Competition Designed to Spread Basic Technologies

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SERRAVAL, FRANCE -- At a school in a rundown suburb of Dakar, Senegal, the students had nowhere to go to the bathroom. The boys urinated against the outside walls, the girls headed behind the building. There was no way for any of them to wash their hands.

That changed after the directors of the school turned to a new technological tool to alert the authorities -- and their watchdogs -- to the problem. Shortly after they did so, the toilets, which had been out of order for months, were fixed.

"For us, it's not just to show that there is a capacity in Africa to develop good applications," said Daniel Annerose, chief executive of a mobile technology company in Dakar, called Manobi, which developed the reporting system, which lets teachers, students or parents report problems with sanitation facilities at more than 2,000 schools across Senegal.

The system, called mSchool, is one of three winners of a competition organized by the World Bank to identify promising solutions to address a striking discrepancy in access to high and low technologies in developing countries: Six billion of the seven billion people around the world have mobile phones, while only 4.5 billion have access to toilets, according to a recent United Nations report.

The winners of the Sanitation Hackathon, as the World Bank calls the project, are set to be honored on Friday in connection with the annual meetings of the bank and its sister organization, the International Monetary Fund. The other honorees are Sun-Clean, a computer game developed by students at the University of Indonesia, which teaches children about good hygiene; and Taarifa, a Web application developed by programmers in Britain, Germany, the United States and Tanzania, which uses "open source" technology, interactive mapping and other features to help public officials track sanitation problems.

Because of the rapid spread of cellular phones, mobile technology has previously been used to address a variety of problems in the developing world, including access to financial services, health care information and education. But toilets were another matter.

"People don't want to talk about poo," said Jaehyang So, manager of the Water and Sanitation Program, a fund administered by the World Bank. "There's the ick factor."

In addition to the deaths and health problems, Ms. So said, poor sanitation causes a variety of other problems. In places where schools lack working toilets, many girls drop out once they begin menstruating because of a lack of privacy, she said, causing a form of educational discrimination.

"We were saying, 'Isn't this awful,"' Ms. So said. "Then we decided to say, 'What can we learn from the tech industry?' Why is it that pretty much everyone who wants an iPhone can get one? How do they get this kind of rapid scale-up?"

Building on a process that had previously been employed to address problems in supplying clean water to people in poor areas, the World Bank turned its attention to sanitation. Over six months last year, it solicited ideas from experts in the field, as well as software developers. The process culminated in early December with the actual hackathon -- two days in which more than 1,000 developers gathered in 40 cities worldwide to work on their projects.

The project has been funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and supported by companies like Nokia, the mobile phone maker, and organizations like Toilet Hackers, a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and others who are seeking solutions to the problem of poor sanitation.

"It's something that can have a little more impact than helping someone find the nearest bar or restaurant," said Gary Gale, director of global community programs in the location and commerce division of Nokia, which works with the company's mapping technology.

After the event in Washington, the winners of the hackathon are set to travel to Silicon Valley for meetings with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who are interested in the issue. The World Bank does not plan to invest in the projects, but hopes that others might.

"We would love it if Silicon Valley could take some of these applications and build them into sustainable businesses," said Chris Vein, chief innovation officer for information and communications technology development at the bank. That way, he added, the projects could create jobs and economic growth, perhaps helping to ease the poverty that underlies poor sanitation.

John Kluge Jr., a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who is a co-founder of Toilet Hackers, said mobile technology can help, but is "just one part of the equation." If toilets are to be provided to more of the 2.5 billion people without them, new methods of financing -- not just aid -- will also be needed.

"Innovation isn't just about technology and design," Mr. Kluge said. "It's also about the business model."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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