Amy Messenger
Tech / Innovation
Technology Can’t Solve Poverty

Technology may not be a panacea for the world’s ills but when married to dedicated, imaginative people, technology can help extend their reach. Or so the audience of interested innovators heard at this week’s #DENStartupWeek. Denver Startup Week, as it is known to those who don’t speak hashtag, is a regional gathering of emerging companies. In just 3 years, it has grown from 70 events and 3,500 attendees to over 230 events and 10,000 attendees.

The panelists, an energetic mix that ranged from user experience designers to social good consultancies, agreed that the best solutions to international social development issues is as much about understanding people as it is about deploying technology.

Posner Center Executive Director Doug Vilsack underscored that point. “If people on ground know how to use [a technology] and have asked for it in some sense, it can be helpful.” When it comes from labs or schools and is presented as the great silver bullet, things don’t work out as well. Tech, the panelists agreed, must be tied to what people on the ground want.

Technology has played an undeniable role in addressing poverty, however. Consider the following:


Mobile, and specifically SMS messaging, has had the biggest impact. Amy Sweeney of mobile polling platform GeoPoll noted that the ubiquity of SMS makes it a powerful tool emphasizing “Four trillion SMS messages were sent in Africa in 2014. There are more mobile phones in Africa than toilets.” Any outreach must factor in local issues such as gender disparity. In Africa, women are 14% less likely than men to own a mobile phone. GeoPoll’s platform is used to ask local people about specific resource needs before they are deployed.

Sometimes the role for technology isn’t in directly reaching the local people in need. Sometimes the place for technology is to offer education and scale for outreach organizations. That is the approach being taken by TechChange, which build capacity through education.

TechChange works with organizations from 170 countries, holding online courses to teach outreach staff the latest in technology. That equips the staff to go out and make a bigger impact. The on-demand and live facilitated courses range across technological subjects, both hot and very basic: “3D printing for social good”, “mapping for social good”, “basics of digital safety”, and “tech for disaster response”.

Jonathan Newberry of user experience and design firm CauseLabs cautioned that we need to “put humans first in everything you do. It’s about empathy and understanding. Owning their problems as your own.” Newberry also urged the audience to remember that technology sits between two unconnected dots: the people trying to end poverty, and the people in poverty. Would-be technology providers need to remember that tech can bring ease, simplicity and scale, but people have to come first. As Newberry put it, “Tech wont solve poverty, but people will.”

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