Harnessing Information Technology for Social Change

July 30, 2015 by Alex Counts

In the mid-1990s, when I was winding up my decade of off-and-on living in Bangladesh, Professor Muhammad Yunus had his second big idea.  I immediately knew it would have a big impact on the Grameen Foundation that I was then preparing to launch back in the United States.  That idea was that information technology, if harnessed the right way by people with a strong sense of social purpose, could be a significant accelerator of poverty reduction globally.  (His first big idea, of course, was that the world’s poor women were bankable.)

By the time I left Bangladesh in March 1997, he was well into proving the merit of his idea, having launched GrameenPhone, Grameen Telecom, and Grameen Cybernet.  (Soon to follow was Grameen Software Limited, now known as Grameen Solutions.)  It took a few years, but the early staff and board of Grameen Foundation convinced technology entrepreneurs Craig and Susan McCaw to provide seed capital for our own initiative to advance this idea.  Together, we launched what was then known as the Grameen Technology Center, based in Seattle, in 2001.
It has been an incredible journey since then – one that has brought us into contact and active collaboration with some practical visionaries and technology entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Paul Maritz, Vinod Khosla, John Doerr, Irwin and Paul Jacobs, Shel Kaphan, Larry Page, and Akhtar Badshah. In pursuit of using information technology to spur efficiencies in microfinance, agricultural extension, and health care, and in setting up social enterprises that allow poor families to run technology-enabled microfranchises, we have formed some innovative alliances with these entrepreneurs (and many others) and the companies and philanthropies they have launched.
One of the recent visionary entrepreneurs we have collaborated with is Manny Medina, an immigrant from Cuba who built up and sold Terremark, a hugely successful company now part of Verizon.  He is currently focused on making his adoptive home, Miami, into the tech hub for all of Latin America.  The centerpiece of his strategy is a major international conference, eMerge Americas, which is held annually and is now two years old.  I wrote this blog on my experiences at the first conference, and I was pleased to attend the second conference in early May 2015.
The quality of speakers and the overall vibe of the conference set it apart from most any I have ever been to.  Almost every session had both mind-blowing and very practical information, some that I saw immediate applications for in Grameen Foundation’s poverty reduction programs.  In fact, I found so much of it so exciting that I couldn’t resist being part of the virtual community of attendees who tweeted about it from the opening session to the finale.  (My Twitter handle is @AlexCounts and you can see my insights in their entirety if you go to my tweets on May 4-5, 2015.)
The basic message coming out of the conference is that Latin America, which should have 600 million smart devices by 2020 (the second largest of any region in the world), is primed to play a major force in shaping how technology impacts human civilization, particularly in the areas of business (both mega and small, even micro), health care, poverty reduction, and knowledge management.
One of the most compelling parts of the conference, beyond the way it reflects Miami’s vibrant Latin fusion culture, is the way it extends to areas such as spiritualism, philosophy, philanthropy, gender equality, and public administration rather than just being dominated by technology innovations in a conceptual vacuum.  So, in the spirit of getting to the heart of the matter, let me list some of the most significant insights I came away with:  

  1. One panelist noted that 90% of all the data generated in human history has been gathered in the last two years!  At another point, it was argued that tech jobs, which pay 50% more than other comparable employment options in the U.S., play to women’s core strengths.  
  2. One speaker noted that for many youth in Latin America, the first phone they will ever have will be a smart phone, suggesting that the demand for and use of smart apps will grow exponentially in the years to come.  Manny Medina himself, in his brief opening keynote, mentioned that one-quarter of the world’s Facebook users are in Latin America.
  3. Among the many interesting facts related to health care, Joaquin Blaya noted that in Chile, the seamless transfer of patient records through a standardized portal that allows patients themselves could access the information was more advanced in Chile than in the United States.  Other speakers called for less paternalism in terms of allowing patients access to their own health care information, and urgent action to dislodge legacy systems that block getting the full benefits of information technology in the health care system.    
  4. Alberto Santalo, the Chief Strategy Officer of CareCloud, noted that the financial services industry figured out interoperability in terms of their information technology platforms, and the medical industry now must do the same despite greater complexity.  Another speaker noted (perhaps half-jokingly) that the most complex system in the world is the human body, and the second most complex system in the world was the U.S. health care system.  Yet another noted that the gaps for realizing the full benefits of technology in health care were not primarily technology related, but rather about human-driven decisions and policy.
  5. Jim McElvey, the founder of Square, discussed his strategy of “enforced co-dependency” among his software developer employees.  They are directed to work together in a way that reduces the quantity of output (i.e., lines of code written) but yields better quality and a spirit of collaboration in the process.  
  6. Deepak Chopra mesmerized the crowd, mixing spirituality, biology, age-old values, and technology.  At one point, he argued that two of the most powerful success strategies for people are mindfulness (i.e., meditation or prayer) and taking time each day to express gratitude for the things one is thankful for.  At another point he said, with a twinkle in his eye, that when your mind and your gut are in conflict about what to do, trust your gut since it has not yet learned to doubt itself!  
  7. Many speakers echoed the opportunity articulated best by the CEO of a company called Brainspace, who said that we can now put the knowledge of all of us in the hands of each of us.  Beth Smith of IBM talked about being in the era of the “insight economy” where data presented through proper visualization can enable everyone to make better decisions – echoing things Grameen Foundation has learned through its technology-enabled solutions in the health care and agriculture sectors.  (In fact, we organized a session on our agriculture work in Latin America at the inaugural eMerge conference.)

Clearly, information technology, properly harnessed, has the capability to further transform many aspects of our lives, including the stubborn persistence of poverty in Latin America.  Grameen Foundation looks forward to continuing to partner with eMerge Americas and its growing number of partners and collaborators to realize this potential in the years ahead.