Social Innovation in Mobile – My Keynote at the IPA Mobile Inspiration Day

A transcript of a talk I gave at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising on Social Innovation in mobile, 28/3/2012

Forgive me for stating the blindingly obvious, but it’s clear that, technology is converging in mobile devices. The first quarter of 2011 saw a momentous shift: for the first time, sales of PCs were overtaken by sales of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

And, while we don’t know exactly the form our devices are going to take in the next few years, there is a very clear trend towards what many of the speakers today have talked about – a connected device that travels with us wherever we are that is constantly producing vast amounts of data about who we are and what we do. A device that’s our primary interface with the world. Each of our devices – our tablets, phones, gaming consoles, devices in our cars, the sensors that will be an increasing part of our lives as the internet of things develops ­– are generating a vast stream of data, in fact, far more than we can use.

Wal-Mart, the biggest retailer in the US, handles more than 1 million customer transactions an hour, feeding databases estimated at 2.5 petabytes: 167 times the number of books in the Library of Congress, and there are many other examples of this data overload. Businesses now view data this data we’re all generating as a raw material – an economic input on a par with capital and labour. Data has been described as “the new oil”.

Large value is being unlocked. Insights that were previously unknowable are coming to light. We’re discovering new things, building new businesses, realizing new opportunities. And another benefit is what I’d like to talk about today: we can help people live better lives.

Time is short, so I’m going to focus solely on three initiatives in social innovation in the developing world, each of which shows demonstrates an original and successful approach to tackling very real problems that people face in three areas:

Health – counterfeit drugs in West Africa and beyond.

Displacement – the global refugees crisis.

Information – what happens when you can’t rely – or trust – your government?

All three are using mobile in dynamic and original ways.


1) Health

Counterfeit medication is a huge problem in large parts of the developing world. There were 45 million fake antimalarial treatments were sold in West Africa in 2008 according to the World Health Organization. 655,000 people (mainly African kids) die of malaria every year. (Some context: just under 500,000 people die in the UK every year.) And, according to the WHO, of this 655,000, around 20 per cent of deaths are caused by counterfeit medication. So, we’re talking about around 120,000 kids dying every year because of fakes.

It’s not just that the drugs don’t work: counterfeit meds can have serious consequences for those who take them. A counterfeit medicine can contain 100 per cent of the correct active ingredient, but if it doesn’t dissolve within the body at the right rate, it won’t work. So parents give their children what they think are drugs to protect them, only to see them perish.

There can be very serious side effects to counterfeits, such as allergic reactions. And fake drugs are the direct cause of fatality: in 1995, after 50,000 people were inoculated in Niger in response to a meningitis epidemic, 2,500 of the vaccinated people perished. The donated drugs turned out to be phony. It’s extremely hard to tell that the pharmaceuticals aren’t genuine as the counterfeit manufacturers do everything they can to make them look as convincing as possible. Deaths have occurred in other countries, such as India, Haiti and Panama because of counterfeits.

This problem needed an innovator and it got one in the form of Bright Simons. Simons is a social activist ­– he worked in London helping migrants negotiate bureaucracy. Eventually he went to work in his native Ghana helping small-scale farmers reduce the cost of organic and Fairtrade certification using mobile networks. It occurred to him that existing networks could offer a solution to the fake drug epidemic in West Africa.

He came up with an ingenious but simple idea: working with pharmaceutical companies, he created a system to ensure consumers that the drugs they were taking were safe. Now, if you buy drugs in Ghana, the package may include a scratch-off panel concealing a unique code that consumers text to a toll-free number. If genuine, a confirmation text is sent back almost instantly.

To make sure his service would be available free of charge to all Ghanaians, Simons had to strike deals with every telco in Ghana to convince them to work not just with his company, mPedigree, but with each other to create a single toll-free number across all networks.

mPedigree now works with government bodies and pharmaceutical manufacturers in Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda. Earning revenue through licensing the validation codes, it has closed deals to protect six million packs of drugs. It’s a great example of profitable social innovation built upon a network that already exists.


2) Displacement

According to the UNHCR there are currently 43 million people in the world classed as refugees. These people forced to move because of civil unrest or natural disasters, mainly in Africa and the Middle East. Recent examples include Syria, Somalia other parts of east Africa like Sudan. Very often they have to leave their homes quickly and without forward planning – very often they lose contact with loved ones.

The heroes of our story are Christopher and David Mikkelson, two Danes living and working in Copenhagen. They happened to meet a young Afghan refugee called Mansour in 2005. He had escaped the Taliban with his parents and five siblings and arrived in Peshwar, a huge city of 2.5 million people, many of whom are refugees. There, they contacted a human trafficker who agreed to smuggle them to Denmark. One night the trafficker arrived at their door – he said that he had an empty seat in his truck. It was leaving tonight and one of the family had to go with him. Who was going to travel first?

