Innovative Technology that Does Not 'Reinvent the Wheel'

Finalists of the Development 2.0 Challenge pose with USAID administrator Henrietta Fore (second from left). USAID and TechSoup fostered its first open-source competition, the Development 2.0 Challenge. Photo by: Tiffany Plowman/DAI

Want to promote scalable development through new media initiatives that bring about cutting-edge technological innovation? Keep it simple.

This sentiment was expressed by winners of the Development 2.0 Challenge, an initiative of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Competing for one $10,000 award and two $5,000 runner-up prizes, 114 contestants from around the world submitted proposals on ways to meet social needs through mobile phone technology. Winners were honored at a ceremony on Jan. 8, 2009, in Washington, DC.

With its focus on mobile phones, USAID sought to highlight the technology's unique potential to reach broad segments of the global population. Since mobile phone users vastly outnumber those with Internet access, USAID Administrator Henrietta Fore declared that projects based on mobile phone technology "put the power in the hands of people in the developing world." Indeed, the three finalists developed projects which relied on existing mobile technology that could easily be used by target populations.

The grand prize winner was a group of six Columbia University graduate students who proposed the Child Malnutrition Surveillance and Famine Response. Working in conjunction with UNICEF, the team aims to develop a system to allow rural health workers to submit information about malnutrition occurrences to a Ministry of Health via text message, or SMS. This would replace the current method of communicating through the postal service, which was notoriously time-consuming and prone to errors. Other ways to transmit the information using more sophisticated technology were debated, but the simplest idea eventually won out. Given that most health care workers already have mobile phones, team member Kirsten Bokenkamp pointed out that SMS technology "allows us to reach the most people at the lowest cost possible [and] has the potential to create the largest social change."

A runner-up prize was awarded to a group which developed Ushahidi, an application that allows mobile phone users to submit crisis reports via SMS. Ushahidi became an essential source of information during the media blackout that followed the December 2007 elections in Kenya. Operations Director Erik Hersman underlined the effort to make the application "simple for the end user," such that users of any SMS-enabled mobile phone can send an incident report to the database. The project has since been replicated in Gaza and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Hersman intends to use the prize money towards adapting the application to other regions.

ClickDiagnostics, a partnership of Harvard and MIT graduate students, also won a runner-up prize for its proposal to connect doctors and patients in the developing world through mobile phone cameras. Simply by sending pictures via mobile phones, ClickDiagnostics allows patients in remote areas to receive medical advice from specialists. Relying on the mobile networks and a franchise model similar to the widely heralded Grameen Phone, CEO and Co-Founder Mridul Chowdhury emphasized the importance of "leveraging the existing infrastructure" as critical to the project's success. Chowdhury aims to use the award funding to focus on maternal health issues in Bangladesh.

About the author

  • Ryan Weddle

    Ryan Weddle served as Devex international development correspondent in Washington in 2008-2009 before joining the U.S. foreign service. He has worked in India for a business process outsourcing firm, and in Kazakhstan on U.S.-funded urban development initiatives. Ryan holds a bachelor's in Asian studies from the University of British Columbia and a master's in international studies from the National University of Singapore, where his research focused on aid effectiveness.