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Tech Products that are Helping People Today

In my quest to build technology that will make a difference in people’s lives, I figured I should look into the tech products that are helping people today.

The past few weeks have taken me on quite a journey!  I’ve spoken with a number of leaders of large charities and social enterprises.  These included the CEO of Tearfund, the CIO of Save the Children UK, the CEO of the Against Malaria Foundation and the Founders of Code Club and Beam.

I’ve also chatted with a few friends who happen to be on a similar journey.  Philip Su, a colleague of mine at Facebook, consulted for the Gates Foundation for a few months.  He is now leading a team of software engineers in Seattle to build medical diagnostic software for people in developing countries.  Kriti Sharma, who I worked with while at Facebook, is focused on building Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help people.  She was invited by the Obamas to Chicago to discuss her field with an audience of technologists and social entrepreneurs.  She also gave a Ted Talk on the topic of creating a fairer world with AI.

I’ve also looked into hundreds of tech startups from a variety of sources.  These include a directory of over 400 tech nonprofits compiled by Fast Forward, an accelerator for tech nonprofits.  I’ve also combed through the portfolio companies of Venture Capitalists with a social impact focus.  These include Bethnal Green Ventures, Omidyar Network and Mustard Seed.

I’ve picked out the most interesting consumer-focused tech products that are helping people today.  And now I’m now going to pull it all together in a single blog post! Buckle up! …

Developed vs. Developing Markets

Access and the maturity of technology differs dramatically between developed and developing markets.

The average person in developed markets has an iPhone or high-end Android phone in their pockets.  They have good 3G or 4G internet connectivity most of the time.  The average person in developing markets might have a Nokia 3310 in their pocket (which I used to have when I was 17!).  They may have little to no internet connectivity (only cellular) and limited access to power.  So all of the apps and websites we use everyday in the UK simply wouldn’t work for the average person in the developing world. This doesn’t mean that tech products can’t be built to help people.  But they have to be designed to work within the technology constraints of the people you want to help.

Two key elements of infrastructure are necessary for anyone in the developing world to benefit from software.  Electricity and internet access.

Electricity

We take electricity for granted.  I have 32 electrical sockets in my house and I don’t even think about how I use it.  It only accounts for 1% of my monthly expenses. A billion people in the world have no access to electricity.  For others in the developing world, it can be very expensive.  According to Unicef, it costs 20% of a family’s monthly income just to charge a mobile phone for the most financially insecure in Burundi!

According to the US Energy Information Administration, progress has been made over the past 20 years.  The percentage of people in the world with electricity access has increased from 75% to 85%.

Electrification rate by country

But the progress is mostly due to increased populations in urban areas who have access to electricity.  Most of those living in rural areas, especially in sub saharan Africa, have not seen much progress.

There are initiatives to improve people’s access to electricity..  A company called Mobile Power in the UK help power the 500 million people with mobile phones but no access to grid electricity.  They use smart battery packs using a pay-per-charge rental model.  Oola provides off-grid solar power to people in West Africa.  SunFunder funds solar energy in developing countries.

Internet Access

Access to the internet is even worse.  According to the World Economic Forum, 4.3 billion people don’t have access to the internet.  This isn’t all due to a lack of infrastructure.  It’s also due to illiteracy, affordability and localisation of content.  However, 31% of people in the world live outside of 3G coverage.  About 2.3 billion people as can be seen on this map from OpenSignal.

The distribution of mobile networking capabilities across the world

Some initiatives exist to improve this situation.  Facebook have a project called Internet.org.  Google are trying to connect people to the internet using hot-air balloons.  Other companies like Hype are trying to connect people via a mesh network of smartphones, as detailed in their whitepaper.

There are ways that software can still help people without internet connectivity, such as SMS-delivered services.  For example, We Farm enable farmers in developing countries to ask questions using SMS and other farmers provide answers to them.  But the possibilities of how software can help are more limited without internet access.

Products Built for Developed vs. Developing Markets

Most of the consumer products people have built are for developed markets.  This doesn’t surprise me. Successful startups need to really understand the users they serve and their needs.  Paul Graham discusses this in his essay on Startup Ideas.  This ideally means being a user yourself or at least being very close to the users you serve.  Most tech entrepreneurs (me included) have spent little to no time in developing countries. So unless you have a cofounder who has, it would be very hard to build a consumer product for users in developing countries without relocating there for a period of time.

The types of tech products people have built vary dramatically too.  As you’d expect, tech products for developed countries are typically rich apps or websites.  Tech products for developing countries are typically SMS-based or lightweight mobile websites.

The Khan Academy provides free online education.  It has been built for developed countries.  Shouldn’t this have a big impact on developing countries too?  Not necessarily.  The educational needs of developing countries can often be very different.

What about Ada, the leading medical diagnostics app?  It has also been built for developed countries.  One issue is that the medical interventions available for people in developing countries varies dramatically compared to what we have available in the UK.

In addition to these differences, access to high-powered smartphones, electricity and internet would prevent many people in developing countries from accessing these services.  Not to mention the language barriers and localisation issues.

So let’s take a look at the tech products that are helping people in both developing and developed markets today …

Tech products to help people with education, employment, health and money

The four areas with the most activity are education, employment, health and finance.

