Panel of Tech Laureates

This was my favorite lecture. The people on the panel had recently won some award for being awesome, and then they got to talk to us about how awesome they each were.

From the non-tech orgs: it seems like the need for CS folks is:

  • databases
  • gathering information
  • representing information
  • media stuff (social networks, website, ads) 

There were also two tech orgs. Ken Banks from Frontline SMS and Bright Simons from M Pedigree. Their message seemed to be: make sure you know what the needs are and what tech is available. Then, there will still probably be some problems that CS can solve as long as you don't think of CS as a panacea and you stay conscious of the problem. Ken Banks in particular suggested to spend a few years just working in the field that I'm interested in (ie, public health, sustainable development) and get with the communities that are affected to figure out what needs to be done.

The organizations themselves:

Madhu Sridhar from Akashya Patra feeds 1 million Indian kids on $14 PER YEAR. They make everything as efficient as possible. They started with one kitchen and just figured out how to scale. They use public private partnerships such that a lot of support comes from the government, but they are still a private entity.

Dr. Joseph Adelegan - Cows to Kilowatts. Turns Nigerian biomass (from slaughterhouses) into methane energy. Very green, and it serves so many different communities.

Lilly Wolfensberger from a Mexican organization (I didn't quite catch the name -- Cubitza? Huitzi?) talked about how she provided education and tools for sustainable development.

Ken Banks ([email protected]) from Frontline SMS had a very different perspective. He worked in IT for years. He went to Africa and worked in education and biodiversity for years. Then, towards the end, he realized that NGOs had problems with coordination, and that everyone was getting cellphones. Then, he spent 5 weeks, coded Frontline SMS, open sourced it, spent 2 years persistently making calls, emails, tweets, Facebook posts, and every other form of free advertisement, and he eventually got some organizations to start using his software. Now, lots of organizations are spreading the word and developing their own versions of his software. He still hasn't figured out how to make money off of it, even though he has thousands of users and has been working for 5 years. His suggestion was to not try to solve something that you don't understand (ie, development economics or global warming. unless you understand those things), but rather to solve something that you do understand (ie, using phones to communicate via SMS) and make the technology easy to use and general purpose enough that other orgs can use it to solve the problems that they know about. 

Bright Simons had another tech project. He is with M Pedigree, which uses mobile phones to validate pharmaceuticals in Africa. The problem that he saw: right now, if you buy a pharmaceutical in some places in Africa, you have a 1/3 chance that it will be bad (mispackaged, expired, forgery.), which could kill you. He worked with pharmaceutical sellers and mobile phone organizations and made a system such that each pharmaceutical has a scratch-off part on the packaging that contains some code. You text that code to some central pharma phone number and it will look up in its database if that is a legitimate medication or not, and it will reply within 1 second with the answer. Simons stressed how he was able to insert himself into the market: each organization benefited from his entry. The pharmaceutical companies had financial losses because forgeries were getting sold and they were getting sued because forgeries were using their packaging and killing patients. Mobile phone companies benefit because they can sell more data. Governments benefit because they increase faith in the medical establishment so they have fewer public health threats. And people benefit because they don't die from fake meds. 

Dipike Matthias from PATH, a global health nonprofit based in Seattle, talked about Ultra Rice, a project to fortify rice with micronutrients (like iron because anemia is the biggest micronutrient deficiency, affecting almost 2 billion people in the developing world). She stressed the importance of supporting local channels (ie, local rice farmers), data collection, and getting policy support. When I asked her about what she thought global public health initiatives needed more of, she said she saw a dichotomy: there are specialists and generalists. The specialists (ie, CS people, medical specialists) can focus on their issue, and the generalists (ie, people with experience in law or business) have to deal with a bunch of other random stressful issues, but they might be more important. Dipike started out as a CS / Electrical Engineering undergraduate, but she realized she liked being a generalist better, so she went to business school, got some experience in the private sector, and went on to PATH. She did give me the contact info of a group in PATH that's doing public health informatics work that might have use for an intern.

The last panelist was Allen Wilcox from Village Reach. He improves healthcare distribution networks using databases and trucks to serve areas that might otherwise lack medical supplies or information. He focused a lot on the business model. He started out with charitable funding, found out that there was interest in buying some of the products that he made (ie, using propane gas rather than charcoal for electrical generation), so he uses a tiered pricing system, and he became (will soon become?) self sufficient. The tiered pricing model seems to be a very common theme for social entrepreneurs.