Technology for good

HR-GettyImages-529792635-COLD-PROCESS-3The United Nations embraces technology for the Global Goals

In late September 2015, in Manhattan, New York, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stood on a stage to inform an audience of activists and politicians about the potential – both good and bad – that modern technology enables.

“The forces of division are using new technologies to spread their hateful ideologies,” he warned. “[But] with solidarity, we can harness communications for human progress.”

This speech did not take place at the UN headquarters however, where earlier in the week the UN Assembly had adopted its new Global Goals for sustainable development. Instead, Ban Ki-moon was speaking to a crowd at a convention centre across town, where the fourth annual Social Good Summit was taking place.

The summit, held in conjunction with social media news website Mashable, was a celebration of what is possible when technology collides with the human potential of social networks – its young audience, the very people who will help realise the Global Goals in the next fifteen years. If you’ve not yet heard of the Global Goals Initiative – or glimpsed the hashtag #2030NOW trending on Twitter – you soon will. As the name suggests, they’re the United Nations’ top priority for the next 14 years: 17 goals and 169 targets to eliminate poverty, and to fight inequality and climate change. They build on the work done in reaching for the UN’s Millennium Goals, a common agenda to fight climate change and inequality, adopted in September 2000, while recognising the changes that have taken place in society in the years since.

The wide ranging and expansive goals are supported by celebrities and activists from across the world, including Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Bond actor Daniel Craig and singer Jennifer Lopez, who all participated in a video to help launch them. Global Goals include eliminating poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality, and providing education for all, as well as clean water and sanitation, helping to make cities and communities sustainable and preserving wildlife on land and in sea.

“We will need to embrace a data revolution,” Ban Ki-moon added, acknowledging the need for modern technology to play a role in sustainable development.

Tech vs Sustainability
The tech boom of the past fifteen years has been both a blessing and a curse to sustainable development. On the one hand, the rise in affordability (and disposability) of mobile phones has left a huge ecological footprint. The IT sector is accountable for approximately 1.3 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent report. Greenpeace estimates that the manufacture and usage of a single phone over its lifetime amounts to the equivalent of 94kg in CO2 emissions – and with more than six billion cellphone subscriptions active in the world right now, that adds up to a lot.

On the other hand, mobiles have provided people with access to astonishing tools for communication, education and empowerment, something the UN and its partners and signatories are keen to stress with the adoption of the Global Goals. Thanks to smartphones and the mobile web, it’s now possible to undertake remote learning courses, download books and let those who are unable to get a bank account store and transfer money securely. The World Bank Group estimates that 780 million people in just three countries (India, Indonesia and China) and two billion in total worldwide do not have access to bank accounts. But a growing industry of mobile transfer companies is helping them to act and trade without one. Kenya leads the charge here, with more mobile payments made per person in the country (more than half of its annual GDP in 2013) than anywhere else, thanks to its popular M-PESA system.

Studies have also found that broadband availability and ICT increase literacy among those living in poverty, and literacy is integral in building vocational skills and career opportunities. Just as crucially, ICT access can help in providing clean water and food, with SMS mobile alert programmes enabling farmers in impoverished regions to conduct business over the web or obtain market prices for their produce that were previously inaccessible.

In Nairobi, a recent experiment conducted by mobile infrastructure giant Ericsson and UN-Habitat (the United Nations Human Settlements Programme) found that a system of sensors that alerts residents to varying water quality not only improved the water but created employment for local citizens. Residents were able to become, in effect, citizen field engineers, able to perform maintenance on the physical network and receive (mobile) payment for their labour.

Tech companies themselves are helping to drive down greenhouse gas emissions in other economies too. IT solutions can help other industries, by reducing the need to travel or for manufactured goods and paperwork. As part of corporate responsibility drives, leading tech companies are even adopting the goals as their own, and pledging to go carbon-free. Ericsson is a signatory of the Global Goals, for instance, and several members of its executive team are ambassadors for the initiative.

The importance of Africa
The Global Goals have a special significance for Africa: it is here that our commitment to these worthy causes will be tested. However, as the Social Good Summit showed, it will be enterprising Africans who help us meet the goals, harnessing the power of cutting edge technology. The last fifteen years have seen an outpouring of innovation across the continent. So much so that SGS attendees have been treated to broadcasts from the Nairobi sister event, where some of Africa’s leading entrepreneurs and tech visionaries discussed their projects and inspired others – some of these projects are outlined opposite.

Ones to watch

Three promising African innovators showcased at the Social Good Summit

1 E-Limu
Desktop computers and laptops are commonplace in classrooms in developed nations. Multiple studies have shown that these devices – and more importantly the Internet access they enable – help children engage and learn.

But their proliferation in developing countries has been slow. Desktop PCs are expensive. They require steady power and Internet connections. Just delivering them can be a financial burden that many schools in poorer nations cannot overcome. Non-profit initiatives such as One Laptop Per Child are a start, but have struggled to fulfil their lofty ambitions, closing offices in recent years. Meanwhile, half of Kenyan students continue to drop out by the age of fourteen.

For one pioneering Kenyan however, the answer may lie in tablets. While the category is most commonly associated with the expensive Apple iPad, tablets from Chinese manufacturers running Google’s open source operating system Android are now smaller, not to mention much more affordable.

