Inviting the many – mass participation in solving social challenges (Guest Writer)

In this guest post, Dan Sutch, Head of Development Research at Nominet Trust looks at how charities can make better use of digital technologies.

| 3rd Jun 14

In this guest post, Dan Sutch, Head of Development Research at Nominet Trust, looks at how charities can make better use of digital technologies.

There are so many pressing social challenges facing our society and everywhere you look, you’ll find brilliant charities and organisations working tirelessly, aiming to improve the lives of individuals and their communities.  But the problems remain huge and varied. I’m fascinated about where we might find the extra resources needed to really make significant inroads into some of these issues.

Over the past twenty years digital technology has democratised access to information, from the tools of creation to the opportunity to have a voice. We’ve seen how the world wide web, this year celebrating its 25th year, has sparked countless new businesses, and even huge new industries, but for me the most powerful change it has brought about is enabling more people to have access to information and to the tools of creation.  And it’s the web’s ability to ‘enable more people’ that, I hope, points the way forward in terms of how charities might make better use of digital technologies.

Widening participation in charitable work is crucial if we’re to find new insights that tackle intractable problems.  Broadening access will mean a greater number of ideas are generated and shared, which might spark new ways of addressing big challenges.  Well-designed digital tools could also share the responsibility of solving problems and raise awareness of some issues.

Imagine if we could invite more and more people to address the biggest challenges facing them and their communities, providing them with the tools to make a real difference.  Imagine if the millions of people who play online game Minecraft were addressing a big social issue while they played.  In fact, some inspiring social tech entrepreneurs have already made that possible.

Cellslider is a great example of using participation to work towards finding a cure for cancer.  Unlocking the challenge faced by pathologists in analysing millions of images of cells, Cellslider provided a simple way for citizen scientists – that’s anyone with a smartphone and a few minutes to spare – to sort images, allowing pathologists to focus on the more challenging tasks of analysing the related data.  In three months, citizen scientists sorted as many images as it would take one pathologist close to a year to sort, and now more than two million images have been classified. By inviting members of the public to help, Cancer Research UK has taken a big step in the fight against cancer.

/Crowdring is another example, asking people simply to ring a phone number to show their support for anti-corruption legislation in India.  By using a really well used practice of ‘dropped calls’ (ringing someone without them answering as a no-cost way of communicating) this approach amassed 35million calls to signify huge support for the legislation.  Well designed technology can make everyday practices create radical change.

There are many other approaches that are attempting to invite much greater participation: Arduino provides a way of opening hardware creation to the masses, meaning millions of new devices are created, often tackling social problems; Coursera opens up higher education to those who can’t access formal institutions; Open Badges provides a comparable infrastructure that allows more people to recognise and demonstrate any skill in an attempt to share valuable activities; and Kickstarter invites anyone to be an inventor or investor, whether with £5 or £5000.

Digital technology allows us to rethink how we organise the world around us. We no longer need to rely solely on geography or physical access to institutions.  Similarly, we don’t need to wait for formal organisations to find the solutions to big challenges. Instead, we can invite mass participation to come up with new approaches, to show support or to help realise our ambitions.  It might seem a utopian ideal, but it’s already being made a reality by some of the most inspiring social tech entrepreneurs.

Nominet Trust has re-launched its Social Tech Guide, which is now home to hundreds of inspiring examples of organisations using technology to support charitable causes and tackle some of the world’s most pressing social issues.