Education

Challenges in Education

The educational needs of children vary dramatically between developed and developing countries.  It is a legal requirement for children to attend school (or be homeschooled) in the UK and US.  Children in many developing countries simply can’t attend school due to a variety of reasons.  These include poverty, poor health, conflicts and disabilities.  According to Unesco, 1 in 5 children aged 6-11 in sub saharan Africa and over half of youth aged 15-17 are not in school.

Tech Products to Deliver Educational Content

Tech products have been built to digitally deliver education to people.  Examples include the Khan Academy in developed countries and Eneza Education in developing countries.  The Khan Academy have rich YouTube videos.  Eneza delivers content and facilitates questions/answers via a lightweight mobile site.  This is used by almost 5 million people in Kenya, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.  This is a fantastic use of technology.  It brings education to people who have very limited access to it in a way that will scale. Their vision is to reach 50 million people in rural Africa.  Eneza is also one of the few for-profit tech initiatives in education.  Most education tech initiatives are nonprofits targeted at developed countries.  Eneza is taking a for-profit approach, which will likely scale better and be more sustainable for developing markets.

Tech Products to Help Students & Teachers

Another category of tech products in education is crowdfunding.

The School Fund allows people to help fund students in developing countries so they can attend school.  They take a really transparent approach. As a donor you can see the student’s name, their photo and read about their background.  You can even see how the money they raise will be spent and see receipts to prove it was spent in this way.  Donors Choose and Adopt a Classroom are also crowdfunding sites that allow teachers in the US to raise money for classroom supplies.

Tech products have been built to help students and teachers in a classroom or school environment.

My favourite is Socratic.  This is an app to help students in developed countries with their homework.  Students simply take a photo of a homework question.  The app then gives them support from their community of teachers and students.  This is a great use of a broad range of technologies, such as computer vision and artificial intelligence.  They put it all together into a great user experience enjoyed by millions of students.

A great example in a developing country is a project run by the charity VSO.  They provide tablets powered by solar-panels with bespoke local-language apps to teach children in Malawi.  This is particularly impactful as class sizes in Malawi often exceed 100 pupils.  90,000 children have used the tablets to-date.  They have seen significant improvements in their literacy and numeracy.

Initiatives to Teach People to Code

A number of initiatives have been setup to teach people to code.  This gives people great employment opportunities.  It will also likely foster further innovation and technological progress.

Code.org is the biggest, with almost 1 million teachers using the platform.  One of their initiatives, An Hour of Code, has reached over 100 million students in 180 countries!  I highly recommend watching their 5 minute introductory video.  It features many of the celebrities of Silicon Valley.  Code Club is another example, founded by Clare Sutcliffe, who I met with recently.  This is a worldwide network of free volunteer-led coding clubs for children aged 9-13.  There are 13,000 in 150 countries, including 7,000 in the UK.

There are other initiatives that are more targeted too.  Code to Inspire teaches women in Afghanistan to code.  Andela trains top talent in Africa to be remote software engineers at Fortune 500 companies.  Annie Cannons trains survivors of human trafficking in software engineering, who make software aimed at less privileged communities.

Employment

Challenges in Employment

It’s not those who are unemployed that is the biggest global employment concern.  Rather it is those who are in vulnerable employment or extreme / moderate working poverty.  Being in vulnerable employment typically means to have poor working conditions, inadequate social security and no “voice”.  Being in extreme or moderate working poverty means living on less than US$3.10 per day.

According to the International Labour Organisation, about 6% of people are unemployed in both developed and developing countries.  But 8 in 10 people in developing countries are in vulnerable employment compared to 1 in 10 people in developed countries.  7 in 10 people in developing countries are in extreme or moderate working poverty.

After watching Poverty Inc, as discussed in my first blog post, it seems that improving the employment of people in an area will likely lead to a sustainable, lasting and positive change.  And given that work in a sweatshop is so sought after, as I explored in my second blog post, providing better jobs and conditions than these would make an enormous difference.

Tech Products to Connect Workers with Jobs

The biggest category of tech products built to help people with employment are marketplaces, connecting workers with jobs.

A number of marketplaces have been created to connect freelancers to jobs.  The biggest are probably Fiverr and Upwork.  The type of freelance work is predominantly digital content creation.  This includes design, writing, web / mobile development and video / music creation.  While their focus is predominantly on freelancers in developed countries, Upwork has created employment in developing countries such as the Philippines.  Samasource is closer to an outsourcing model than a marketplace, but they have a direct focus on employment in developing countries.  They offer businesses data services and outsource some of the digital work to unemployed people in impoverished countries. They also provide their workers with training in basic computer skills and pay them a local living wage.

Another type of marketplace that tech products have filled are connecting people in developed countries with flexible working opportunities to supplement their income.  Steady is an app in the US that does just this.  Labour xchange is UK-based that connects workers with small businesses on an hour-by-hour basis.

E-commerce Sites that Empower Workers

A final category that is worth mentioning are e-commerce sites that sell products to people in developed countries, sourced directly from communities in developing countries.  A friend of mine, Julian Boaitey, recently founded a company called The Good Butter Company.  They provide skincare products, sourced directly from female-led cooperatives in West Africa.  This empowers the African women who produce these products.

Healthcare and Wellbeing

Challenges in Healthcare

Similar to most issues, the health challenges that people face varies dramatically between people living in developing and developed countries.

