Remote Impact: How Technology is Enabling Global Problem Solving

This post was written by Joe McMahan, a CASE Fellow and recent Duke MBA graduate. Joe previously served as a Peace Corps Fellow in Kenya and reflected on this experience when attending a panel on mobile technology in development at the 2011 Duke MBA Sustainable Business and Social Impact conference.

I’ve long been fascinated by the implications of information technology as a development tool, and throughout my time in Kenya I was amazed by the number of people – many living at a near subsistence level – that had a mobile phone.  It seemed an anachronism that a Maasai tribesman in traditional clothing would tend his cattle while talking on a phone, or a farmer in a mud house would text message a friend on a new Motorola RAZR.  Yet every day it seemed someone else had acquired a phone.

These phones were purchased primarily to keep up with family and friends, but with ever expanding coverage and a near exponential adoption rate, the potential for social and economic impact became apparent.

While I was in Kenya, several new applications for mobile phone technology hit the market:  M-Pesa became the first mobile money transfer service, making it easy for anyone with a cell phone to send and receive cash, while the Kenya Agricultural Commodities Exchange (KACE) provided agricultural pricing to smallholder farmers via SMS, enhancing their bargaining power.

Following my time abroad, I returned to pursue a Duke MBA with a focus on Social Entrepreneurship, and recently attended the Sustainable Business and Social Impact (SBSI) conference at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.  While reading through the schedule of speakers and events, I was immediately drawn to a panel entitled “Remote Impact: How Technology is Enabling Global Problem Solving from Distant Locations”.  The session featured panelists who solve problems in developing countries with innovative new approaches, primarily via mobile phone.

The panelists included Jon Gosier, a serial entrepreneur and the director of SwiftRiver and Ushahidi, two complementary technology–based nonprofits.  Ushahidi uses the power of crowdsourcing to gather information from multiple channels, including SMS, email, Twitter and the web. Ushahidi has proven its worth as a tool to report breakouts of violence and social unrest.  An example is the post-election crisis faced by Kenya in early 2008.  Throughout this unfortunate event, Ushahidi users provided real-time data as events unfolded.  However, a valid concern with such a platform is how to verify and manage the massive amounts of disparate information.

Swiftriver provides a means of aggregating information to make sense of it, using powerful algorithms to sort through vast amounts of data and provide usable and accurate information quickly. Jon’s products are open-source, ensuring a collaborative effort to improve their performance and increased adaption and scalability.

Another panelist was Nadim Mahmud, the Co-Founder and Research Director of Medic Mobile.  Medic Mobile provides health tools via open source software to bridge healthcare gaps between physicians and patients in the developing world. As health workers travel from clinics to reach isolated patients, they are often as disconnected from central clinics as the patients they are trying to serve.

Medic Mobile solves this problem through training health care workers to send text messages from the field and organize them at a central clinic.  The initial design of the mobile medic platform was participatory with the end user in mind, asking for local input rather than mandating a top-down solution.  As a result, Medic Mobile has developed innovative and user-friendly solutions such as an emergency care line that sends prioritized SMS messages for those in urgent need.

Another application of the technology enables medical forms to be filled via SMS in the field, then sent to the central office and appended to a patient’s health primary record.  The initiative has scaled to 11 countries with demonstrated impact: the Malawi pilot alone saved the clinical staff 1200 hours of follow-up time and over $3,000 in motorbike fuel.

The third panelist was Brian OliverSmith, Founder of Urban Planet Mobile Brian’s son taught English in Ecuador, and following multiple visits Brian realized that nearly everyone was carrying a mobile phone.  Inspired to use this medium to educate, Brian developed a platform to deliver educational material designed, developed, and delivered via mobile phone.

The innovation is not only in the use of mobile technology, but in the content delivery as well.  The program does not require a data plan or a smart phone, but merely the ability to receive ringtones, a feature available in the vast majority of phones on the market today.  The content comes via SMS with a link to a “ringtone” containing 1-3 minute educational content.    The platform teaches English lessons and has been tremendously popular. In Indonesia, Urban Planet Mobile gained 100,000 users within just three month.

Moreover, Brian has expanded beyond English lessons alone:  Following the earthquake in Haiti, schools were destroyed, with no way for students to access a classroom.    Urban Planet Mobile launched lessons across a breadth of subjects, translated them to Haitian Creole, and sent them to students in 20 schools. Brian knows his platform is no substitute for a classroom and teacher, but there is little doubt it has invaluable potential as a readily available, quickly scalable education tool, particularly in a crisis situation.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about these platforms is their vast potential to scale.  All three of the entrepreneurial panelists were excited about the growth potential of their technologies, and have created true impact through solving a market need while addressing a social problem as well. These types of innovative, sustainable, and scalable solutions to global problems are what excite me the most about Social Entrepreneurship.