Students in one School of Information course believe that their class projects can make a real difference in the world. For three projects, $10,000 of prize money will help their ideas become reality.
The course, “Social Enterprise using ICTs for International Development,” trained students to create sustainable social enterprises for rural developing regions, using innovations in information and communication technologies (ICT).
Although students learned business, design, and technology skills, their focus was unusual. “Social entrepreneurship is so different from, say, starting a web company, for example,” explained student Prayag Narula. “You’re looking at social impact rather than just financial output.”
The course is taught by School of Information assistant professor Tapan Parikh. Parikh has extensive experience designing and implementing information systems in rural areas of the developing world, and was named Technology Review magazine’s Humanitarian of the Year in 2007.
“I became interested in this area through my direct experiences working with non-profit and community-based organizations in rural India,” explained Parikh. “It was apparent to me that improved access to information, and the ability to turn that information into actionable knowledge, could provide immediate dividends for many development activities, anywhere from the household to the national scale.”
Parikh’s students share his enthusiasm. “Coming from India, I have seen the impact that technology has on people’s lives. It’s really profound,” said Narula.
The class projects address the disparity of information access between the rich and poor by using appropriate information technologies to help the poor help themselves. Narula and his teammates’ project, MobileWorks, aims to open up India’s burgeoning outsourcing industry to impoverished groups who are currently being left behind. The project takes advantage of India’s widespread mobile phone usage to send outsourced data-entry jobs to the mobile phones of India’s villagers and slum residents, providing them fair trade wages. The team has already deployed a working prototype for in-field testing, and the preliminary responses are encouraging.
Another project, AwaazDe, is designing affordable tools to help NGOs in developing regions connect with their constituents; they plan to test their interactive voice messaging service with an LGBT community center in Chennai, India. AwaazDe addresses some of the center’s unique challenges. “Many of the center’s constituents simply don’t feel comfortable speaking to a live person on the phone about these sensitive topics,” explained student Paul Goodman. “Because of discrimination from families, communities, and government service providers, they find it very difficult to access trustworthy information.” AwaazDe’s voice messaging system respects callers’ privacy and provides an efficient, accessible interface for staff to respond to inquiries and track their progress.
The project Shreddr provides affordable data management services to the developing world, via a web-based service with on-demand digitization of paper forms and easy online access. Student Ariel Chait described Shreddr as “a combination of image processing, crowdsourcing, and wizardry,” but emphasized the value of accessible information. “Data-driven decision-making is crucial for good development,” he explained. “Access to timely and accurate information can help an organization see how programs are working and how they can improve.”
The students took an iterative, design-oriented, feedback-driven approach to developing and refining their business plans. At each stage, students received feedback from both experts and their peers. The class studied with a number of guest lecturers on topics like social entrepreneurship, program evaluation, social impact assessment, and writing a business plan. In addition, students learned about some of the unique challenges of working in developing regions.
According to Parikh, the course is one of a kind. “Other courses have addressed engineering and product development challenges in developing countries; however, this is the first course that focuses on integrating information technology innovation and entrepreneurship for development,” he said. The course was first taught last fall, and will be offered again in Fall 2011 as “Info 287. Information and Communications Technologies for Social Enterprise.”
This month, the student groups presented their business plans for a panel of expert judges, who awarded a total of $10,000 to support future work on the projects. The prize money was sponsored by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.
To the students, the prize money means the opportunity to pursue a project they believe in. And the reward isn’t just practical. The judges are “so well-known in the field of social entrepreneurship,” explained Narula, “to get positive feedback from them is a huge confidence-booster.” Chait agreed. “It’s easy to get distracted by the idea of turning big profits, but the true motivation for the course is to create a product that is a benefit to society.”