Each day, 15,000 children under the age of five die.  The vast majority of these children live in developing countries.  More than half of these early child deaths are due to conditions that could be prevented or treated with access to simple, affordable interventions.  For example, a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that 1 in 6 children in Angola die before their fifth birthday.  This compares to 1 in 240 children in the UK.  People in developing countries suffer from diseases that are not experienced in developed countries. For example, the WHO reported that in 2016, 194 million Africans were infected with Malaria (1 in 6 people!) and 407,000 died.  In Europe, no-one suffers from Malaria.

People’s health affects all parts of their lives.  For example, one of the most effective educational programs globally is a medical intervention.  A report by the World Bank shows that 1 in 4 people globally are infected with intestinal worms.  High infection rates prevail in sub saharan Africa, especially amongst school children.  Deworming programs are the most cost-effective program for improving school attendance.  They also result in many long-term benefits.  Evidence Action’s deworming program can treat a child for less than 40 pence!

Tech Products for Medical Diagnostics

An effective use of tech products within healthcare is medical diagnostics.  These are apps that ask a series of questions and help you diagnose your condition.  They use machine learning with very large data sets to power their accuracy. Ada is probably the leader.  Babylon Health also has a good offering and provides live consultations with a GP via video on your phone.  Your.MD is a third offering.

These are great uses of technology, but the target market is very much developed countries.  Theoretically they could expand to provide this service to developing countries, but it is unlikely they will anytime soon for reasons described earlier.  As for-profit companies, they wouldn’t have a strong incentive to do so either.  My friend, Philip Su, is working to address this by building open source medical diagnostic software for people in developing countries.  They are a small team of software engineers who are funded by the Gates Foundation.

Tech Products for Healthcare and Wellbeing in Developing Countries

Within developing countries, there are a variety of tech products aimed at helping people with their health.

A couple of organisations are using technology to help with vaccinations.  Charity Science Health increase the vaccination rate in Northern India by sending reminder text messages to parents of children due for their immunisations.  Khushi Baby have low-cost necklaces with NFC technology that children wear to monitor their vaccinations.

Living Goods have built a mobile app to give health workers information and help them capture data on their visits.  Watsi is a crowdfunding website to help people in developing countries raise money for life-saving surgeries.  Medulance is an Uber for ambulances in India who provide paid-for private ambulances, which are much quicker than regular ambulances.

Praekelt is a South African based organisation who have built a number of products to help different people groups with their health.  Momconnect uses WhatsApp to give pregnant women in South Africa vital information.  Tune Me is a mobile site that provides sex education to adolescents in Africa.  Springster is a mobile site for girls to increase their self confidence, give them health information and help in other ways.

Tech Products for Healthcare and Wellbeing in Developed Countries

There are a variety of quite different health-based tech products in developed countries.

One interesting category are e-commerce sites for people with specific conditions.  Living Better With (founded by Tamara Rajah, who I sat on a panel with at a book-launch event yesterday) provides products for people suffering with cancer.  Unforgettable provides products for people suffering with dementia and memory loss.

Big White Wall is an online mental health community for people suffering with depression and anxiety.  Meal Train provides a set of digital tools to help people coordinate meals for their friends and loved ones after birth, surgery or illness.

There are also many tech initiatives within biotech.  I haven’t spent time exploring these as they are not really consumer products.

Finance and Payments

Challenges in Banking

Banking is expensive.  Historically, to operate a bank you would need branches.  These would be expensive in staff costs and leases and this cost is passed on to the customer.  This is affordable in developed countries.  In fact it’s usually “free” and subsidised by the interest banks charge on mortgages and loans as well as income they generate from deposits held in accounts and fees from card transactions.  However, due to the wealth disparity in developing countries, opening a bank account is very expensive.  People also have to travel long distances to do so. This is why 1.7 billion adults are unbanked globally.

Being unbanked can keep people in poverty, as this article by the World Bank explores.  It means that people don’t have access to financial tools for savings, insurance, payments and credit.  People have to resort to risky measures like keeping cash under their mattresses. However, huge progress has been made in just the last seven years as the unbanked adult population has reduced from 51% to 31% since 2011.

M-Pesa

M-Pesa is the most impactful tech product I’ve come across in finance and probably overall.  It is a mobile phone-based payment service launched by Vodafone in 2007 that lets people deposit, withdraw and transfer money as well as pay for bills and airtime.  It even offers people a bank account in Kenya. As the World Bank highlights, even the most rural areas of Kenya have mobile banking kiosks.  This is game-changing for the rural poor who would previously had next to no access to financial institutions.  It has lifted nearly 200,000 Kenyans out of poverty (2% of Kenyan households) by enabling women to shift occupations from subsistence farming to business or retail sales.  And a staggering 49% of Kenya’s GDP is transacted through M-Pesa.

Tech Products for Cross-Border Money Transfers

Another notable category of tech products is sending money from developed to developing countries with little or no fees.  Historically, it was very expensive to send money cross-border as banks charged very high fees. A number of companies have made a difference here.  Wave is an app that lets people transfer money with no fees.  This makes it the cheapest (and probably easiest) option available.  Segovia enables low-cost payments between organisations (like charities and social impact startups) and hard to reach markets in developing countries.

