Considering assumptions

Cartoon by Joel Pett

I had a chance to meet some of the folks from Sana, one of the winners of the Vodafone Wireless Innovation Challenge that were announced yesterday at the Global Philanthropy Forum.

Sana, formerly known as MocaMobile, uses an open source platform to connect rural health providers, often nurses, to centralized medical expertise. The nurses can send texts, photos, and diagnostic information to a secure site where experts can help with diagnosis and treatment for specific situations, ranging from chronic disease to emergency response. What is really important about Sana is not the technology but the focus on developing locally relevant standard practices of care. Connecting local medical workers to each other so they can choose the practices, develop the protocols, standardize the procedures in their context. It's like helping doctors, nurses and community health workers design and implement their own Checklists - specific to their situations. And then putting those checklists on a secure, affordable, electronic platform that connects expertise. The goal? Patients get better care, faster.

I had hoped to meet the people behind FrontlineSMS: Credit, which builds on the infrastructure of texts messages that is already changing how we monitor elections, coordinate disaster relief, and oversee aid delivery, to use that infrastructure to provide financial services to individuals everywhere. These are incredible tools. Like some of the other social innovations featured at GPF this year - such as SamaSource, Catalista, The Extraordinaries, ViewChange - craft their ideas about social solutions from the assumptions of the global network that now connects us.

Thinking about how global + connected changes our assumptions is key. Cell phone access and connectivity by themselves solve nothing (see Joel Pett's heartbreaking cartoon above). And good intentions are not enough.

Global and connected can shift our thinking about "who," "where," and "when." If everyone with a mobile phone can connect to a global network then everyone is a potential source of wisdom, an actor, a collaborator, a changemaker. Everyone with a phone can contribute expertise, data, action to the global network and everyone with a phone can get data, expertise, and advice to inform their actions. They may not need to be in the same place, or working in the same time zone. Individual actions can inform others, ripple out and up, draw from and give to each other. There is two-way connectivity, so "broadcast" or "pushed" or "top down" approaches to change don't take advantage of this new reality - only those strategies that see everyone on the network as "inside" the change process will do so.

Of course, those are only shifts to your assumptions if your used to thinking from a vantage point within an organization that does things for others. If you're used to thinking from the perspective of the community, the grassroots, or the "others" - then even these are shifts of direction so much as shifts in scale.

I saw this most clearly comparing the stories from the Vodafone prize winners with those of the Goldman Environmental Prize winners. The Goldman Prize celebrates the impact of individuals - more than 150 in 79 countries over the last 21 years. Each of the individuals honored changed local practice that eventually influenced national or regional policy - whether it be for the protection of elephants, sharks, or indigenous people. And all of their incredible accomplishments relied on networks of individuals and organizations, cross-sector partnerships, and advocacy. They were making change happen that mattered to their own immediate lives, communities, and livelihoods. The Goldman Prize winners seemed to assume, no matter where they were from or what issue they were working on, that they would need help from elsewhere, that they'd need to involve everyone that they could, and that "on the ground" expertise was at least as important as "expert expertise."

Working with distributed decision making, networks of individuals, local expertise, and crowdsourcing is a big change if you are used to hierarchies, organizational leadership, and service delivery. This is why some uses of technology are so disruptive to some business as usual. But it's also fair to assume that to some changemakers and grassroots organizers the technologies just expand business as usual or make it more visible to outsiders. Which is why it is most important to realize that it is not the technology that matters, it is what we do with it.

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