On the first Friday of this month, I joined a load of other well meaning programmers, designers and social entrepreneurs at Social Innovation Camp, to see if we could apply novel uses of technology to tackle social problems.
By lunchtime the same weekend, we had split into seven teams, and each team had developed an idea into a working prototype of an online service to pitch to a funding panel that would pick the top two entrants for further development.
What kinds of problems do people set out to solve in a weekend of hacking? Lets have a look at the entrants:
Enabled by Design (the first prize winner of £2000 of project funding) helps match disabled people doing common difficult tasks with product designers to make better tools, and find investors to put them into production.
Rate my Prison (the runner up, winning £1000) sets out to make prison visits accessible to families of inmates, and improve transparency.
OntheUp helps people track their personal development over time to provide new ways of measuring the impact of social work.
CV Lifeline is aimed at skilled migrants who miss out on jobs they're qualified for, instead of languishing in low paid work because they don't know enough about how to present themselves in the UK compared to their native countries.
Stuffshare acts like an eBay of sorts, for borrowing items in trusted groups to cut down on wasteful purchasing of rarely used items like camping kits, or power tools.
The Glue sets out to help users look after older loved ones who they don't live with, and connect them with carers who can help when they can't be present, and help families stick together.
Wibi.it is a service that links real world items with relevant information on the internet to help people become active, aware customers when shopping.
I worked as part of the team with Wibi.it (formerly known as the Barcode Wikipedia). Our general idea was that if your phone could read a barcode on a product, it could be used like a hyperlink on the internet, to search online for related information to that product. We designed an application that gave your phone the ability to do this, and created a website for the online community to pool information about any product you pointed your phone camera at. This made it easier for users to make informed choices about who they spend their money with when shopping.
Of course, what constitutes an 'informed choice' varies from person to person. To some people this means ethical consumerism; tracing wine or bananas or suchlike back to their farms where they were grown. To others it's just whether amazon.co.uk is selling the same item at a lower price, or whether your friends have already bought what you're looking at. Which of these considerations takes precedence when designing a system like this?
The 'informed choices' issue highlights how the problems we're facing are changing in the field of new media. Technology is getting cheap and accessible, and the barriers for entry are so low, that we're encountering all kinds of other interesting problems that people would only really encounter in R&D labs previously.
For example, in the case of wibi.it, how exactly are you supposed to present all this information in a digestible form in a screen two inches wide? Or just how foolhardy is it to map the way we use laptops and desktops onto how we use mobile phones? When the information you can access by reading a label is potentially infinite because it links to further info, how does that change how product labeling should be regulated? What would a supermarket trip be like if we googled every other item we looked at before popping it our trolleys?
Questions like these make using new kinds of technology to tackle social issues so interesting - they force you to challenge long-held assumptions about what's possible, or even appropriate, when trying to find smart solutions to complex social problems.
Which is what we're interested in here on this blog.