Tech Products for Lending Money in Developing Countries

A final category of tech product with a lot of activity is lending to people in developing countries (a.k.a. microcredit).  A big challenge people in developing countries face is a lack of credit history. In fact, 69% of the world’s population are not covered by the credit bureaus, so are locked out of the system.  This can keep them trapped in poverty.

Tala is an app for people in developing countries that uses alternative data to lend money to them.  They use people’s social connections, texts and calls, merchant transactions, app usage and personal identifiers.  They also provide most people an answer in less than 10 minutes.  Millions of people use Tala in Kenya, Philippines and Tanzania.

Peer-to-peer lending platforms have also been built that enable people in developed countries to lend to those in developing countries.  A couple of the big ones are Kiva and Zidisha.  One other notable peer-to-peer lending platform is Pezesha.  They help the underserved in Kenya obtain a credit score and then leverage M-Pesa and their own mobile app to enable Kenyans to lend to each other.

Fintech Products in Developed Markets

Within developed markets, there are A LOT of financial tech products.  In fact, there’s a whole industry called “fintech” that comprise startups in mobile banking, insurance, investments, lending, payments and cryptocurrencies.  While most of these startups are strongly commercial in nature, they have helped a lot of people in developed countries and will continue to do so.

I’ll share one example – my last employer, Monzo.  For some marginalised people in the UK, opening a bank account can be really difficult.  I was recently talking to a friend who immigrated to the UK.  It has taken her weeks to open a bank account due to having no credit history.  This caused her a lot of stress and frustration. Monzo has worked hard to help people open bank accounts, even if they have no fixed address.  They’ve worked hard to make it as easy as possible for people, especially immigrants, refugees and people who live on boats 🙂

Tech products to help refugees, homeless, trafficked and disabled people

I’ve come across a number of tech products that are helping people in specific circumstances.

Refugees

Refugee Facts

Refugees are people who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.  There are 25 million refugees worldwide.  According to the UN Refugee Agency, the UK hosts 122,000 refugees and receives about 27,000 each year.  85% of all refugees are hosted in developing countries rather than wealthy industrialised countries.  Refugees face a number of challenges.  These include speaking and learning the local language, helping their children succeed in school, securing work and housing and accessing services.

Tech Products to Help Refugees

A number of tech products exist to help refugees at different stages of their journey.  Refunite provides a missing person’s platform for refugees and displaced populations.  Refugees Welcome, based in Germany, matches refugees with people who have a spare bedroom so they can escape their refugee camp.  Tarjimly is a Messenger chatbot that connects refugees with live translators.  This helps them communicate with doctors, lawyers and aid workers – I really like how they use technology.  The Bike Project is an e-commerce site selling refurbished bikes and using the proceeds to fund bikes for refugees.  This helps them travel around London without eating into their £36 / week allowance.  Finally, Chatterbox trains and employs refugees in the language service sector in the UK.  People can sign up for tuition with a native-speaking refugee through their website.

Homeless People

Homelessness Facts

Homelessness is the circumstance when people are without a permanent dwelling.  Street-homeless (people sleeping rough) is only a small subset of homeless people (about 1%).  You won’t see most homeless people on the streets, but instead they sleep in hostels and temporary accommodation.  In the UK there are over 300,000 homeless people (about 1 in 200 people).  Homelessness can be very traumatic and hard to escape from.  It can have a negative impact on people’s physical and mental health and can particularly affect children and their emotional wellbeing, education and life chances.  The life expectancy of a homeless person is just 47 years.

Tech Products to Help Homeless People

There are surprisingly few tech products helping homeless people.  Beam, founded by my friend Alex Stephany, is a crowdfunding site that helps homeless people fund training to get back into work.  I recently became a trustee and am excited to work with them as they scale their impact in London and beyond.  A couple of small-scale tech products exist in the US. Transfernation is an Uber-style app in New York that provides on-demand food pickup and delivery.  They take surplus food from offices, parties, weddings and restaurants and deliver it to a local feeding program.  Shelter Tech, based in San Francisco, provide basic information to homeless people about services that can help them.

Trafficked and Exploited People

Human Trafficking Facts

Human trafficking (or modern slavery) is a process of enslaving people, coercing them into a situation with no way out and exploiting them.  People can be trafficked for many different forms of exploitation.  These include forced prostitution, forced labour, forced begging and forced marriage.  Human trafficking is moving a person for exploitation. 57% of victims cross international borders.  43% are trafficked domestically within national borders, sometimes even within one community.

Victims want to escape poverty and improve their lives and often get an offer of a well-paid job elsewhere.  They borrow money from their trafficker to arrange the job, travel and accommodation.  But when they arrive, the job doesn’t exist or the conditions are completely different. It is then too late – their documents are often taken away and they are forced to work until their debt is paid off.

While it’s hard to get accurate figures for trafficking, according to Human Rights First about 25 million victims are trapped in modern-day slavery.  Traffickers earn about $150 billion per year in profits.  A Home Office study estimates there are about 10,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK (0.04% of the global total).  Children are the most vulnerable victims and according to Unseen 1 in 4 victims are children.

