Tech for change: A round-up of game-changers

The Semantic Web: More intuitive than ever
The Semantic Web: More intuitive than ever

The web’s capacity to be instantaneous, replicable and viral is offering up unparalleled results.

In fact, never before has offline mobilization happened more quickly or in a robust manner than yielded by web-enabled, people-powered or co-created mediums.

Many associate social tech strategy with Obama-rama. The hyper-local, hyper-segmented campaign resulted in $639M raised, 67% of it through online donations. It might have taken the inauguration of the “people’s president” to mint the intersection between social tech and social change, but it is only one among countless stories.

A few game-changing winners:

“People-Powered Campaign”
CNN called the 350 climate campaign “The most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.” The campaign saw 5200 unique events in 181 countries in a single day. More impressive may be the campaign’s genesis. The same team orchestrated the Step It Up campaign, 350’s predecessor, in 2007. 2,000 rallies, 50 states, organized by four university grads and their former professor Bill McKibben and – shockingly – zero starting budget. The lessons from the first people-powered campaign were brought forth for iteration number two – an incomparable success rate, not to mention learning curve.

Honorable mention
In 2007, Apple customers demanded Steve Jobs create a greener product. The platform: Green My Apple; An open campaign that mimicked the Apple brand, created by Greenpeace. Greenpeace had the good sense of asking: To whom would Steve Jobs sooner listen – a scrappy activist organization or his loyal customers? By removing their own brand, Greenpeace saw results. Within nine months, Jobs announced the banning of toxic substances in Apple products.

“Company-Community Co-creation”
A complaint storm, said to be instigated by blogger Jeff Jarvis, author of “What would Google do?” rained down on Dell, which caught the social-media averse company off guard. Dell was unable to respond, since it was decidedly offline. But they quickly scrambled to create feedback loops, manning the outlets with customer service reps that could respond. Not only did they make good on their response, but they also went one further. Dell created IdeaStorm, a forum in which customers can co-create the products they want to see Dell make.

Honorable mention
Have you seen that little green hook that hangs on the side of your Starbucks cup to avoid spillage? That was invented by a Starbucks regular who made the suggestion on the My Starbucks Idea site, a hub where customers can make suggestions they feel would better their coffee-going experience.

Lest we forget short message service or micro-blogging platforms, which have made easy access to information even easier.

“SMS 4 Impact”
FrontlineSMS, a free, award-winning and open-source software, was created to empower NGOs worldwide by turning a laptop or mobile phone into a central communications hub without needing an Internet connection. The implications and impact have been huge. Among the examples:

  • France uses it to send malnutrition and health data to international offices
  • A Swiss organization uses it to test facilitation of money transfers for microfinance customers
  • South Africa uses it to provide HIV/AIDS information services to teachers
  • Botswana coordinates its a blood donation program through the service

Honorable mention:
The Extraordinaries challenges its public: “Got 2 Minutes? Be Extraordinary.” An on-demand volunteer service powered by mobile phone or personal computer, the organization makes available opportunities to engage in short increments of spare time. Examples include tagging pictures for the Smithsonian Institution or helping map a worldwide database of defibrillators for the First Aid Corps.

Stay tuned for the next blog on tech innovation for society – among the stories: How blind photographers are using gadgets to realize their visions.

Ashoka: Innovators for the Public is hosting Tech 4 Society, a conference exploring technology, invention and social change, in Hyderabad, India, in February 2009. This blog post is an entry in their competition to find the official Ashoka blogger to travel to Hyderabad and cover the event.