Innovating Mobile Tech 4 Dev: Competition Recap


Thanks to everyone who made it out to our recent, 1st-ever, NMTF pitch competition: “Innovating Mobile Technology 4 Development!” For those who could not make it, or those who just want to relive the glory of the day, here is a brief recap:

Beth Noveck opened up the competition with her keynote speech. A brief summary of her comments (paraphrased):

She noted the numerous inequities facing the world: economic, social, political… There are so many problems rampant in our global community that our traditional institutions are not working; we need to think outside the box. Democracy, in particular, is failing citizens around the world, and they are demanding better governance and more participation.¬†Technology is one way to break out of the box, but not when these apps or programs are simply applied to the old rules and institutions. Instead, we need to reinvent our institutions and innovate the entire structures and ecosystems in which we live and work. Engineers are experts at building functional applications, but they often lack understanding of societal actors, local environments, and end-users. For these reasons, students at a policy school like SIPA are the perfect candidates to break the mold of technology innovation for civic good, applying their policy and institutional knowledge to create something new. The technology world does not only need new apps, it needs new perspectives. It needs new innovators. Students at the pitch competition came from diverse studies (Teachers College, SIPA, Columbia Business School, etc.), and it is this diversity that is needed to recreate our institutions to make something better. If you care about the future of governance and problem-solving, you should be thinking outside the box, breaking the mold, and learning to code! (Ready to get started? Go here).

Next the competitors took the stage, pitching their ideas to our panel of judges. Highlights included:

  • an innovative business model for collecting development indicator data [mDATA] {read some of the team’s thoughts on the competition here and here}
  • gameification of nutrition awareness for youth (complete with working paper-based prototype) [Monster Appetite]
  • a way for Indian citizens to monetize and fix public goods [Our Commons]
  • a way to increase voter participation in developing countries [Mobile Voting]
  • a platform for increasing citizen participation and government accountability in post-revolutionary Egypt [MYEGYPT]
  • real-time tracking of pharmaceuticals in sub-Saharan Africa [Nzira]

During the Judges’ Q&A with the teams, Christopher Fabian described¬†UNICEF Innovation Unit’s 5 “Lessons Learned” for program design:

  1. Learn from Failure – your own failures as well as other projects’ failures
  2. When you build without the user, you always fail – so prototype and test with real people!
  3. Create local capacity around technology solutions to manage them – the technology is nothing if no one can manage it locally
  4. Openness and open collaboration are crucial – work together!
  5. Work within the ecosystem rather than outside it

Fellow judge Prabhas Pokharel continually reminded contestants to listen to Beth Noveck’s words and “think outside the box.” If the system of voting is broken, use the technology to create something better; instead of going through a broken government, wikify citizen communications. Matt Berg encouraged users to diagram and prototype every project, even if it is a simple paper version or if you need to roleplay situations. This will help your project grow and better understand its potential users. Lakshmi Balachandran encouraged teams to refine and specify their ideas, noting that trying to do too much could destroy the usability and functionality of an idea. Keep it simple where possible.

All of the judges pointed out that sometimes the best part of a pitch is not the main intention of the app, but an innovative portion. Teams should consider expanding on the truly innovative parts and iterate their ideas to create something new and exciting.

In the end, Monster Appetite was voted the first place finisher, with Our Commons coming in second place and Nzira in third place. The judges were very impressed by all of the teams, and encouraged them to continue refining, testing, and iterating their apps.

The next challenge: what if each team built their app and tested it? What would the next version of each idea look like? Who will they collaborate with to improve their idea? This is only the beginning…!