Tech Products for Victims of Human Trafficking

I came across very few organisations building tech products to fight human trafficking.  The most notable was Thorn in the US.  Co-founded by the actor and tech investor Ashton Kutcher, they track and catch child sex traffickers with data analytics and an SMS hotline.  I recommend watching this 15-minute video of Ashton Kutcher talking about child sex trafficking in the US at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A few attempts have been made to build apps to help fight human trafficking, but they haven’t had much traction.  In the UK the Clewer Initiative created an app to enable people to report suspicions of people exploitation at car washes in the UK.  In San Francisco, a group called ATHack have created a couple of apps to report suspected human trafficking and help victims access free-to-use power outlets.

Disabled People

Disability Facts

The World Health Organisation and World Bank produced a World Report on Disability.  It explains how people with disabilities often have poorer health, lower education achievements, fewer economic opportunities and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities. This is partly because people with disabilities experience barriers in accessing services that many of us have long taken for granted.  These include health, education, employment, transport and information. These difficulties are exacerbated in less advantaged communities.

Approximately one billion people in the world are living with a disability.  1 in 10 of these are children.  According to the UN, as many as 80% of disabled people live in isolated rural areas in developing countries.  In some countries, up to 20% of the population are disabled.  This means up to 50% of the population are adversely affected by disability if friends and relatives are included.  When compounded with the other challenges the extreme poor face, having a disability can make life extremely difficult.

In the UK there are 11 million people with a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability.  This includes about 660,000 children.

Tech Products to Help Disabled People

There are a number of tech products to help disabled people.  One big category is informational websites. Able Thrive is a platform that supports people with disabilities.  It has information to support people with life skills, parenting, relationships, activities and travel.  Skybadger is a website that helps disabled children and their parents in the UK.  I also came across an organisation focused on developing countries – Embrace Kulture.  They provide information and support via mobile phones to families in developing countries who have disabled children.

There’s also a relatively new class of cool apps that have been built to help people with disabilities in developed countries.  The best is Be My Eyes.  They connect blind and low-vision people with sighted volunteers for visual assistance through a live video call.  They have 1.6 million volunteers on their platform and support almost 100,000 blind and low-vision people. There are two early-stage promising apps that should launch soon in the UK.  The first is TapSOS, which enables the deaf and hard of hearing to contact emergency services.  The second is an app called Passenger Assist by Transreport, which helps disabled people get the support they need at train stations.

Other People Groups

Tech products have also been built to help a number of other people groups.

Girls & Women

Praekelt built a Mobile Mentorship Android app that connects girls in rural India to female mentors to improve their opportunities and mobility.  They also built an Android app called Dooit that helps Indonesian girls save money and improve their financial literacy.  Finally, Raaji is an early-stage chatbot to support women in Pakistan with health and hygiene as well as those who are victims of gender violence.

Farmers

A number of really innovative tech products have been created to support farmers.  WeFarm offers farmers in developing countries SMS-based support.  It connects farmers together who have mobile phones but no internet access so they can ask each other questions.  They have over 1 million users and are growing. Farmcrowdy is a crowdfunding app for farmers in developing countries.  People can sponsor a farm and get a financial return along with regular updates.  Farm Drop supports local farmers (and fishermen) in the UK by selling their products through its e-commerce site.

Children

AdoptTogether is a crowdfunding platform to help families adopt a child.  It helps them pay for things like international travel, legal fees and home schooling.

Tech products to support international development, human rights and social action

Tech products have also been built to support other activities that help people.

International Development

International development is work focused on alleviating poverty and improving living conditions in developing countries.  Large charities such as Oxfam, Save the Children and Tearfund focus on international development work.  Tech products have been built to support this work.  I’ll explore a few examples that I’ve come across.

Some charities use technology to facilitate better transparency for donors.  For example Charity Water have good transparency on exactly how many water projects they have funded and the number of people they have helped.  GiveDirectly facilitate sending money directly to people living in extreme poverty.  They have a live feed of quotes and pictures of people who have benefited from receiving money.  The Against Malaria Foundation distribute malaria nets.  They have an updated list of fundraisers, donors and past and future net distributions on their website.

Simple uses of technology are used by some organisations to engage people in developing countries and evaluate programs.  Africa’s Voice have radio DJs in Africa ask their listeners for opinions on various topics via text message (e.g. on vaccinations and child health).  They then collect responses and apply data analytics to help improve aid programs.  What Went Wrong crowd sources failed projects from people in Africa via SMS and social media.  They then put these on an interactive map and follow up to learn more.

Finally, Ken Banks (who I am meeting in a couple of weeks) developed a messaging platform called FrontlineSMS.  This enables charities to communicate with beneficiaries at scale using SMS.

Human Rights

I came across a couple of organisations who are using tech products to help protect and defend people’s rights.  The Guardian Project develop mobile security software (including a number of apps) to help individuals freely communicate and protect themselves from intrusion and monitoring.  This is particularly useful for workers in high-risk situations such as activists, journalists or humanitarian organisations.  Witness enable people to use their smartphones to record video in order to protect and defend their human rights.

Social Action

A number of tech products have been built to enable people to engage with issues they care about and their local community.

One category in this space are platforms to enable people to setup petitions and add their voice to causes and issues they care about.  Change.org is the biggest in this space.  38 Degrees is an equivalent in the UK.  A platform called Amandla.Mobi enables people in South Africa to advocate for issues they care about using SMS.

