New Ideas at TED2014

I just returned from a spectacular week at this year’s TED conference in Vancouver, Canada. TED gives me the chance to brainstorm with loads of people who gather to discuss ways to change the world through technology and design. Beyond debating the stimulating topics of major talks—such as Edward Snowden’s appearance by telepresence robot and the response to it by Rick Ledgett, the Deputy Director of the NSA—I spent much of my time speaking about my favorite topic: technology for social good. Of course, that included getting new ideas for software for social good!

Idea One: Tackle Indoor Pollution 

First, I sat down with the controversial Bjorn Lomberg, also known as the “Skeptical Environmentalist.” Bjorn has gotten a lot of attention for his recommendations to combat climate change by focusing on improved humanitarian efforts. As an economist, he stresses the need to quantify the impact of humanitarian interventions: for instance, whether a certain effort will bring $59 of benefit for every dollar in, or only $4. I asked him what his top priorities were, and he chose two:
  • Improving indoor air pollution. Old-fashioned cooking methods kill millions each year. Cooking a meal shouldn’t be fatal: clean-burning stoves, as well as clean fuels and energy all help combat this problem. 
  • Improving childhood nutrition. The lifelong impact of significant malnutrition on a child can be devastating. 
Since I’m a software guy, I asked about what software could do to help with these two real-world problems. Bjorn was a bit reluctant, but agreed on the proviso that we were just “spitballing,” brainstorming ideas without expectations that they would be thought through. He quickly came up with the idea of a mobile app that could show a woman the years of life expectancy she (or her family) will lose due to breathing the polluted air inside her dwelling. We kicked around ideas for sensing the air pollution: could you take a picture of a white piece of paper indoors and outdoors? Could you add an attachment to the phone that could sense the pollution?

Will such an app work? If it worked, would it lead to behavior change that would save lives? We didn’t know, but it wouldn’t be that difficult to try out. Moreover, if you could accelerate shifts away from unsafe cooking practices, you might have a terrific return on social investment. Worth some thought: I’ll stick that idea into the Benetech Labs hopper!

Idea Two: Disrupting the Prevention of Blindness in Rural Communities 

Andrew Bastawrous is an ophthalmologist and TED Fellow. His innovation is the PEEK software tool: a low-cost smartphone ophthalmic system that delivers comprehensive eye examinations in the developing world, to those who need it most. He now lives in rural Kenya working on eye care. We, of course, ended up talking about helping people who are blind around the world. Andrew’s focus is on curing blindness: 80% of the people he sees in rural Kenya can have their blindness reversed. Getting a cataract operation has a miraculous impact on recovering sight. Andrew, however, is also concerned about the 20% of the blind he can’t help. What can we do for them?

As someone who has been writing software for blind people for 25 years, we were in my element! I explained Benetech’s efforts to grow the impact of our Bookshare library globally, specifically discussing partnerships with groups in India and Kenya. Our near-term approach is to reach the more urban, wealthier portion of the blind in these countries, with the expectation of extending our services to the blind in disadvantaged, rural communities someday in the future.

Andrew challenged me on that idea. The rural blind are truly among the poorest of the poor in the world. If Andrew and his peers can’t cure their blindness, could we help them with access to information? Of course, we’d have to focus on local language content. While English might be very useful in Nairobi, Swahili would be the language needed in rural Kenya. Andrew’s challenge wasn’t an empty one: his team could measure the effectiveness of interventions we might try and see how well they work. If we found something that really worked, it would likely be applicable to millions of blind people in the developing world.

I’m always excited when someone challenges me to be more ambitious about positive social change. It was unusual to get that challenge on territory I find so familiar, like helping blind people. Well worth a try!

Idea Three: Recovering Cognitive Function 

The final session of TED included an interview on stage with former Representative Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, by Pat Mitchell. Gabby Giffords clearly struggles with communications: Mark Kelly forthrightly described her aphasia as knowing what she wants to say, but being unable to get the words out.

It made a big impression on me and many in the audience. We know in theory what a brain injury means, but seeing Gabby Giffords on stage, struggling to speak as a result of her brain injury, brought its impact home.

On the steps out of TED, I was chatting with one of the attendees about what to do to help Gabby and other people recovering from brain injuries, and of course my mind went to software to help recover cognitive function. Like the previous idea, this one was an expansion of something that is already percolating in Benetech Labs. Last month, a good friend of mine connected me to someone who was recovering from a stroke. This fellow had relearned to walk and talk, but was frustrated by the loss of a specific cognitive skill: the ability to listen to numbers (like a phone number) and transcribe them. We had emailed back and forth about software that would drill him on ever-lengthening strings of numbers. Such an application is completely doable with not that much work. It is, however, a very narrow tool even for a social enterprise, let alone for a profitable business opportunity.

Discussing Gabby Gifford’s challenges, it occurred to me that there might be a real opportunity for building a series of software products for helping people recovering from strokes or traumatic brain injuries. The human brain is an extremely complex organ, but it should be getting easier to tune up different exercises for different recovery needs. Maybe there is a social enterprise in here!

Idea Four: Fighting Corruption 

The TED Prize this year went to Charmian Gooch of Global Witness (she also won a Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship at the same time). Charmian wants to fight anonymous shell corporations, which are often used for corrupt and socially damaging purposes.

Normally, I listen with appreciation when TED prizes are announced and people in the community jump up to offer help. This time, I jumped up! We’ve been actively engaging in discussions about how to use our Martus software for whistle-blowing and confidential information gathering. Whether or not Charmian’s group ends up using Martus, this is definitely an area where we could be helpful. Since Charmian will get her Skoll Award at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford the second week of April, I know we’ll have the chance to kick around her needs. Looking forward to exploring this one and helping fight corruption with software.


At Benetech Labs, we’re sharing our passion for innovation and for discovering new software social enterprises with the potential to deliver large-scale benefits to society. We’re delighted to join forces with entrepreneurs, social and business leaders in pushing the frontier of applying technology to empower people, improve lives, and create lasting social impact.


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