Is Mobile’s “Potential” Enough? Some Thoughts on Day 1 of 2012 Social Good Summit

Saturday I had an opportunity to attend the Social Good Summit, which included numerous speakers, bloggers, internationally-minded folks, and meet-ups around the world (#SGSGlobal). One theme that ran throughout the conference was the potential of technology, and especially mobile technology, to provide solutions to all sorts of problems throughout the world: health inadequacies, development projects, citizen engagement, etc. As a board member here at SIPA’s New Media Task Force, I am very interested in the potential of technology to address these issues; yet I often feel that technology for development applications fall into the same trap as other development solutions, in that they are treated as “silver bullets” that will solve problems simply through their application. To me, development is far more nuanced than just providing the right tools or technologies. If it was that easy, extreme poverty would not be such a major issue today.

I was very happy to hear many panelists and speakers agreeing that technology alone will not save the world. In particular, they pointed out that mobile technology has great potential but is only a means to achieving our goals, and that people need to make the changes. We cannot rely on mobile phones to do it for us. This was summed up nicely in a panel entitled – Global Health and Technology: Can Mobile Phones Eliminate Pediatric AIDS and Reduce Teen Pregnancy? Both Robert Fabricant, Vice President of Creative Frog Design, and Josh Nesbit, CEO, Medic Mobil brought this point home, saying that only people, not mobile technology, can end pediatric AIDS

This point was also brought home by my favorite speaker of the day, Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer of the United States. His energetic talk, “Unleashing the Power of Open Innovation in Government,” included this gem: “Data by itself is useless. I cannot feed my baby daughter data… as much as I would love to because I love data. But she can’t eat it. I can’t pour data on a broken bone and heal it. I can’t pour data on a road and fix it. Data is only useful if you apply it!” He goes on to say that we need appliers, we need innovators, to “jujitsu data into awesomeness.” Watch his talk here, it’s awesome

So the talks were exciting and inspiring, but the key remains that people are the answer. Mobile technology is merely a way to help people accomplish their goals. With that in mind, a few other highlights of the first day:

    • TMS “Teddy” Ruge, Co-founder of Project Diaspora also nailed his talk. He used the Kony2012 issue to highlight the type of work Project Diaspora does, by encouraging Africans (abroad and at home) to find their own solutions and speak for themselves. When outsiders form the message or the “solution” to a problem, the results can be devastating. Engaging people to speak for themselves is the key. One example Teddy described was Villages in Action. (He also pointed out that the US government has a certain, uh, passion for data….) Watch here

So in closing, the first day of the summit was quite engaging. Sure, some opportunities to discuss difficult issues were missed, as pointed out by the excellent blog A View From The Cave. But overall it the event inspired many people and, through the use of several live translators, connected with a worldwide audience. Check out all of the talks here!

Chris Planicka, NMTF’s Director of Communications

PS Now that YOU are inspired, take part in our Mobile Tech 4 Development Pitch Competition!