A second category are platforms that connect people to local projects and organisations so that people have the opportunity to improve their local communities.  Commonplace facilitates community engagement of regeneration, housing, transport and infrastructure projects.  Deedmob connects people with volunteering opportunities at organisations.  Neighbourly connects local community projects and charities with businesses and individuals that can donate time, money or surplus.  Benefacto and Ethical Angel connect employees at corporates with volunteering opportunities at charities in the UK.

Tech Products for Donations

A wide array of tech products have been built to help people give money to charities.

Measuring Impact

A number of websites have been created that help people evaluate charities so they can decide where to give money.  Charity Navigator is the most popular site in the US, followed by GuideStar.  However, they don’t give any information on the impact the charities have with the money they receive.  So a whole array of websites have tried to address that, most of which have emerged from the Effective Altruism movement.

The best is probably GiveWell who do in-depth research to find outstanding giving opportunities.  The Life You Can Save rank top charities and provide an impact calculator.  Giving What You Can also show top charities, but focus more on getting people to pledge a portion of their future income to giving.  Innovations for Poverty Action discover and promote effective solutions to global poverty problems.  They have a sister organisation called ImpactMatters that is building a tool for nonprofits to use in order to quantify their impact to provide better donor transparency.  Finally, 80,000 hours, who provide careers advice for effective altruists, have a framework to approach how to select the most effective charities to give to.

Web-based Products for Donors

There are a few web-based products that are designed to help donors give money to charities, although most are relatively early-stage.  So Give, founded by Sanjay Joshi who I am meeting next week, gives users a view into the impact they’ve made in the world through their charitable giving.  Donational, founded by Ian Yamey who I spoke with a couple of weeks ago, is a website with a chatbot interface to allow users to select charities and help you donate.  Altruisto is a chrome extension that gives some money to GiveWell charities every time you buy something online.  Hopely is a search engine that donates half its advertising revenue to charity.

Fundraising Sites

There are many fundraising sites in the UK that help people raise money for charities and causes they care about, usually by doing a sponsored event of some kind such as a run or cycle.  Just Giving is the most popular, but there are many others such as Wonderful and Virgin Money Giving.  There are a couple of crowdfunding sites for specific projects.  Global Giving hosts non-profit projects that address issues such as humanitarian aid and tree planting.  SmartResponse directs donations to specific disaster situations and organisations working there.

Apps for Donors

Many apps have been created to help people give money to charities and causes, but none with very mass adoption.  One Today is a Google-built app with pre-vetted charities and social features.  Elbi focuses more on content, showing videos of people in need.  Giving money through the app unlocks exclusive goods provided by top brands.  ShareTheMeal shares a meal with a child for 50 cents every time you tap the app.  Givelify provides a low friction way for donors to give to churches and other charities.  SnapDonate uses the smartphone camera to recognise charity logos and helps you give to them in a very low friction way.

Buengo and Gone for Good are apps that let people donate their goods to charity.  Coin Up and GiveTide are “round-up” apps that round-up transactions you make and give the spare change to charity.

Kinder and Sparrow Giving are a couple of promising apps that haven’t launched yet.  In fact, I spoke with one of the cofounders of Sparrow Giving, Ari Kagan, a few weeks ago.  They have a great background in donor psychology and are creating a very low friction rules-based way of giving.  For example, every time you watch 30 minutes of Netflix, it automatically donates 25 cents to educate a child.

Apps with Donations by Sponsoring Companies

A whole category of app type has emerged whereby users perform actions and money is donated to charity by a sponsoring company (which is typically part of their advertising budget).  Donate a Photo is one of the most popular.  Every time you take a photo (at most once a day), Johnson & Johnson gives $1 to charity.  Fotition is very similar.  Charity Miles is a similar concept but money is donated for every mile you run.  Percent and Beam Impact donate money to charity every time you shop at specific retailers.  Give2Charity simply lets you go about your day, tracking you in the background, and you earn points which are turned into donations to a charity.

Dead but Interesting Apps

A couple of apps are worth mentioning, even though they no longer exist.  Budge allowed people to give their friend a challenge and the loser had to give an agreed upon donation to charity.  Charity Tap was a game whereby every time you tapped on the screen, it donated a grain of rice to the World Food Programme (which was supported by banner ads players saw in the game).

Use of Blockchain Technology

A couple of early-stage companies are using blockchain technology to track donations and impact – Alice and Give Bit.  They hope this will bring transparency to donors and ensure that donations fund the projects in which they were intended for.

Consumer Giving Accounts

Consumer giving accounts are separate accounts that are used exclusively for giving money to charities.  A couple of organisations provide these in the UK – Stewardship and Charities Aid Foundation (CAF).  Some of the benefits to the user are only needing to do one gift aid declaration, easier tracking for tax purposes and the ability to give anonymously.

Other Digital Giving Products

There are a few other digital giving products worth mentioning.  Pennies allows customers to donate a few pennies to UK charities at point-of-sale terminals.  In fact, it turns out that this is the product that powers the point-of-sale terminal every time I buy petrol to ask if I want to donate 25p to charity (as I discussed in my last blog post).  Network for Good provides donor management and fundraising software.  Good Gamer are working on a game whereby all in-game purchases would become micro-donations to charity.  I like the concept, but I’m not sure if they’re still active in development.  Also, there are all the crowdfunding and microcredit products I mentioned earlier!

