Phones + Problems = Progress

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I had the privilege and delight of being a juror at the Nokia ‘Do Good’ Hackathon in Bangalore this past Sunday, as part of the “Design and Develop for People and Planet” challenge.

Nokia do good hackathonIndia has one of the largest mobile phone populations in the world — and also one of the largest numbers of problems in the world, ranging from corruption and pollution to poverty and illiteracy. Can startups disrupt the status quo using mobile phones and apps, and tackle some of India’s pressing problems (and thereby in other parts of the world too)? That’s the aim of a range of hackathons and social enterprises springing up around the country.

While I can’t reveal the names of the companies and apps in the Nokia hackathon right now, I can share some insights for aspiring entrepreneurs into the kinds of issues that arise for such mobile social startups. You can see previous winners of the hackathon on the Web site of the Ideas Project.

The overall winning apps of the hackathon will be enrolled into the Aalto App Campus Program in Finland. This initiative provides monetary support as well as mentoring and assistance to transform their winning idea into a professional and high quality app.

Education

A number of developers are working on apps to reduce the drudgery of the Indian classroom and make learning more fun: touchscreen-based guides for learning how to write Indian alphabets, customising learning environments with preferred choice of instructor’s voice, and even automatic scanning of Indian language signs and transliterating them into other languages.

More value can be delivered by digging deeper into pedagogic models of teaching languages and how they can be transformed via personalised cloud and peer services. How about adding a text-to-speech layer which can make apps useful for illiterate users too? Imagine being able to point your phone at a government form or streetname and getting it read to you by the app – useful not just for illiterates but also for those who go to other states of India where they don’t speak the language and need to read bus destinations or addresses.

Health

India is the world’s capital for diabetes and a range of other diseases – and we all know how elders often forget to take their medication on time. How about a reminder app that goes beyond alerts and tracks actual consumption of medicine via response messages, thereby building useful analytics of how often these alerts work, and why patients still don’t or can’t take their medication as advised? And then adding a predictive component to take pro-active action for patients who have problems perhaps in getting the medicine on time?

And while much attention understandably focuses on apps for doctors, patients and pharmacists, how about apps for another crucial part of the medical ecosystem: nurses? Can smartphones or tablets make it easier for nurses to track which patient in which ward should be given which medicine at what time? And then extend this to other routine and special tasks, and then integrate this with the hospital MIS? Nurses have a lot of ‘tacit’ knowledge of their own, and perhaps knowledge mobilisation in this community can yield new healthcare insights.

A number of organisations already have databases of blood donors. How about adding an app which makes it easier to access this data for a wider population, and also give credits for those who donate blood the most, or bring in more donors from their friends’ circles?

And how about adding a social media component to this, so you can collectively donate blood to your friends in need? And not just blood donation but also organ donation? This can be geo-tagged also, so useful data can be unearthed on which neighbourhoods tend to have most blood donors and receivers!

Many Indians are below the poverty level and don’t get a full meal each day – though there is so much food wastage at functions, parties and hotels. Can reports of excess food be posted by concerned event organisers via an app, to pass on to needy citizens via registered NGOs? What are the limitations and advantages of such an app, with respect to perishability of food items?

nokia do good hackathon

Environment

The infrastructure in many Indian cities is overloaded and crumbling (if it was there in the first place). How about creating apps which make it easier for registered citizens to report potholes and broken streetlights, and pass this on to the concerned government agencies? And also share aggregate data over the weeks and months to the news media, so they can track responsiveness of public works departments and shine the public spotlight on non-performers while also rewarding the good guys?

A number of databases of biodiversity in India exist. How about adding an app layer on top, and with an educational component to it – so that students can track the biodiversity in Indian cities? Maybe this will raise concern about what can be done to increase the population of squirrels and sparrows in the city. This can also be used to ‘crowdsource’ the monitoring of flight patterns of migratory birds in Indian cities by birdwatchers using mobile phones.

The loss of tree cover in Indian cities has been much lamented. How about using apps to alert concerned citizens of which streets and parks need more trees to be planted, and who is willing to donate trees there? And not just plant trees, but maintain them over the years? And how about using crowdsourcing to track and reward ‘superplanters’ who plant the most number of trees in a neighbourhood or across a city, or induce the largest number of fellow citizens to plant trees?

Reducing the number of trips and cars on streets can reduce urban pollution. Many startups have tried to use the Web and mobiles to coordinate car-pooling, with limited success due to cultural blocks in sharing private cars with strangers. So how about a new twist on car-pooling – share cabs instead of your private cars? Will it be possible to work with fleet operators to offer cab-pooling apps to registered and authenticated users?

We have all watched and read with horror about the loss of life in flooded areas in north India this year, and during the other natural disasters that strike the country (and others too). Can mobile apps be used by citizens to report missing people and have them tracked when they are found, using a crowdsourced model? How would this work with existing relief agencies and police departments?

Going ahead

I consider myself lucky to be able to listen to pitches from entrepreneurs with passion and interest in solving such problems, and to share some of my thoughts and insights into the kinds of frameworks, connections and alliances they would need to succeed.

And while it is nice to have these hackathons in universities, five-star hotels and MNC offices, wouldn’t it be terrific to also take these idea pitches to more mainstream places like malls, coffeeshops, bookstores and schools? Tapping crowdsourcing and crowdfunding to help these winning app ideas and demos fulfil their vision would be the next logical step.

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Madanmohan Rao

Madanmohan Rao is research director at YourStory Media and editor of five book series (http://amzn.to/NpHAoE)