Actionable ideas that nibble away at extreme global inequality were at the heart of a workshop aimed at addressing how science and technology can improve the lives of people living on less than $2 per day.
Projects in healthcare, education and business that focused on the specific needs of the world’s poorest and marginalised included a kit to detect bacteria in drinking water as well as a filtration system to treat contaminated water, wearable rechargeable lights, a digital platform for reporting human rights abuses and a system for extending mobile payments offline.
The Technology for the Bottom Billion workshop held during the Open Technology Week in June was the culmination of a yearlong series that invited academics and students, NGO practitioners as well as entrepreneurs and civil society to come together to consider ideas that can be implemented in the near future.
“Most other things that are wrong in the world relate in some way, we think, to excessive inequality,” said Lara Allen, director of the Centre for Global Equality, an interdisciplinary network that brings people together to look at development problems and “cultivate” solutions in novel ways. Part of the CGE’s work is supporting small start-up companies as they grow their ideas from problem to solve to real-world solution.
Allen highlighted the point that although most people in the room were experts in their respective scientific or technological fields, “we’re not actually experts in the experience of the problem that people are facing.” Thus, recurring themes of the day’s event hosted by Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Science and Humanities (CRASSH) included collaboration, co-creation and designing for and with the people development ventures aim to serve.
Awareness that one in ten people don’t have access to clean water was a catalyst for WaterScope, an award-winning development I-teams start-up that has benefitted from the CGE’s cultivator process. The company, which has developed a fast and cheap way to test for bacterial contamination in drinking water using a 3D-printable microscope, aims to reach 10 million people in 6 years.
Physicist Richard Bowman, one of the company’s founders, said the miniature microscope has a powerful educational element that demystifies the bacteria detection process and can help communities engage more positively with projects about water quality and sanitation. It “shows them, here is you water; the water is in this microscope; now look at what’s growing in your water; that’s what is going to make you sick,” he said.
Beyond detecting bacteria, another project is seeking to disinfect contaminated water. The self-cleaning water filtration system that PhD researcher Mike Coto is creating for use in developing countries has the potential to improve the lives and health of millions who lack clean water and the thousands who die everyday from water supply related diseases.
Coto, a student in the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, shared insights and photographs from his research trip to Tanzania aimed at determining the most suitable water purification system for a particular area. Coto visited sites where drinking water and a communal eating point sat adjacent to an open sewer. Severe cases of contamination even caused burns in people’s legs, he said.
Dominic Vergine, Head of Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility at technology company, ARM Holdings, told workshop attendees that innovation for the bottom billion does not exist and that if social entrepreneurs want to be successful, their commitment should be to innovating for the global priorities set forth by the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs).
He pointed to two standout projects selected as finalists for the global wearable good competition: SoaPen and Kushi baby. SoaPen works by drawing on children’s hands with a pen whose “ink” disappears after the hands are properly scrubbed while Kushi baby is a necklace that stores medical records of young children. “Use the SDGs as an innovation engine,” he urged the audience of about 45 people.
In keeping with the peace and justice goals of the SDGs, another developing Cambridge University venture seeking to make its mark is the Whistle, a digital platform that helps citizen witnesses collect, verify and document human rights violations, according to Matt Mahmoudi, a researcher on the project.
With the ubiquity of mobile technology, it is easier to record and disseminate abuses. Providing corroborating and verifiable evidence that can hold abusers to account is more complicated. Whistle helps witnesses supplement their digital reports of violations.
Simão Belchior, a software developer with Vizzuality, described another useful technology that automates the creation of malaria risk maps in a bid to eradicate the disease and reduce cases. Projects currently underway in Zimbabwe and Swaziland use the tool to create the maps that predict the high risk areas and help determine which locations require immediate action, such as insecticide treated nets or spraying against malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Khaled Baqer, a computer scientist and doctoral student, presented DigiTally, an electronic purse system for offline mobile payments for people to use in areas that have no reliable network, or where service is intermittent or congested.
Finding the right local partner is paramount, according to Alexandra Grigore, whose company Simprints is presently undergoing large-scale production and manufacturing of its biometric fingerprints scanner. She offered tips for newer start-ups on everything from the importance of field-testing to design challenges for areas where dust and humidity are factors. Grigore’s other practical advice to the small ventures in the room: go where users are; find a great local implementation partner; and iterate, iterate, iterate.
Sudhir Rama Murthy, a doctoral student, presented what he termed Island Manufacturing or localized production arrangements for global manufacturing firms.
Murthy cited the case of Mallorca, a tourist destination and main source of revenue for an island where one night in a hotel yields nearly four kilograms of laundry. Cleaning products manufacturer, Ecover, took up the challenge of finding a sustainable solution that included using locally sourced vegetation to make cleaning products.
Existing side-by-side and converting online social trust and reputation into beneficial interactions between strangers was a focus of Richard Dent’s talk. He gave examples like Casserole Club, which lets people share food with their neighbours, or Nextdoor, the neighbourhood social network where community members come together to help each other, offer childcare or collectively work on issues of mutual interest, such as crime prevention. The idea has the potential to also help during disasters, said Dent, a passionate advocate of digital inclusion.
Alongside all the critical thinking of what is not working with how technology is distributed, Ann Radl told the audience that it was equally important to highlight possibilities and successful projects that are working. Doing so makes it possible to shape the conversation, entice people to action and influence tech for good. To that end, Radl presented the NT100 campaign, an initiative of Nominet Trust, a charitable foundation that celebrates what people and organisations are doing with technology to change the world for the better.
Dr Arjuna Sathiaseelan also addressed the digital divide and what can be done to close the gap. In India, he said, with just 0.6 doctors for every 1000 people, the correlation between health access, health literacy and mortality cannot be ignored and this existing inequality was a driving factor in his work. Staggeringly, some 3.2 billion people in Africa and Asia lack Internet access. Technological solutions that can help achieve connectivity for the next three billion include network infrastructures built and maintained by citizens. Sathiaseelan cited examples in Spain and Thailand.
Another solution-focused project in Kenya sought to address the shortage of trained frontline health care workers by establishing a mobile learning scheme. By 2035, there will be a global deficit of 12.9 million doctors, nurses and midwifes, said Nicholas Tip, of management consultancy firm Accenture, citing a World Health Organization report about the potential gap in the ability to deliver healthcare globally. His project was set up to train community health worker volunteers in prevention of common diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and treatment of common issues like diarrhoea. Tip said the project, which started out with 300 community health workers and now reaches 3000, hopes to reach a million in five years.
“The frequency with which you can interact with people, on their own terms and in their own locations, we find there’s a real value to that aside from the challenges of funding for full on face to face,” said Becky Telford, a specialist working in education in emergencies and technology, who echoed the points about audience engagement that she has seen in her own work at UNICEF’s Global Innovation Centre.
Despite numerous challenges, from getting the 60 million children in conflict zones into schools to making resources available to them and the ability of Ministries of Education to collect best practice data, Telford championed how innovative resources can be used to support the most disadvantaged children globally. She also cautioned, “Technology, not a silver bullet, equally not rocket science.”
What about the millions without electricity access? Can they really benefit from new technologies? An Bao’s project, Halo, aims to address these questions and the electricity deficit faced by some 1.2 billion people. Halo proposes a low-cost solution to counter the prevalence of kerosene lamps, which pose both health and environmental problems. Bao, a graduate student at the Centre for Gallium Nitride, said his for-profit company aims to sell the product for $10 USD.