green Ventures to its bow, with an alumni of over 120 “tech for good” ventures going through its accelerator programme and a proliferation of other organisations, investors, and funders getting on board with the idea. Tech For Good Global, a partner of Bethnal Green Ventures was created to keep building the community and illuminate not just #techforgood ventures but all the people, communities and institutions that are using and building Tech For Good. We believe that we are only just beginning to see how technologies and the web can be used to address complex and seemingly unsolvable social challenges.  Below are some of the ways we currently see tech doing good.

  1. Speeding things up

The Web is often criticised for speeding up our lives. We complain our time is spent either staring at the bigger screen of a computer, or the smaller screen of a smartphone.

When it comes to ‘tech for good’, however, we are beginning to see how the speed of the web can bring real benefits. DrDoctor, a London-based startup, have been using the Web to speed up the process of getting an appointment at the hospital. By allowing patients to manage their care online, DrDoctor is achieving better outcomes, a higher degree of productivity for hospitals, and a more comfortable, controlled experience for patients.

During the Nepal earthquake, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap undertook open, collaborative mapping to help build up a more accurate picture of roads and other geography so that aid could reach those most in need, more quickly.

 

  1. Finding things

It’s said that you can find anything online – and the capacity of the web for storing huge amounts of information opens up all sorts of possibilities.

The Trussell Trust, who partner with local communities to help stop UK hunger have created a mapping tool that uses data to predict potential areas of “unmet” need. This will help them to find where need for the trust’s services may be greatest across the country.

Consider the work done by ethical big data company Mastodon C. Working in collaboration with Open Health Care UK, they scrutinised prescriptions written by family doctors across the country, looking to find out where generic statins were not being utilised. Eventually, this became a way for doctors to compare what they were prescribing with other practitioners, highlighting ways for the NHS to reduce costs by £200m.

 

  1. Opening up

While legitimate considerations about the protection of our data abound, it is crucial to remember that technology is still driving forward a transparency revolution.

MySociety, for instance, is using the web to create more accountability in government. One of the initiative’s most popular websites,TheyWorkForYou, seeks to provide citizens with information about their local MP, from how they have voted to videos of the MP in debates, promoting a more knowledgeable and politically active population.

Another MySociety innovation, Alaveteli, is also advancing citizen-led transparency. Alaveteli is a platform for Freedom of Information that allows citizens to inquire and prod public authorities on issues they feel strongly about. The platform automatically publishes the Q&A sessions, making them available online for all to see. Alavateli can be put to use in any country, regardless of its language or legislation.

There are many more examples. The web means we can now find out exactly where what we’ve bought comes from. Fairphone, a social enterprise based in the Netherlands, is shedding light on the use of conflict minerals in electronic devices through accessing data on supply chains and opening up the data on their own supply chains. In 2013, the outfit developed the first ‘Fairphone’, created with materials that support local economies, and have sold out of their first batch of 60,000 devices.

  1. Creating new communities

We all know about Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But the internet is also providing new, innovative and effective ways for people to convene and participate in action.

Patients Like Me for instance, is allowing people with certain health conditions to reach out to others with similar ailments. By comparing their experiences of symptoms and treatments, patients are able to build community around a common theme and find new forms of support. The site also gives people the option to share their health data for future medical research.

Then there’s We Farm, ‘the internet for people without the Internet’. Citing the shocking statistic that 75% of the world’s population does not have access to the Internet, the organisation serves as a hub for small-scale farmers living in remote, isolated corners of the world. Members of We Farm can ask questions and provide advice on farming by sending a text message, like ‘How do we control coffee rust disease?’ We Farm then uses a peer to peer translation system to disseminate the response to this sort of question with the rest of the We Farm community. Now, farmers in Kenya are communicating with farmers in Peru, and a whole new community has been born.

Closer to home, but with international relevance, the aim of Open Utility is to create a peer-to-peer energy marketplace, giving consumers real choice in where their power comes from.

  1. Revealing things

Technology is incredibly helpful when it comes to reflecting information back to us, with open data and live dashboards allowing for more evidenced stories. Could it actually be that technology is slowing things down, showing more information about things that used to have to be simplified because of the limitations of a printed publication or broadcast media schedule?

Live AdviceGuide, from Citizens Advice, shows what citizens are seeking online in real time – from divorce, to resigning from work, to seeking British citizenship, to bereavement benefits. It’s a real-time snap shot of what is really going on in people’s lives.

Harrassmap, meanwhile, is an Egyptian site which uses crowd-mapping to reveal reports of sexual harassment. It was designed to end the culture of impunity around sexual harassment and assault in Egypt, a country where 83% of women, and 98% of foreign women, have experienced sexual assault.

  1. Creating new cultures

The internet has been criticised for making us lazy, cutting corners and being less mindful of our mistakes. But there’s another side to this coin. The culture of digital working – agile, lean, design-lead – can not only mean that public services are less wasteful, but also create new ways of working which themselves have an impact.

Take GOV.UK, a comprehensive compilation of 24 ministerial departments and 331 agencies and public bodies, transitioned across from the old Government site by Government Digital Service. GDS have brought a totally new way of working into government, and are now in a new phase of work, Government as Platform – described as ‘a new vision for digital government; a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.’

This approach to building digital services has brought new skills, mindset and ways of working into government, and the focus on meeting user need means that people are finding government services easier to use and access. Hear some people’s stories.

FutureGov’s Patchwork is another great example of how technology and the web are changing existing institutions. After the horrific death of Baby P, FutureGov Founder Dominic Campbell explained he believed technology could be used to connect up communications and information between professionals working with vulnerable people, so that crucial – and potentially life-saving information – didn’t fall through the gaps.

Patchwork is now being used across many councils in the UK and Australia, and a culture of sharing tacit knowledge and informal conversation around social services cases is taking root.

  1. New possibilities

The web is also making use of human ingenuity, stretching our imaginations in terms of what is possible and allowing for inventions that a few decades ago we just wouldn’t have thought possible.

Netra is a device that turns a mobile phone into a digital eye test, defining their mission as being to ‘give everyone access to the vision correction they need to see the world’. Andiamo is an organisation focused on the creation of healthcare services for disabled children, ensuring ‘that no child anywhere in the world has to wait more than a week for their medical device.’ Starting in the field of orthotics , Andiamo is utilising 3D scanning and printing technology to create an orthotic device in just 48 hours.

Meanwhile, Project Daniel, currently set up in a remote community in South Sudan has created the world’s first 3D-printing prosthetic lab that allows victims of conflict to get access to a limb, costing just hundreds instead of tens of thousands of pounds.

Technology means that those who are inventors can really re-imagine and extend what is possible. In our next post we’ll write about what we mean by “good”.”

Read Part 2 here 

How big a role does digital have to play in the Future of Doing Good? What is it best at? When does it fail? Do we use it enough? Or does it overshadow over conversations? Write a response to this blog and send it to us, or host in your own site and let us know. Comment below, and tweet at #FutureGood@CassieRobinson and @techforgoodtv

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