Tablets have enormous potential as learning devices. The ability to interact engages young children; with both rich and mixed media holding their attention where diagrams on a chalkboard never could. And despite the initial expense, they are cheaper to maintain too: you can’t update a printed textbook, but a simple software update can make sure a computer stays up to date with the curriculum.

E-Limu (Swahili for ‘learning’), an initiative out of Nairobi’s enterprising iHub, aims to help teach students with the use of tablets, using quizzes, videos and interactive illustrations. Though the project is still in an early trial phase, signs are already promising, and founder Nivi Mukherjee hopes to expand to include more schools.

“We sat down here and developed something that looked good, that was visually stimulating and interactive, was engaging for children and had the content – culturally relevant content – for Kenyan kids,” she explains.

2 iLabAfrica
Nairobi is a hotspot for tech innovation in East Africa: as well as iHub, Strathmore University’s iLabAfrica is leading the charge for sustainable tech entrepreneurship. An independent entity within the IT faculty founded in 2011, the unit was originally established to tackle the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and is involved in interdisciplinary research, industry and government collaboration.

iLab has acted as an incubator for startups in the region, and has partnered with huge tech giants including Google on its Mobile Bootcamp ‘hackathons’, where young students and developers scrimmage to come up with a new app or hack over the course of a day or weekend. It has also teamed up with Samsung to help define its range of ‘Built For Africa’ products, consumer devices like tablet computers preloaded with software relevant to the African market.

Most notably, iLab has partnered with Kenyan mobile provider Safaricom to create the Safaricom Academy, a two-year Master’s Degree programme in Mobile Telecommunications and Innovation, to meet the emerging needs of mobile users in the region. Since its creation, the Academy has enrolled over 250 students, most either fully or partially sponsored by Safaricom.

3 Online Ebola Response
Technology also has a vital role to play during humanitarian crises, something the Global Goals address. It’s important to understand that these catastrophes are not isolated events; they have larger ramifications for whole regions that last years, long after the headlines fade away.

The Ebola crisis is a perfect example of this: livelihoods have been lost along with lives. According to the UN, West Africa as a whole may have lost an average of US$3.6 billion per year, due to a decrease in trade, closing of borders, flight cancellations and reduced investment and tourism. Then there are the countless people affected indirectly as health services are redirected to fight Ebola.

In 2015 the Social Good Summit recognised the work of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) West Africa’s Ebola Response team, and its use of technology in helping to fight the disease and its consequences.

The UNDP successfully introduced online health worker payments, so that more than 100,000 emergency workers would be paid even when banks were shut, resulting in 90 per cent of workers being fully remunerated by December 2014. Because this work was done in partnership with local governments, these payment mechanisms are now in place permanently to help bolster their financial systems and economies.

The UNDP also issued smartphones with preloaded software to help monitor the spread of the disease in communities, and aid Active Case Finders in the field. And the findings provided by UNDP economists have helped inform the recovery plans of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Tell everybody

Africa’s biggest musical acts record the continent’s first crowdsourced song in support of the global goals campaign

Tell Everybody, Africa’s first crowdsourced song, is the continent’s contribution to the ambitious global initiative to get the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to everyone on the planet.

Written, recorded, produced and released by Africans for Africans, the song attempts to ignite the political passions of young people to hold their leaders to account in meeting the Global Goals: to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and fix climate change by 2030.

The track features some of the continent’s biggest stars: Mafikizolo (South Africa), Yemi Alade (Nigeria), Diamond (Tanzania), Sauti Sol (Kenya), Toofan (Togo), Becca and Sarkodie (Ghana), all of whom gave freely of their time and energy to make the song a reality.

Sauti Sol said: “It’s a song about Africa rising, with youth at its wings. For us, it inspires optimism and energy in a generation of Africans who need to be more aware of themselves and demand a better, brighter future.”

To capture the voice of Africa’s youth, award-winning producers Cobhams Asuquo (Nigeria), David KING DAVID Muthami (Kenya) and Ellputo (Mozambique) decided to crowdsource two verses (one in French and one in English) using a competition, ‘Add Your Voice/Add Your Verse’, run by Every1Mobile for even the most basic of phones. During the two-week competition, 5712 people from 24 African countries submitted lyrics via their mobile phones. The winners received a US$500 prize each and a songwriting credit on the track. It features verses in English, French, Swahili, Pidgin and Zulu.

Cobhams Asuquo said: “We decided to let the young voices of Africa be heard in this song. Not only did we love the winning verses, but all the entries informed the vision, lyrics and sound of the song. The African youth are powerhouses in their own right and collectively they can make change happen.”

The music video can be viewed on the Tell Everybody YouTube page where viewers are also invited to join the movement to ensure their leaders keep their promises and deliver the Global Goals in the years to come.

“As artists we have the opportunity to reach so many people, and an obligation to give them more than music and more than entertainment, but to educate and empower them as well. This is our gift and our privilege,” said Mafikizolo’s Theo Kgosinkwe and Nhlanhla Nciza.

The more people who know about the Global Goals, the more successful they’ll be. If everyone fights for them, our leaders will make them happen.