Technology with Social Skills

Simple or sophisticated, it's being used to fight poverty and diseases and improve the lives of the world's neediest

For 30 years, civil war has raged on the island of Mindanao at the southern tip of the Philippines. Muslim separatists want an independent Islamic nation, while the Philippine government strives to preserve its nation's territorial integrity. Caught in the crossfire are Mindanao's 18 million people. Over the past three decades, more than 120,000 have lost their lives in sectarian raids, extrajudicial killings, and kidnappings.

Witness to the terror are more than a dozen human-rights groups. But documenting the island's troubles -- and presenting damning evidence of systematic abuse to the global community -- has been a challenge. Handwritten reports can be stolen, lost, or damaged as they move from the groups' regional offices to the Philippine capital, Manila. And rebel groups -- or government-sponsored militias -- can take revenge on civilians who report human rights violations.


  Today, thanks to technology, Mindanao's troubles have a new witness: Martus, a software program that helps watchdog groups compile, analyze, and securely transmit data on human-rights abuses. Named after the Greek word for witness, Martus allows staffers of groups such as Human Rights Watch and Mindanao Tulong Bakwet (Mindanao Help For Evacuees) to enter key data -- a victim's name, plus the date and description of an alleged abuse -- into an e-mail-style format and securely transmit it to a database.

The program's simplicity is its strength, since many human rights workers in the field have limited computer skills. Also key is that the program is built using nonproprietary, open-source software. That way, the groups can examine the code to ensure that prying eyes have no backdoor in.

"Until now, it was all paper-based or, if they were really cooking, fax-based," says Steve Rood, Philippines representative for the nonprofit Asia Foundation, which is distributing Martus to human rights groups throughout the country. "This is their way into the computer age." By year's end, the Asia Foundation, which is headquartered in San Francisco, plans to roll out Martus software in Cambodia and Sri Lanka. Benetech, the Palo Alto-based nonprofit that developed the program, also makes Martus available via its Web site. Since January, more than 400 human-ights groups in places ranging from Sierra Leone to Saudi Arabia have downloaded the software.


  Martus is emblematic of the kinds of technology being employed around the world to tackle sticky social problems -- from eliminating poverty and disease to aiding in conflict resolution and creating transparent views of suspect governments' actions. Today, the focus is on technologies with few bells and whistles that cater to the limited computer capabilities of human-rights workers in the jungle or in capital-poor but labor-rich developing countries. "It's not high technology or low technology but the right technology that we're interested in," says Cowan Coventry, executive director of British nonprofit Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), which works to bring locally available, affordable technologies to the developing world.

What a change that is from just four years ago. At the height of the Internet boom, tech evangelists proclaimed that a PC and an Internet connection in every household could solve most, if not all, of the world's ills. But just months after the bubble burst, so did dreams that wiring the world with fast fiber-optic cables would cure intractable social problems.

In November, 2000, Microsoft (MSFT ) founder Bill Gates -- the personification of both capitalism and the computer revolution -- warned a Seattle audience that those who thought the developing world could benefit from the e-economy were out of touch with reality: "Mothers are going to walk right up to that computer and say: "My children are dying -- what can you do?" They're not going to sit there and, like, browse eBay or something…. What they want is for their children to live. Do you really have to put in computers to figure that out?" (See "The Digital Divide That Wasn't".)


  To the point: One-third of the world's population -- 2.4 billion people -- burn wood, agricultural residues, or dung for cooking and heating, according to ITDG. Illnesses caused by the smoke from these fires kill 1.6 million people each year, an average of more than three people per minute. Some 1.6 billion of the world's people have no access to electricity and, in the absence of new policies, 1.4 billion will still lack it in 2030.

And so, just as corporations now focus on implementation costs and return on investment, development organizations are zeroing in on smart ways to use technology to solve the world's most pressing social problems. During the May, 2002, election in Sierra Leone, conflict-resolution organization Search For Common Ground, which is based in Washington, D.C., handed out cell phones to journalists who called in polling results every hour -- which were then announced to the country's public via a network of radio stations. The regular updates calmed fears of corruption and vote rigging, says Search For Common Ground COO Shamil Idriss, permitting the vote to take place without outbreaks of violence.

In the Sudan, meanwhile, ITDG makes cell phones available in market towns so that traders can phone in the selling prices of commodities to radio networks. Farmers can then find out where they'll get the best price for their products. In the wake of the collapse of the dot-com bubble, "the sensible use of technology is back in vogue," says ITDG's Coventry.