A Few Final Thoughts

Phew!  That was a much longer blog post than I was expecting 😉 It turns out a lot of tech products have been built that are helping people today!  In fact, “tech for good” is a hot topic at the moment.  Both Google and Facebook are focusing on tech for good startups in their London incubators right now.

Let me share some final thoughts and observations and discuss where I go from here.

Scaling Impact with Technology

I found it interesting that the four key categories with the most activity in tech products for helping people were not focused on any particular group of people.  Instead, they applied to everyone – education, employment, health and money.  Tech products have been being built to help specific people groups like refugees and homeless people, but there were fewer and they generally had less scale.

Some advice that a few people have given me over the past few weeks is to decide which group of people I want to help and start there.  I like the sound of that approach, partly because it will more likely connect to my emotions.  I’ll then focus on helping people that face circumstances that I can sympathise with.  This is an important motivational factor. That approach will likely lead me to talk to users early to understand their needs better so I can figure out ways of helping them.

But it runs the risk that I’ll solve a problem that is specific to a group of people and doesn’t translate to others.  That might be okay. But the beauty of software is that it scales. Limiting myself to one group of people could limit the impact I could have in people’s lives. If I focus on one of the four key categories that has shown the most success, I could still help people in a certain group I really care about, but I could also help so many other people too.

For-Profits vs. Non-Profits

If People Will Pay, It’s More Likely to be a For-Profit

I also found the mix of for-profits and nonprofits interesting.  The more commercial the area, the more likely the company solving the problem was a for-profit.

For example, practically all employment and finance tech products were built by for-profits.  They all present relatively straightforward ways to get people to pay money for the service they are offering.  This is probably because the service inherently involves moving money to the person.

However, within education most of the tech products were built by nonprofits.  This probably indicates the difficulty of getting people to pay for them. There was one notable exception though – Eneza Education.  They deliver education through mobile sites to Africans.  They are a for-profit, I think because people in Africa are willing to pay for education (many people can’t afford to pay for schooling, but they can afford Eneza).  And by charging for their service, they have a more sustainable model that will scale faster as their income can pay for more staff and more materials to educate more African children.

Almost all of the organisations that were building tech products for specific people groups were nonprofits.  I think that’s because almost all of those people groups were marginalised or disadvantaged in some way and so were not able to pay for the service being provided.  Moreover, there is probably good access to money through grants for organisations serving specific people groups. One notable exception here were farmers. All three tech products for farmers were built by for-profit organisations.  I think this is because farming is a commercial activity and so farmers could very easily justify spending money for the service.

Pros & Cons of For-Profits & Non-Profits

Now there is no reason nonprofits couldn’t charge for a product or service they provide.  This way they could build a sustainable model, rather than relying on donations and grants.  However, given that the tech products with a sustainable business model were mostly for-profits, there seems to be a preference that way. One benefit for the founders is that they can personally benefit financially, while having a social impact.  This same benefit applies to attracting talent as you can offer employees equity in the company, which could make them very wealthy if the startup succeeds.

A final benefit for-profits have is their access to money.  Most of the money available for startups come from Venture Capitalists (VCs) who will only fund for-profits where they might get a good return on their investment.  VCs can’t get a financial return by funding nonprofits. A startup taking VC money can scale much quicker as they can hire more people sooner and spend more money on marketing to grow their offering.

The main downside a for-profit has is that they will always need to prioritise profits over social impact because they have a legal obligation to do so for their shareholders.  A new class of corporation called a B-Corp is trying to address this by balancing profits with purpose.  But there will be always be more compromise in a for-profit on their social mission compared to a nonprofit, which exists exclusively for their social mission.

Those tech products that don’t have a sustainable business model would need to be nonprofits.  This is the only way they can access donations and grants from foundations and governments, which they would need to rely on.

Trends

Sam Lessin, a VP of Product Management at Facebook, once told me to identify trends and play into them.

Mobile

The biggest technology trend of all time are mobile phones, and especially smartphones.  These devices have given billions of people access to an internet-connected supercomputer in their pockets 24/7.  As this trend continues in the developing world, the opportunity to reach the poor at scale and help them with tech products is enormous.

Cities

Let’s consider some other trends.  According to the UN, over half of the world’s population live in urban areas (cities) and this is increasing.  Only 29% of the world’s population lived in cities in 1950 (746 million people). It is now 54% (3.9 billion).  The proportion of people living in cities is expected to reach 66% by 2050 (6.4 billion). Much of the expected urban growth will take place in countries of the developing regions, particularly Africa.

Why does this matter? As we explored earlier, the biggest constraint holding developing countries back from the power of software is infrastructure – electricity and internet access. Much of this infrastructure already exists in urban areas of developing countries and it will be much easier to provide this in urban areas in the future than rural areas.  Moreover, as more people flock to cities and populations there grow (probably due to the economic opportunities), there will be a stronger economic incentive to further improve this infrastructure. This is a powerful trend and means that smartphone-based, internet-connected tech products can be built to help the majority of the developing world (who live in cities) in the future.

