Posted by: Charlie | February 13, 2010

Silicon Valley and Social Good

Communications technology has lowered transaction costs, uniting a global world on the web. Like the TV before it, the internet has excited potential for education and other social change. With all of its promise why isthe web is cluttered with time-suck games like farmville, internet scams from nigerian princes, and a schmorgesborg of smut? Well what if the innovators don’t even understand the problem?

Many products and services churned churned out of Silicon Valley are not accessible to much of the world’s population. Today’s story, “What’s Better: Saving the World or Building Another Facebook App” highlights the valley’s naivete of human behavior and technology in developing countires. The piece covers a 18 hour programming challenge in which teams competed for prizes for top innovative web app. Though there were many savvy apps, the judges failed to see the value in an app that connected rural populations in developing nations with health experts in the developed world via SMS, figuring they could instead use 911. Of course this first-world service does not exist in most countries where computer, business, and health services remain nascent industries.

These students, who did not win a prize, outsmarted the judges and exposed an important lesson: innovators must intimately understand communities and behavior in order create breakthrough technologies, also known as appropriate technologies. A Fax company can’t expect someone to understand a fax machine if they’ve never used a landline. Likewise, leaders of Web 2.0 companies can’t expect a farmer to use WebMD if he doesn’t have a computer.

Of course there are a promising few. Organizations like FrontlineSMS, Samasource1LPC and Longitude exploit the potential of web technologies to break down barriers between north and south and provide unique livelihoods for the other 90% of the globe.

As communications technology moves mobile – Steve Jobs called Apple a mobile company in his latest iPad presentation – there is an opportunity for greater global connectivity. Why? Because developing countries are fueling the growth of mobile technology even though highspeed internet lags in these areas. Demand is growing and the Silicon Valley Insiders ought to take notice – especially judges of competitions from companies like Facebook, Zynga, and Y-Combinator. Where there is a need there is business and an opportunity to do good well.

Photo credit: whiteafrican


  1. What a sad reality that post represents huh? What a boring set of goals to just be shooting to build the next thing Google will buy.

  2. Nathaniel,

    I think you’re absolutely right that this reality is a major let down. However shouldn’t we all be aiming to build the next big thing, so big that even the biggest corporations wish they had made it themselves? This seems to be an issue of perceived value, not actual value.


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