Mansour, who was then 12, volunteered. Over a period of months he went by train, bus and walked, and spent three weeks living under floorboards in Russia, where he was allowed out for 30 minutes of airtime a day. Finally he made it to Denmark and was placed into the asylum process. He waited for his family to arrive. Two months passed and still there was no word from his family.

This kind of familial separation happens every day. Five years after arriving in Denmark, Mansour met the Mikkelsons who offered to talk to institutions and authorities on his behalf to try and locate his family. They sent Mansour to Peshwar where he located the trafficker who gave him a phone number. Mansour called it – only to discover that his brother, Parwin, had been sold into slavery to a family in the south of Russia. Parwin had been nine years old when it happened. Mansour and Parwin met again in Moscow, although to this day they have no idea what happened to the rest of their family.

These events made David and Christopher think. They discovered that refugees usually end up in Red Cross or UN refugee camps where there is food and safety, but little information. There is paperwork at the camps, but the paperwork is all for the NGOs – not for the refugees themselves. And, crucially, aid agencies have no mandate to reconnect people.

The brothers learned that there was no easily accessible database with real-time data on displaced people. The Mikkelsons considered the problem and realized they could use infrastructure that is already there – mobile. Their solution was to build a platform that aims to be a Google for refugee search: an easy, accessible network that enables the displaced to find their families: Refugees United.

Internet access is still rare in some parts of the developing world, but most refugees can find access to a simple mobile. So the brothers decided to build a network that could be accessible using SMS. Over the following months the Mikkelsons built the platform; crucially they made it possible for people to register and look for loved ones anonymously; many of the displaced are in great danger. The platform allow people to register using nicknames or using details that only loved ones would recognize.

Starting in 2009, Refugees United had about 700 registrations. As of October last year, there were 55,000 people on the platform searching for loved ones. One of the inspiring parts of this story is that it’s not about a big agency extending help and then disappearing – Refugees United is about empowering people to act on their own behalves, and it maybe indicates the future of aid: bottom up not top down.


3) Information

Another strong example of bottom up, not top down is the final platform we’re going to look at today: Ushahidi doesn’t rely on governments, or large organizations – it relies only on a collaborative effort to create a real-time platform that can save lives. Ushahidi – a Swahili word meaning witness or testimony – is a non-profit software company that builds products to crowdsource information during a crisis.

Its origins are in Kenya in 2007 amid violence following a disputed presidential election. One of the founders, Juliana Rotich, tells the story of how TV turned into a real-time fail – there was enormous civil unrest in which 1500 people lost their loves, but television was showing movies.

She and other collaborators decided to develop their own platform. But because the internet was slow and expensive – at the time internet penetration in Kenya was only 8.2 per cent – they decided to take input from very simple sources, predominantly SMS and email, and geolocate it on a map. A few months later they created a platform to crowd source information. A big focus was placed on verification – international media, NGOs, and Kenyan journalists and bloggers were used to ensure that reports were accurate.

The platform spread quickly. Ushahidi was used as the basis for similar sites tracking violence against immigrants in South Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to track pharmacy inventory in several countries in East Africa and to expose sexual harassment in Egypt.

Outside Africa the platform has been used to monitor elections in Mexico and India, to collect eyewitness reports in Gaza, during the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, in Japan following the tsunami in 2011, to monitor wildfires in Russia, and to track the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Haiti example is a good one. The platform was set up in around 15 to 30 minutes after the earthquake. Following this Ushahidi organized situation rooms with volunteers throughout the world. A report came in that an orphanage was out of water, but first responders could not locate it. A researcher in the US used Google maps to find a longitude and longitude that was mapped onto the Ushaidi platform. The response team were then able to address the problem successfully.

In Japan in 2011 the OpenStreetMap team were able to use the platform to crowd source info on the tsunami – especially evacuation centres – in an incredibly fast moving situation.

Mapping information onto geography can have a transformative effect on a community – none more so than in Kibera in Nairobi, one of the largest slums in Africa. For a long time it was just a hole in the map – there was literally no data. Over the course of fifteen days, however, and with the help of several volunteers, OpenStreetMap was able to use GPS devices to map the area, with the Kibera community populating the map with information on water sources, security problems, and other data.

Now in use in 132 countries, Ushahidi best demonstrates the power of building a network of networks, and the importance of moving from static search results to dynamic real-time data; from documentation of something that has already happened to a real-time collaborative view.

Thanks for listening today. I hope that I’ve offered you some inspiring examples of how people are innovating for socially positive purposes by creating new mobile platforms. Technology is an enabler – it allows people to take action and innovate in order to change their lives in transformative way. Let’s seize the moment and help to create the conditions for that.



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