Hacking For Good

How outdated technologies can still impact the world

25 March 2014

Photo: Oxfam International/Chaliya Sophasawatsakal

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When Carla Echevarria, a creative director at Facebook and former employee of Google, took the stage at this year’s South by Southwest, one of the largest technology conferences in the world held annually in Austin, Texas, she was in a small conference room along with just a few dozen attendees. (No surprise since she was competing with the first live interview via webcast by Edward Snowden, the U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower just a few doors down). But if more people had attended, they, like I, would have learned how to use technology to help solve problems in such underserved areas.

One of the biggest takeaways from this session and others at the conference was how old technologies can be reprogrammed, or “hacked,” and applied in new ways. Or, as one speaker said, how a technology can live up to its full potential. Echevarria showcased the many ways the developing world has used old analog phones and simple technology to help people in remote regions of the world, including her native Philippines.

For example, Smart TXTBKS solves a simple problem. Kids in many remote regions of the Philippines have to walk a kilometer or more to school carrying heavy textbooks. They cannot afford tablets or e-readers (which are about the price of a month’s salary in the Philippines). But the country’s largest telecom company, Smart, decided to make use of the millions of outdated phones that are recycled or discarded. It worked with a textbook company to turn books into text messages. Each subject had its own SIM card, essentially using the cards as “books” and turning the phone into an “e-reader.” Results showed that school attendance was up and test scores were higher.

Another project that I enjoyed learning about because of its simplicity was the Pink Phones Project. In Cambodia, many families cannot afford more than one mobile phone, and those phones tend to be for the men in the family. To help provide phones to women, Oxfam International—an organization that helps people living in poverty—came up with a solution: make the phones pink. That way, men wouldn’t want to use them. And they were right. These phones, distributed to women in remote regions, are packed with information delivered as text messages that include tips on how to best take care of crops, sell produce, and save money as well as information about women’s health. They even include telephone numbers for domestic violence hotlines and hospitals that will respond to medical questions.

And then there are the “Info Ladies” who ride their bikes cross-country in Bangladesh with a laptop and access to the Internet to help bring connectivity to the 148 million people who are without a means to reach the outside world (only 5 million people in the country have Internet access). As they stop in different neighborhoods, residents can use their services to, for example, Skype with a family member or research medical information.

“Being low in resources can often fuel high levels of creativity,” Echevarria says.

But these types of innovations are not only applicable to the developing world. In a session on “Humanizing Technology and Using Innovation for Good,” attendees learned about how a short-lived technology can help a cause—and even help with passing legislation. Emad Tahtouh, director of creative technology of Finch, a production company focused on storytelling and technology in Sydney, and Tim Buesing, the digital creative director of Reactive, a web design company also in Australia, joined forces to use a fading technology to help bring awareness to a medical issue.

The two reconstructed a robotic arm that can write—a technology that several years ago had its fame on YouTube—and programmed it to do good. The arm would physically sign the names on a paper petition of those who endorsed an electronic petition requesting the Australian government to provide more funding for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a muscle degenerative condition that affects mostly young boys. When people signed with their electronic signature, they would then see a video of the robot signing their name on the paper petition in real-time. The project went viral and received the necessary number of signatures for the government to pass legislation to help fund the cause.

The lesson learned from these examples is for technologists to first look at solving a problem, and then look at existing technologies that can help solve that problem. Sometimes it might just be a robot arm that was only thought of for entertainment value or simply hacking a recycled phone.

Do you know of other projects that are “hacking” for good? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

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