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On a day of praise for disruptive technologies, a word of caution

A former Google engineer schools aspiring disruptors on what really matters when deploying disruptive technology for human consumption.

Ann Mei Chang is the CIO at Mercy Corps, a global aid agency. That's CIO as in chief innovation officer. She was in Cambridge, Mass., last weekend to give one of the four keynote talks at Disrupting Life!, an MIT event put on by the university's Sloan School of Management. The focus of the conference was disruptive technologies and the day-long agenda bristled with them -- from flying cars and wearables, to mobile phone payments and cloud-based file sharing, to that potential disruptor of all tech disruptors, quantum computing.

Chang's work focuses on using mobile technology and the Internet to improve the lives of poor people, in particular, populations that have experienced a catastrophe: flood, famine, political persecution, genocide. Given the event and the high-wattage crowd -- it was predominantly young and ambitious; by a show of hands, a majority had already started a startup or wanted to -- one might have expected Chang to wax enthusiastic over the power of these two disruptive technologies to change the plight of disadvantaged people the world over.

Except she didn't. Instead she focused on the colossal waste of money (and by implication the colossal arrogance) in deploying technology without a clear understanding of its value to end users or of its value, period. In her experience, if the aim is to use disruptive technology to change how people live, the promulgators need to answer some basic questions:

Is there a perceived or real need for the technology? Is the solution truly usable? What are the barriers to accessing said technology? Can it be scaled and not just technically -- how will people find out about it in places where there's no social media? Since complexity can be the enemy of adoption, how simple can you start? Are all the costs understood? Do you like the product or service -- and, if not, why would you foist it on others?

These questions pointed to just the sort of problems that concern (or haunt) our readers -- CIOs, as in chief information officers! So naturally I googled the chief innovationofficer up on stage and ended up at … Google. Prior to her joining Mercy Corps in October and before she worked at the U.S. State Department under Hillary Clinton as the senior adviser for women and technology, CIO Ann Mei Chang (BS, computer science, Stanford University) was director of engineering at Google. She was instrumental in developing Google Maps, an app that changed the way us oldsters navigate the world, one that is easily accessed, easy to use and presumably is of value to the company.

Disruptive technologies can change the human condition, for sure, but first we must understand the human condition.

Chang cited plenty of instances of how the failure to think through technology deployments in developing countries has unintended consequences, including the now classic example of the mosquito nets distributed for curing malaria being used as fishing nets. People have to eat. And drink. In one community, an aid agency decided to build a "play pump" merry-go-round so that while the kids pushed it around, they would also be generating energy to pump water from the nearby water tower. Well-intentioned, but it quickly became apparent that even if those kids ran around nonstop 24 hours a day, they could pump only about one-tenth of the water the village needed. The One Laptop per Child initiative? According to Chang, a rigorous study of one of the largest deployments concluded that the education outcomes of the kids who got laptops were no better than those who didn't.

"One of the reasons was that the focus was on getting all these laptops out to kids but not necessarily on getting curriculum out to them in their own languages … [or] teaching teachers how to leverage these laptops," Chang said.

Mobile apps gone stupidly wrong

It was Chang's examples of misconceived mobile/Internet projects, however, that probably hold the most valuable lessons for IT leaders.

The global aid business, like any other industry, it turns out, latches on to trends. One of those trends is a love of mobile apps: Mobile maternal care apps, mobile HIV apps, how to grow crops better mobile apps. You name a third-world problem, and there's a mobile app to address it. Makes sense. Some 75% of the world's population has access to mobile phones, so why not use this platform to improve lives? In remote rural areas of Tanzania, Chang herself has seen Maasai warriors herding cattle with mobile phones on their hips.

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In practice, however, many of the mobile health and education apps have low rates of success because they fail to consider what users want or the cost of deployment, Chang said. Uganda was so bombarded with organizations peddling self-improvement mobile apps -- point solutions that could not talk to each other and were not integrated -- that the government called a moratorium on them. Dealing with all these mobile app experiments was hindering the ability of Ugandan community health workers to actually take care of people.

Too often we assume that because a technology functions, it works. For example, research has shown that the vast majority of women in developing countries say they care about health, Chang said, but less than 40% say they want to get health information on their mobile phones. They may be illiterate, or, as likely, the communication mode is too impersonal. "How many of you have changed major life habits because of an SMS message on your phone? We sometimes don't think through how some of these interventions play out, based on what people actually want," she said.

Feature phones, still widely in use in developing countries, can be manipulated to download mobile apps but it's "incredibly complicated to Internet-enable the phone," Chang said, and the interfaces are horrible. "How many mobile apps did we use when we had feature phones?" Why would developers assume digital naïfs would want to use a technology they wouldn't use themselves?

Of course, there's also the Internet as a vehicle for improving the lives of poor people, just as this disruptive technology fundamentally changed how we do things, in ways almost unimaginable by most of us a mere two decades ago. But before we assume that disadvantaged populations will flock online to learn how to better themselves, Chang said, let's recall that the on-ramp to this miraculous information superhighway for many first-world citizens was the access it provided to entertainment and porn. Disruptive technologies can change the human condition, for sure, but first we must understand the human condition.

By the way, Chang's talk was not one big blooper reel. There are success stories. Mobile technology is changing how people learn and do things in unlikely places, from the M-Pesa mobile phone-based money transfer service that has taken off in Kenya, to programs using SMS to teach people to read. But, in these cases, Chang stressed that the disruptive technology has been tailored to users' needs and wants, and the programs typically enlist intermediaries (local super-users and in M-Pesa's case, hundreds of thousands of agents) to break down the barriers to adoption.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, executive editor, or reach out on Twitter at @ltucci.

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