We all know that technology is changing the world from artificial intelligence to big data to the ubiquity of smart phones, but many of us working to change society are just starting to understand how to harness tech forces for good.
The stakes are high: Some 2 billion people continue to live on less than $2 a day. Millions of women and girls around the world lack basic human rights. Forty percent of children in U.S. urban school districts fail to graduate. A slew of initiatives address these and other intractable social issues, yet often, even the most successful ones only address a fraction of the problem.
The good news is that a number of cutting-edge leaders and organizations are shifting their focus to ask: "How can we help to have impact at a scale that actually solves the problem?" And they are finding that technology, particularly information tech, offers answers. As Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering and a renowned expert on artificial intelligence, has observed, "Once any domain, discipline, technology, or industry becomes information-enabled and powered by information flows, its price/performance begins doubling approximately annually." This phenomenon opens up the potential for exponential growth in reach and impact.
Here are six ways that information technology is breaking through scale barriers:
1: Empowering with info
Significant impact can be achieved in certain cases simply by making information more readily accessible to a larger audience. Consider how Wikipedia has empowered self-education across thousands of topics. Or take Esoko, a Ghanaian technology firm’s impact on food security, as it provides small-holder African farmers and businesses with timely crop information via SMS.
2: Teaching and engaging
Numerous organizations are going beyond informing to experiment with deeper means of improving practice and/or behavior. Some are using e-learning solutions—e.g., Khan Academy’s free YouTube lessons and leading universities’ massive open online courses—to flip the classroom, let students learn at their own pace at home, and bring their questions to class physically or virtually. Technology can also help shift behavior. For example, HopeLab’s mobile apps engage kids to take more healthy actions—be it taking their medicine or exercising—by tapping into something deeply innate and emotional.
3: Making matches
Tech solutions also enhance impact by making quicker and better matches in a particular market. For example, VolunteerMatch.org connects volunteers with causes and roles that suit them. RLab’s JamIIX matches troubled youth anonymously to counselors, located all over the world, through a series of text messages. The technology allows counselors to help 30 to 40 kids per hour, versus just one or two, and removes stigma by using a process—texting—that feels invisible.
4: Crowdsourcing hot spots
In many cases, individuals and communities see parts of a situation, that pieced together create a pattern that can inform social action. Technologies that support aggregation and analysis pull together scattered evidence that can surface election fraud, oil spills or earthquake victims. For example, Janagrahaa’s "I paid a bribe" platform collects and aggregates data related to abuse of power, so that citizens can avoid traps, and authorities can zero in on culprits.
5: Reaching the underserved
In some cases, technology improves the reach of products and services that can improve lives. MicroEnsure leverages the mobile telecommunications system to provide insurance products to millions of low-income customers in Asia and Africa, who otherwise would not have access to risk mitigation.
6: Raising cash for good
Technology is now playing a hand both in creating capital markets for social good, and in connecting beneficiaries with funding streams. Indiegogo provides a platform for organizations and individuals to create "family and friends" fundraising campaigns around causes that they care about or are involved in. Charity Water creates campaigns around birthdays, holidays and other life events where people can raise money to provide clean water to communities in need.
Over the next four weeks The Bridgespan Group and Omidyar Network will curate TechSocial, a series offering views and voices from some of the most vanguard social organizations using tech to break scale barriers: Indiegogo, HopeLab, RLabs, MicroEnsure and more. While their leaders have powerful lessons to share, they are also realistic about the challenges.
Technology surely has the potential to enable solutions to some of the most pressing issues the world faces, not to mention making getting the word out on what works a little easier.