Managing Technology for Social Change


There is a great deal of untapped potential in consistently applying existing technologies to support, and in fact, direct social change.

Technology advancements over the years have had a considerable impact on society—and yet in most cases, this social impact has been secondary to business and profit aims. Satistied with selective pockets of social and economic change, we often overlook the endless missed opportunities as we blindly follow the course of technology.

I recently got a real taste of what this means as we looked at the social sector landscape in India.

As technology innovators, we are naturally excited by new ideas and, in India, my team was pushing for ground-breaking innovation in health care delivery. We wanted to integrate a new range of patient-centric home medical devices for monitoring and diagnosis using a hosted cloud-based service (built over a connected infrastructure), and to establish a centralized service for remote management. It was a rude shock to learn that while we were advocating the use of the latest cloud, M2M, and mobile technologies, the existing system had not yet applied even two-decade-old basic computing technologies. Many of the ongoing health care programs we observed still used hand-filled paper forms for data-entry and tracking. Within one organization, which ran a pre- and post-natal assessment program, it was open knowledge that data entered by community health workers was rarely monitored, compiled, or acted on.

No wonder it was not easy to measure the success or impact of the program, or to plan for improvements. Timing, resources, effort, and costs were far from optimal, and so much could change—both in quality and effectiveness—through better management of technology we already have available, such as mobile, real-time data entry applications connected to a central server or applications that extract data from central databases to create reports and dashboards.

In contrast, we also came across smaller initiatives that were using “the latest” technologies, including Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), which provides low-income new and expectant mothers in India, South Africa, and Bangladesh with vital health information via mobile phones using SMS and voicemail.

While immensely useful for MAMA participants, technologies like these are insufficient to radically impact the landscape. Technology is still in the hands of a limited few, and effort is needed to broaden the reach.

We are at an interesting stage of social evolution and technology maturity, and it’s time to step back and re-consider our priorities. While new technologies continue to surprise us with their vision and possibility, there is a great deal of untapped potential in consistently applying existing technologies to support, and in fact, direct social change.

Our focus needs to move away from technology innovation to technology application. We should look for solutions—tested and proven in other business sectors like finance, travel, retail, etc.—to build innovative applications for the social sector. This approach will save us from the overhead costs of introducing new technology, as well as temper the complexity and risk. However, this still requires a new outlook to service delivery and innovative business processes; more specifically, it requires a focused effort to manage and direct technology in areas that lead to effective, widespread social change.

The first step is to define a common framework for technology integration, and to apply that uniformly and consistently across all social initiatives. We should keep in mind that technology can emerge as a tool for social development only if it helps to achieve five goals for any social program—these parameters can be used to to gauge the readiness, relevance, and impact potential of new initiatives.

1. Extend reach. Access should extend beyond a limited few to millions through improved and diversified access technologies—for example, reach low-income users who have low-end feature phones with SMS and simple voice messaging, and reach smartphone users with existing apps.

2. Improve services. This can be done by driving new service delivery models that take advantage of geographical and resource gaps. For example, cloud and hosted services can deliver expertise and information to remote regions, providing accurate and otherwise unavailable diagnosis and treatment in health care.

3. Facilitate adoption. Build on convenience, and make it easier and more fun for users to employ technology anytime, anywhere; introduce easy-to-use mobile applications, one-click user interfaces, and other simply designed tools.

4. Deliver relevance. Provide targeted services that tailor to the specific needs of each group. For example, a service to remotely monitor the physiological symptoms for post-operative care reduces health care costs significantly while improving patient comfort and experience. (Note that a service like this requires an integrated arrangement between the patient and the service provider, where the needs and pain-points are well understood on both sides.)

5. Reduce cost. Introduce efficient, optimized processes. For example, use of digital forms  and implementation of real-time data mining and analytic applications can ensure timely action on data and improve the overall return on investment. Use of technology can facilitate automation and reduce overheads.

Internet communication is driving the creation of a connected society, and the growing reach of the mobile phone gives us the opportunity to integrate larger populations into our global, connected society. Together, Internet and mobile provide a platform that has the potential to drive rapid social change unlike any other in history. We can achieve far more than we have by using these technologies as an infrastrcuture to transform education, health care, energy, agriculture, and the environment.

A closing example: In a country like India, the biggest challenges to education are making skilled teachers available in remote areas, and addressing issues around geographical diversity, proximity, and access. Right now, no one is looking at creating a new education delivery channel to facilate virtual classrooms and long-distance learning—that’s despite a government initiative to put Aakash tablets (government-sponsored $50 tablets) into the hands of every one of India’s 220 million school and college students.

It is critical to ensure that we take full advantage of current technologies. It is time for us to recognize that it is in our hands to manage and make the most of existing technology to drive effective, widespread change. Simple ideas can drive local, regional, national, or even global impact on social issues.

This article was first published in Stanford Social Innovation Review on 16 May 2012 []