Mobile Finance in Developing Countries

One final trend is M-Pesa and mobile finance in developing countries.  Almost half of Kenya’s GDP flows through M-Pesa despite only being invented 11 years ago!  This technology is permeating other developing countries such as Tanzania, South Africa, Afghanistan and India.  This is giving people the ability to save money, borrow money and conduct business.  This was all impossible for many people before.  Significantly, this works for those living in rural parts of developing countries where poverty is at its most extreme.

Mobile money leapfrogs the banking system we have in developed countries (in the same way that I believe mobile-delivered education could leapfrog the classroom system we have here too).  It is far cheaper to operate and therefore provide the service.  Other applications can also be built on top, such as conditional cash transfers. It also opens up many other financial services, such as borrowing money with Tala (as it uses M-Pesa to receive cash and repay a loan). Tala was only founded in 2011 (4 years after M-Pesa) and already have millions of users in Kenya and Tanzania.  I think the financial services available to people in developing countries, who previously had no access whatsoever, will accelerate at a dramatic rate in the years to come. This is very exciting!

My Favourite Tech Products that are Helping People Today

Of the hundreds of products I looked at, which are my favourites?

M-Pesa stands out as the most impactful tech product as it enables millions of Africans access to financial products and services.

Eneza Education is serving an enormous need in Africa by providing education to those who can’t afford schooling.  It is a relatively simple use of technology, but is really powerful and scales well. Plus they have found a sustainable business model to scale it across Africa.

Be My Eyes is a clever use of smartphone technology in developed countries.  It provides blind people visual assistance via a live video call with a sighted volunteer.  They have some good traction, giving assistance to almost 100,000 people with 1.6 million volunteers.  Their users really love the product given its exceptional 4.9 star rating on Google Play.

WeFarm is a clever use of SMS technology to provide a sophisticated service using cloud-based technology.  They connect farmers together all over the world so they can answer each other’s questions. They are already helping over a million farmers and seem to be growing quickly.

Watsi is probably my favourite crowdfunding website (sorry Beam 😉!).  They enable the crowdfunding of the cost of life-saving surgeries for people in developing countries.  As surgeries are far less expensive in developing countries, they are more affordable sums to crowdfund.  They also have an enormous impact on people.  The crowdfunding nature makes it deeply personal for both the donors and beneficiaries, connecting them together. This is a great example of connecting the wealth of developed countries with needs in developing countries in a deeply personal way.

Where Do I Go From Here?

This process has been very time-consuming (not just for me, but also for you as a reader 😉).  But I have found it enormously beneficial.  It has helped me understand the various ways technology is helping people today, who it is helping and what works well. It has also given me other insights too.  These include the trends, how to have a scalable impact and the pros and cons of for-profits vs. nonprofits.  Most significantly it has given me an understanding and framework to consider all future tech products I might work on to help people.  Plus a whole heap of ideas for where to start.

My Personal Constraints

I’ll share more about the ideas I have in another blog post.  For now, let me share some considerations for what ideas are best for me to work on today.

As I explored in my Effective Altruism blog post, the most impactful tech products probably serve people in developing countries.  However, with a young family, I am constrained in how much I can travel.  Without spending a substantial amount of time with people in developing countries, it will be very hard to build consumer products for them.  Maybe I can find a cofounder who is able to travel more though.

A Couple of “Big Ideas”

Now there is a class of products that could be a reasonable fit and have a massive impact.  These are products that serve people in both developed and developing countries.  One “big idea” I have is in the area of digital donations, which would connect people in developed countries to people in developing countries. The other “big idea” that my friend Philip Su shared with me is in the area of employment, after he spent 6 months researching that space.  This idea would scale to people in developed and developing countries. I’ll share more about these in another blog post!

Other Things that Matter to Me

There are other things that also matter to me.  I want to work from a heart of love. This is related to why I’ve chosen to redirect my career towards social entrepreneurship – because of my Christian faith.  So it is important for me to have a connection to the people I am helping. As I discussed in my first blog postI want to explore how I can have a sustainable and lasting social impact.  I also want to play into the benefits of technology and find the best places where I can have impact at scale.

Let’s Build Something! …

In general I want to lean towards action.  I plan to form a queue of ideas, then begin prototyping the first one and put it into the hands of users.  I believe this is the best way to make progress and learn.  Eventually I should land on something that has a scalable, meaningful impact in people’s lives.

I do have a couple of projects that I may start on soon.  During my conversation with the CEO of the Against Malaria Foundation last week, he shared an idea for building a viral product to get 1 million people to buy 1 million malaria nets.  I actually plan to lead a project on this at a hackathon I’m attending next week hosted by Kingdom Code.  A friend of mine, Ben White, also shared an idea with me for helping students grade each other’s work in a classroom setting.  Ben is a teacher and has spent some time researching this area and it seems that a simple digital product could support this use case.  I’m exploring this with him.

I’ll share more about these projects and the other ideas I have in future blog posts.  As I’m at twenty pages, I think I’ll end this post here!  The next part of my journey will involve writing some code! 🙂 …


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  1. Wow, this is the most comprehensive single-page survey of the current state of affairs re: social entrepreneurship! Thank you, for this!

  2. Wow! I’m impressed on how you have managed to gather so much information. We are lucky to have people like you in the EA community. Good luck on your new journey! I’m sure you will have a great impact.

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