Technology, innovation, data and analytics are buzz words now regularly used in the development and aid sectors. The United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (UN CSTD) emphasised that science, technology and innovation are, alongside trade, the most powerful forces driving recent world progress in terms of growth, poverty reduction and overall human development. UN CSTD also highlights the critical role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Technology is increasingly recognised as an enabler for positive impact in development. We examine below some concrete examples of how technology can be applied and their benefits:
- Technology solutions and platforms to help solve development challenges. This is not new, ICT and technology companies have done this for years. Some well-known examples include:
Innovative solutions by Microsoft including the well-known PhotoDNA (detects and stops child sexual abuse imagery on the internet) and their recent Seeing AI free web application designed for the blind and low vision community that provides a narrative of nearby people, text and objects. Microsoft employees also recently built a chatbot in a philanthropic initiative called Project Intercept, in collaboration with non-profits that aims to reduce demand for sex workers, and the incentives for criminals to coerce people into the sex trade.
Other examples (and am only able to name a few as there are too many to list!) include Facebook’s safety check which notifies friends and loved ones that you are safe. It is now a permanent feature that can be accessed anytime following recent terror attacks. Google's magic Internet balloons which bring Wi-Fi to remote areas. Fintech companies like Visa also provide tech-solutions to improve financial inclusion so that the underserved in emerging economies have a better way to pay for necessities. Many government agencies are also using Visa prepaid products to deliver money to the unbanked and underserved, and moving away from distributing physical cash or goods.
- Use of technology by non-profit and for purpose organisations to improve programme and organisation effectiveness
NGOs realise the potential digital age and technology bring to scale their communication with supporters and donors. Turning the Internet Red - this phrase was first used in 2013 by the Human Rights Campaign to show their support for gay rights in the US. The group asked Facebook users to turn their profile pictures red and show solidarity with those seeking equal rights. The result was a viral campaign with over 45,000 shares and 13,000 likes on Facebook within days.
Another example is NGO Kopernik established in 2010 after seeing that life-changing and affordable technologies existed, but they weren’t reaching the people who lived in the most remote parts of the world. Kopernik’s work focuses on bridging the technology gap by sourcing simple and affordable products that address day-to-day problems faced by people living in hard to reach places, distributing these technologies directly to communities in collaboration with local partners. Kopernik’s innovative projects range from: solar ear's detection app to prevent hearing loss, improving drying processes with a solar bubble dryer for farmers who find it difficult to dry their coffee bean crops using traditional sun-drying methods, to a mobile phone app to assist TB patients in Indonesia.
In addition to using tech to support communities, Kopernik also recognises the importance of non-profits and social enterprises having access to affordable ways to report real-time, large-scale data on their social impact. Kopernik therefore compiled the Impact Tracker Technology (ITT) cataloguewhich features a compilation of low cost, information communications technology-based tools intended to help peers in the development sector collect data, communicate with their clients and measure their impact.
- Use of data and analytics to design and develop more targeted effective solutions and communicate on impact
Rapid digitization of information has made data and sharing of information more accessible. Putting this article together, I recently came across the Activity inequality project which looked at smartphone data from over 68 million days of activity by 717,527 individuals across 111 countries. It revealed variability in physical activity across the world. Activity inequality predicts obesity. Individuals in the five countries with highest activity inequality are 196% more likely to be obese than individuals from the 5 countries with lowest activity inequality. Aspects of the built environment, such as the walkability of a city, were associated with activity inequality. In more walkable cities, activity is greater throughout the day and throughout the week, across age, gender, and body mass index (BMI) groups. Findings from this data have implications for global public health policy and urban planning and highlight the role of the built environment for improving physical activity and health.
IBM’s latest research - Leap before you lag, reaffirms the same message - that potential benefits from data and analytics for the non-profit sector is not just hype. The research revealed that non-profits that have progressed further in their analytics journey reported higher effectiveness in assessing social impact and driving measurable productivity improvements. IBM’s report also emphasises that embracing technology is a necessity going forward as the non-profit sector faces growing pressures to advance data and analytics capabilities as part of meeting organisational objectives. Major funders are also demanding quantified evidence of social impact and being a technology laggard could send donors in other directions and threaten the organisation’s future outcomes. Though pressure is mounting to advance data practices, IBM’s research survey results indicate the non-profit sector largely remains in the early stages of the data journey. Non-profits need to effectively leapfrog analytics capabilities by using new approaches to talent, technology and partnering.
This dialogue on technology and development, and proliferation of examples and case studies cannot be contained in one article. CSR Asia will continue the conversation at our upcoming CSR Asia Summit in Bangkok in September where Microsoft and Kopernik will help co-facilitate an interactive workshop identifying together with Summit delegates, potential technology solutions for development challenges. We hope you can join us in Bangkok.