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The Do-Good Imperative

Some of the most innovative ideas today are coming from efforts to address the needs of those most in need

When I first read about the computer designed for the One Laptop Per Child project, I wanted one. Not because it was adorable, cheap, or a means of doing good (, 9/24/07) (to buy one you had to buy a second for a child in a poor country). I coveted its screen, designed for use in full daylight. Even my Apple (AAPL) MacBook Pro, with all its clever tricks, can't manage that.

Add the LifeStraw water filtration system to the list of do-gooder objects I crave. This little wonder, a water filter outfitted with a straw, made the cover of the Design for the Other 90% show catalog at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum last year. It could as easily have graced the cover of an REI mailer.

How about a windup flashlight crossed with a cell-phone charger? It's low tech meets high tech with rugged, toylike charm. Or charcoal made from plant waste instead of wood, developed for Haiti by MIT's D-Lab? Talk about a greener way to barbecue. (The technology might also help save endangered African gorillas. A new study published in Science links organized crime rings cutting trees for charcoal in Congo with a spate of recent gorilla murders.)

Doing Good Is Smart Business

The qualities that make a product good for the developing world—sturdy, cheap, adaptable, modular, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, computer platform-neutral, and bandwidth-savvy—make it a good product, period. Suddenly "less is more" goes from abstract design ideal to the only viable option. This is why some of the most innovative ideas today are coming from efforts to address the needs of those most in need.

In 2006, I saw this up close at Strong Angel III (SA3), a sprawling disaster-preparedness exercise that drew together civilians and the military to test technologies for humanitarian work.

For the better part of a week, hundreds of Silicon Valley's finest gathered in a handful of crumbling buildings next to an airport runway in San Diego. Their humble goal: to save the world. According to the suitably dire scenario cooked up by SA3's planners, in the wake of global pandemic, terrorists had launched a series of infrastructure-shredding cyberattacks. Geeks to the rescue!

The esprit de programmeurs was palpable. In astonishingly short order, arch competitors became almost giddy collaborators. Teams from a half-dozen companies developing geographic information systems worked with Google (GOOG) to figure out ways to layer real-time disease surveillance and emergency data onto interactive maps. A year later, the telltale fingerprints of SA3 could be seen on news maps charting the progress of Southern California wildfires. Today, layered mapping is part of daily digital life, an expected convenience.

Clever Technologies

A panel of judges much tougher than any venture capitalists—these veteran aid workers had literally seen it all—were the ultimate arbiters of success or failure.

The Sahana disaster management system, developed in response to the Indonesian tsunami in 2004, was lauded for its egalitarian open-source roots, while Microsoft was rapped on the knuckles for software that didn't recognize Apple's operating system and was almost completely incompatible with Linux.

A computer- and server-filled minivan outfitted with a small satellite dish strapped to the roof literally drove rings around a gas-guzzling, two-gallons-per-mile RV decked out with tons of medical gear.

A lightweight, cloth satellite dish set inside an eight-foot cloth globe that resembled a big beach ball, cost a fraction of the price of a traditional dish and consumed a sliver of the power. It packed up neatly into a couple of boxes and was shippable anywhere overnight by FedEx (FDX).

My particular interest is in biology and disease surveillance, so I began imagining all sorts of mash-ups. For example, the Ultimate Field Lab: Take one cheap portable satellite dish, add a solar refrigerator for storing samples and transporting vaccine and some "lab on a chip" rapid diagnostic tests. Now garnish with a panoramic digital camera, cell phones, and computers (powered by micro fuel cells since we're dreaming big) linked to a central lab. Now pack it all into a minivan or, should the occasion require, a mule cart.

Two years later, reality is fast catching up.

The Human Factor

The cell phone has been transformed into the 21st century's answer to the Swiss Army knife: a must-have tool for everything from disease monitoring to farm irrigation schemes (dial into a satellite to figure out where to water). Short messaging has become the new way to S.O.S. And the push for better ways to cram large amounts of information into ever-tinier bits for the low bandwidths of the developing world will help us all.

Technology for the greater good has become a movement. Inspired by Sahana, programmers from all over the world have banded together to develop Humanitarian, Free & Open Source Software (H-FOSS) tools.

Corporations are also getting more and more involved. The earth was still quaking from aftershocks in China in May when first responder programmers from Google, IBM (IBM), and Microsoft (MSFT) sprang into action to build customized search engines and set up disaster management tools.

Still, high tech, like any technology, is only as good as how it is used. Just days after Cyclone Nargis slammed into Myanmar in May, killing 100,000 and displacing millions more, Sahana was translated into Burmese. Whether it will be used to its potential, though, is in the hands of a government that so far has shown more interest in its own welfare than that of its people.

The Key to the Future

Likewise, the ability to track and correlate weather patterns with disease outbreaks buys valuable time to prevent outbreaks (e.g., floods lead to mosquitoes lead to cases of West Nile, malaria, chikungunya, or Rift Valley Fever). Yet without the money and ability to distribute vaccines, drugs, and bed nets, it may not matter.

The need for more and better answers is beyond urgent. Billions of people live in poverty. According to a recent Oxfam report, the number and severity of natural disasters is on the rise. So too are outbreaks of new emerging diseases, including HIV, SARS, Ebola, and West Nile, and a resurgence of drug-resistant scourges such as tuberculosis and malaria.

In an ever-flattening world, regional disasters can quickly go global, while global events can have devastating local consequences. If innovation is driven by necessity, then there is more than enough inspiration enough for us all.

Doing good is more than smart business. It gives hope for a better future.

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