  Not all sensible solutions are low tech, however. Take poverty mapping, the new darling of the development community. Using census data, along with global positioning satellite technology, development agencies are creating high-tech maps that highlight areas of poverty. They interpolate based on such statistics as GDP per capita or daily subsistence levels, or using such measures of well-being as life expectancy, child mortality, and literacy. The maps allow global organizations -- much more accurately than before -- to pinpoint the areas that most desperately need food and emergency resources, such as grain, fertilizer, or medicines. Brazil's largest state, Minas Gerais, is using poverty maps to redistribute annual tax revenues of $1 billion to poorer municipalities that are making an effort to invest in health, education, sanitation, and environmental conservation. (See "Plotting the War on Terror and Disease".)

Poverty maps become more powerful when combined with other, sometimes seemingly unrelated data. For example, South African emergency response teams combined data on sanitation and safe water supplies with information from a poverty-mapping initiative to create a strategy to contain a cholera outbreak in KwaZulu Natal province in early 2001. The data helped contain the disease in three months and limit fatality rates to 0.22% of those who were infected, the lowest ever recorded during a cholera epidemic.

Perhaps the greatest leap forward, however, has to do with innovative ways to target and distribute technology. Across the globe, so-called social entrepreneurs are finding ways to bring technology to disadvantaged groups that otherwise might be left behind, including the poor, the sick, and the disabled.


  Project Impact in Berkeley, Calif., is dedicated to making medical technology, such as intraocular lenses used in cataract surgery and hearing aids, available and affordable to the world's poor. Around the globe, 55 million people are blind, two-thirds because of cataracts. Project Impact Executive Director David Green's brainchild, AuroLab -- now an independent company based in India -- has developed cheaper manufacturing processes that allow it to sell intraocular lenses for $4, vs. more than $100 in the U.S. Through the Affordable Hearing Aid Project (AHAP), Green can manufacture high-end hearing aids, which sell commercially for $2,000 to $3,000 each, for $45. Project Impact distributes them for zero and $200 each, depending on the patient's ability to pay.

"The key to making any technology affordable is demystifying the cost structure," says Green. He accuses medical outfits of deliberately selling medical technology at high prices because they prefer to be in a low-volume, high-margin business than a high-volume, low-margin one. His aim -- by developing similar technology and taking control of manufacturing -- is to turn the medical-technology business on its head. So far, Green has raised $2.6 million to fund AHAP. He plans to ramp up distribution by partnering with social organization The Lions and Bangladesh's Grameen Bank.

Green isn't alone. Three years ago, Victoria Hale created the first nonprofit pharmaceutical outfit, OneWorld Health (OWH), in San Francisco. Its goal: To find cures for infectious diseases that plague the developing world but that might never prove profitable for U.S. drug giants. Hale persuades for-profit companies to donate their research on afflictions such as Chagas disease, a parasitic ailment that has infected more than 16 million people worldwide and kills 45,000 people annually. OWH then uses grant money and donations to complete clinical trials and deliver affordable drugs to the developing world.

For Chagas disease, OWH has identified an oral drug, K-777. And in November, 2001, it successfully negotiated for the right to develop the drug as an antiparasitic agent from patent owner Celera, which is based in Rockville, Md. OWH is currently testing the drugs on animals and hopes to begin human trials soon.


  Then there's Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech, the nonprofit that created the Martus software program. Based in Silicon Valley, Benetech got its start selling PC readers for the blind. Today, it operates BookShare, an Internet library with 14,000 books where blind, visually impaired, and learning-disabled people can legally store and share scanned publications. Benetech is also working on a prototype of a wireless handheld device that would allow people with disabilities better access to common devices such as ATMs, vending machines, or office appliances such as copiers and printers. "There are a lot of great tech applications that help society but aren't $50 million-a-year markets with a 30% return on investment," says Fruchterman. "And what falls in the gap is great stuff that should get done but isn't going to get funded by venture capitalists." (See "Assistive Tech Needs a Hand in D.C.".)

It's through efforts such as these that technology is making its greatest contribution to solving social problems. No technology, no matter how advanced, can solve world poverty or social justice. But putting the right tools in the right hands at the right price is a start. "I'm not so optimistic to believe that Martus will reduce the number of human-rights violations," says the Asia Foundation's Steve Rood. "But with increased sharing of information, we believe we can improve communication and maybe bring people to justice." And that adds a whole new dimension to the meaning of technology revolution.

By Jane Black in New York

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