Can digital technology be used to solve fundamental problems of society?
Mobile apps and websites aimed at encouraging social good are not a novel idea. Sites such as FreeRice, which donates free rice to starving populations from the advertising revenue it generates, are a simple example of how technology has been used to promote charitable work. As technology grows and develops, so too does our understanding of how it can be applied to solve problems in novel ways.
Last month’s AngelHack Seattle 2015 featured several ‘hacks’ that incorporated new mobile technologies. Two of the final teams, GiveSafe and Illumivote, focused on technologies with the potential to make life better. Flip the Media caught up with them a month after the hackathon to learn more about how they came up with their ideas, where they see it going next, and the potential broader impacts of this technology.
GiveSafe: Building Relationships to Spark Philanthropy
The idea for GiveSafe came from Jonathan Kumar’s personal experience — an experience that he found was shared by many others: being faced with someone in desperate need, but not having the time or ability to offer help. “I didn’t have cash on me to give, no time to ask his name or ask his name or buy him something to eat,” he says. There was also the uncertainty of whether his money was going to go to what that individual needed the most. If there was a way to give conveniently and securely, Kumar would have done it.
But the technology to facilitate that kind of spontaneous giving didn’t exist yet. In order to work, GiveSafe needed something that could work within a five to ten meter range. “The most potent form of philanthropy occurs when the need is right in front of your eyes,” explains Kumar. “People’s willingness to give goes down as time increases.” Near-field communication only worked within a range of a few inches, which was too close and too specific for what they had in mind. The idea was shelved for a few years, until beacon technology provided them with exactly the opportunity they were looking for.
GiveSafe aims to make giving a safe, frictionless experience by eliminating the uncertainty associated with giving. Givers download the app onto their smartphone, which triggers a notification if they are within range of someone with a GiveSafe beacon. These beacons are distributed to individuals in need by nonprofit partners, which may be shelters or a city department, who also help the individuals create a profile that givers can see when they receive the notification to donate. Any donations made can then be redeemed for necessary items or services, such as haircuts or food.
The potential uses of GiveSafe are not just limited to individuals in need. The location-sensing technology can also be used by buskers, street vendors, or even nonprofits and shelters themselves. Facilitating this type of spontaneous giving allows givers to choose how much they want to be involved, and there is opportunity to follow up on how their donation has benefited someone else.
Kumar stresses that GiveSafe is not intended to be a permanent solution — beacons become inactive after a certain period of time, and redeemable services and goods are focused on the most immediate needs. The goal is not to foster dependency on giving, but to change the mindset around giving. Currently, the project is still in the process of developing its proof of concept and looking for partners to work with.
Ultimately, GiveSafe is not just about transactional relationships, but about providing a way for individuals to establish trust in a world where that is very difficult to do. It removes the stigma from asking for help and provides incentive to be honest about needs, while providing clarity for donors who want to understand how their money will be used.
“Relationships are the key,” Kumar says. “Facilitating trust can change the world, not just for the poor, but for society.”
Illumivote: Unbiased Information for the Electorate
The idea behind Illumivote, a platform designed to provide information about political candidates to voters, came from the desire to do some data science and expose it to the public in an interesting way. Nate Tucker, who came up with the original pitch for the project, notes that politics are a rich source of information ripe for analysis. Using public data from sources such as OpenSecrets, Quandl, and other websites, Illumivote can compile data on how bills are passed, pass it on into a server capable of storying and analyzing that information, and generate information in a user-friendly format.
As of its current demo, which is not a live site, Illumivote’s current functionality is simple. Visitors and potential voters enter a politician’s name, and with custom-written Python programming, Illumivote takes information from the database, runs it through a few algorithms, and reports how influential and how partisan that politician is. Influence can be estimated by generating a network graph and looking at factors such as closeness centrality and number of connections, while partisanship is measured by looking at the politician’s party and how they actually tend to align themselves with or against party values in their votes.
Illumivote’s creators believe that its user-friendliness is the key to increasing voter awareness. Most of the information it draws on is already available publicly. However, more significant factors such as influence and partisanship are particularly difficult to measure, and most are likely to turn to a biased source for information.
By providing users data that is as close to the source as possible, Illumivote gives them the power to make decisions according to their own beliefs. “Everyone draws a line how much they want to dig into the details. If voters feel more aware, and more informed in their decisions, that would be a win,” explains Ekal Golas, one of the team members responsible for the data mining and machine learning that powers Illumivote.
While an app that deals with politics may seem particularly relevant now with the upcoming elections, Illumivote’s makers see it as something that has inherent relevance beyond election season. Jariullah Safi, one of Illumivote’s team members, believes their work (which the team also hopes to put on mobile in the future) has the potential to even change the nature of dinnertime conversations by putting complex information at people’s fingertips.
“People already think about the elections. They do think about the politician’s mind. People become passionate. We want people to have access to consumable, easy to understand data,” Safi says. Even discussions about politics in casual situations could benefit from participants being able to pull up accurate, specific data to prove or disprove points. “Instead of just putting a damper in that dinner conversation, it would educate people involved and make them more responsible.”
It could also give people more insight into the political process. “I think it would surprise people what politicians do,” Tucker notes. “The majority of bills are simply nominations. There have been more procedural than passed bills.”
As the winner of AngelHack Seattle 2015, Illumivote’s team won the opportunity to join AngelHack’s HACKcelerator program and participate at AngelHack’s Global Demo Day in Silicon Valley. However, as the team is not participating in the program, it may be some time before Illumivote’s promise as a platform for voter empowerment is realized.