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Impressions from N2Y4 (1 of 2: Mobile Technology for Social Change)

I’ve just returned from N2Y4, the 4th annual NetSquared conference in San Jose, CA. The main focus this year was the N2Y4 Mobile Challenge, and the lion’s share of content was wrapped around that. Frankly, this was not especially appealing to me ahead of time. I’ve had a Blackberry for about a year now, and I enjoy using it for checking email, Facebook and Twitter, occasional texting, and (oh yeah) for phone calls. But I don’t regard it with the kind of essentialness and potential that made me excited about this year’s topic. I was pleasantly surprised. The top three winners give a taste of the diversity of applications being worked on.

  • FrontlineSMS:Medic. First place winner. The main aspect of the project is equipping community health workers (CHW’s) in the third world with second tier (not “smartphone”) mobile phones when they go out to rural villages – many miles from the nearest clinic. Special software provides the CHW’s with access to medical records and lab diagnostics, enabling them to deliver a higher degree of service in the field and reduce the need to transport patients to a medical facility. They’ve already demonstrated this impressively in a trial in Malawi. This is cool enough, but what really blew my (and others’) mind(s) is that they are working with a team at UCLA to develop a new diagnostic procedure. Removing the lens and adding an LED light source, they plan to use the camera chip to diagnose malaria and other diseases in the field, thereby dramatically reducing the time required for diagnosis and treatment. They are looking at the mobile phone not simply as a communications device, but as a platform for repurposing its technology. And, finally, I want to recognize Isaac Holeman, one of the team, who Skyped into our Net Tuesday Philly meeting the following week – making for a great gathering. Thanks again, Isaac!
  • The Extraordinaries.  Second place winner. The basic idea is to use your smart phone to identify and perform short “micro-volunteer” tasks, like translating (or transcribing) documents. The video “elevator pitch” gives a nice illustration of what they’re envisioning.
  • VozMob – Mobile Voices, Voces Moviles. Third place winner. This is a platform for citizen journalism and community building. Utilizing a participatory design process, VozMob is currently deployed in immigrant communities in Los Angeles. Enable immigrants to share their stories via text, images or sound, the cell phones are being used to empower the community, to report abuses and to connect with family back home.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to get excited by some mobile apps. Some of the participants, it seemed to me, were driven primarily by the technology and finding a cool application for it. But what impressed me was how many of these folks had a deeply developed sense of progressive social justice, and saw the technology as a tool toward that end. (The VozMob folks were particularly articulate about this.) I was also impressed by the sense of mutual support and collaboration among participants. It was fun to watch and be a part of.

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