Last year, dedicated social tech investor, Nominet Trust, launched the inaugural Nominet Trust 100 (NT100), a list of 100 inspiring international projects using technology to drive social change and make the world a better place. The call for nominations for the second annual NT100 is now open.Research among the finalists of the 2013 NT100 found that mobile innovations (including apps) stood out as the technology of choice that will make the biggest impact on society. Here Ed Anderton, Development Researcher at the Trust, outlines some examples of how, specifically mobile ideas, have made a difference.Social Responsibility and Development also has its own Meffys award category this year, which recognizes the mobile products, services and initiatives that have had a significant impact on the social and economic development of under-served communities.Submissions for the Meffys are open until August 8th
1. Social entrepreneurs are disrupting existing mobile markets…
New mobile provider Micel was set up as an alternative to the Mexican telecoms giant Telcel, since the latter would not grant contracts to people without a credit card – leaving tens of thousands of people cut off from any form of mobile services. Micel’s innovative model pays the provider up front and then recoups costs from its users afterwards, allowing those without credit cards and bank accounts to enjoy the same empowering mobile technologies as everyone else. The provider has become one of the most disruptive companies in Latin America and has been tremendously successful from a social perspective as well, since over 80% of users make their first internet connection through its mobile network.
Taking inspiration from the Fairtrade and organic food movements, Fairphone is challenging the designers, makers and users of mobile phones to rethink one of the most ubiquitous products of the digital age. The Anglo-Dutch venture is focusing on five key areas of Mining, Design, Lifecycle and Social Entrepreneurship – seeking to reform processes and behaviours so that we produce and consume mobile technology in a better, ‘fairer’, way. Given that the EU generates 10 million tonnes of electrical and electronic waste each year (equating to about 20kg per person), this is not before time, and the massive over-subscription to the project’s initial crowdfunding campaign is a testament to the wider support for these values.
3. Mobiles can have a positive impact on areas that other technologies cannot reach
Projects like Ekgaon and Wecyclers are demonstrating how mobiles are uniquely placed to enable economic and environmental development across vast distances. Ekgaon has been developing tech to address economic inequality in India since 2001, most recently with One Remit, a system to allow migrant workers to send money directly back to their families through their mobile. Meanwhile in Nigeria, the combination of an SMS alert system and the pragmatically low-tech use of ‘cargo bicycles’ is the key to Wecyclers’ success in forging a business out of recycling in Lagos, a city struggling to cope with its own waste.
4. Everyday mobile use can become radical change
Crowdring is a great example of tapping into an everyday activity, but designing it in a way that aggregates demand for political or economic change. The system registers a missed call – a regular way of communicating in India – as a vote of support for a specific campaign, and led to 35 million missed calls placed in support of Indian social justice activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption bill in 2011. Encouraging behaviour change is difficult and asking people to use new tools equally so, but when innovators design social interventions that take advantage of existing practices and familiar tools, they can reduce the barriers to adoption. This can help realise the social value of a new enterprise more quickly and easily.
5. You don’t need to have a smartphone to benefit from mobile social tech innovations
Many of us have come to take smartphones for granted, but over 70% of the global mobile phone market still consists of basic phones, and this is higher still in developing countries. Enablers such a biNU are demonstrating that you can increase the functionality and affordability of basic phones: its cloud-based internet service enables apps and other tools to be delivered to mobiles fast, cheaply and easily. It is now used by over 5 million people across Africa, Asia and other emerging markets and is widening both the potential reach of any mobile social tech venture, and increasing the range of services they can reliably provide.
Project Masiluleke is a leading example of the potential reach of SMS information distribution. Based in South Africa, it has sent more than 350 million texts with advice about HIV/AIDS since 2008, prompting 1.2 million calls to its dedicated helpline. Meanwhile, recent winner of the UK Mobile Tech Trailblazer award,PharmaSecure, addresses the widespread issue of counterfeit drugs by using a basic SMS system to allow patients to quickly and easily verify their drugs are genuine.
7. Local innovations can sometimes be the most valuable
There’s certainly still a requirement for innovators and social tech entrepreneurs who want to scale to global success, but there is also a need for a greater number of innovators at local levels. The social tech ecosystem requires these innovators to create localised innovation that from the centre might not appear to be ‘very new’, but within specific communities is tailored, relevant and innovative. Mamakiba, for example, seeks to make it easier for expectant mothers in Kenya to save money for their maternity. The Mamkiba service combines a savings planning system, SMS reminders and the use of M-pesa (the mobile money system that is itself a transformative piece of mobile social tech), to help people achieve their savings goals without the need to access traditional banking services.
8. Mobile hardware is also ripe for social innovation
By adding ‘plug-ins’ to standard phones, some social tech innovators have transformed them into whole new technologies such as low-cost medical devices. One such example is NETRA,originally an MIT research project and now its own start-up company. It uses a clip-on eye piece attached to a mobile phone, which communicates with an eye-test app on the phone to take optical prescriptions. Thus it provides a very cheap (around $2), robust and portable piece of medical equipment that allows people to diagnose themselves without a trained professional present.
9. Accessibility is a key concern Several of the projects in this list focus on widening accessibility of mobile technology and hardware to people in remote, poor or isolated areas. But working along a different axis of accessibility is EqualEyes; a smart ‘skin’ and set of customised apps for Android, designed to allow the elderly and the visually impaired to reap all the benefits of smartphone technology. They, along with the many other ventures active in this area, are mapping out the huge potential for mobile devices to enhance the lives of these and other socially excluded groups.
10. This is only the beginning
As the social tech movement grows in scale and momentum, we are seeing even more entrepreneurs from across the globe creating mobile innovations that make the world a better place. Nominet Trust has recently extended its research efforts for the Social Tech Guide – a web-based guide to inspiring social tech ventures worldwide – and has discovered many thriving clusters of activity in the international social tech scene in the process. One of the most creative, varied and impressive of these is the use of the mobile phone, and we look forward to receiving nominations for the 2014 NT100 to help us uncover yet more inspiring examples of mobile social tech.