Revisiting "iPhones for Good," Social Actions' "Change The Web" chat

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 The following is a cleaned-up transcript of "iPhones for Good," yesterday's Social Actions' Change The Web conversation (Social Actions' Joe Solomon notes that the conversation was inspired by this Britt Bravo post). I tried to make it so that the conversation reads a bit more fluidly, is broken down into subsections, and more readable to those who weren't initially involved. Moderating the conversation is NetSquared's very own Amy Sample Ward, and sitting in are Joe Solomon, The Extraordinaries' Jacob Colker and Ben Rigby, iVolunteer's Dave Angulo and Rich Grote, Ned.com's Mark Grimes, Jon Bedford, and some other folks who kindly joined in on the conversation.

It's a great conversation. I hope you enjoy reading it.  

When everyone has access how does the world change?

Amy Sample Ward: When everyone has access how does the world change? The driving force of mobile tech is that it's already in the hands of many more people around the world than broadband and laptops. So, what happens when everyone can access all that they need via their mobile device?

Ben Rigby: I think it depends a lot on area of the world, because having access to basic communication is transformative in some areas of the world. But in the US, for example, mobile is an add-on to an already existing system of access, of course. It gets real interesting to think about what happens when someone in the US can do work for someone in Africa all via mobile.

Jacob Colker: For Africa, it means access to everything that Americans have taken for granted with the traditional Internet, particualrly information. And contrastingly, SMS is the "email" of much of the developing world.

IVolunteer: For us the issue is how do we inject social action opportunities into the decision making process of busy people.

Amy Sample Ward: But I think it is also important to note that this is more than just access - it's connection, interaction and exchange, etc. So, mobile applications have an opportunity to capitalize on the "beyond access" side of things.

Ben Rigby: Double down on [that].

IVolunteer: Mobile is just one play for us; we want people to have this information at the moment they are making decisions about how to spend their time.

Amy Sample Ward: That's a great point, iVolunteer - the opportunity is ready whenever the user wants it.

IVolunteer: Yes in certain parts of the world mobile is extremely important, hence why we are building an iPhone app.

Ecosystems of apps, websites, new technologies, and theories of change

Jacob Colker: But is an "app" the solution itself?

Chad Marcus: We always ask ourselves what makes the app compelling. Why do users want to use our app? Simply to donate?

Joe Solomon: Ditto on the great question. I think everything: apps, websites, new technologies, even theories of change, exist in an ecosystem.

Amy Sample Ward: Exactly, Joe! The information ecosystem though has many different access points and trails and the mobile applications/technologies have a unique way of bringing people into the ecosystem in a more holistic way than just a radio, etc.

iVolunteer: The app isn't the solution. The solution is to get people engaged. We're relatively platform agnostic about where they get the information on how to do that.

Ben Rigby: I would further that by saying that at some point, it's important to get people to meet face to face.

Jacob Colker: Ethan Zuckerman at #m4change in New York had a real interesting point a few weeks ago. He said that mobile itself wasn't enough to complete the loop for activism and change in Africa. It was when mobile was coupled with a traditional FM radio. That things really started to take off. People texted in their questions, comments, and more via mobile and then those comments were broadcast over the air nationwide. The marriage of the two is what finally worked.

Ben Rigby: "Worked" means what?

Jacob Colker: Sorry -- as an example, the government began to respond to accusations of soldier abuse.

Amy Sample Ward: Jacob - great story. What was the "change" that occured from the marriage of the two technologies? How did it impact the way people communicated, connected, etc.?

Jacob Colker: They put the minister of defense (I forget which country) on air, and he took people's questions via sms. When someone texted in "is it ok for soldiers to force themselves into my house?" and the minister of defense said "no!" on air across the country. Suddenly, there were a lot of soldiers sleeping outside.

The Gentle Art of Predicting Successs

Amy Sample Ward: Here's a new question: How do you measure the social impact of your application before it's actually developed?

Jon Bedford: Sheesh - that's a tough question Amy. If your app is a new idea that's untried and untested, it's difficult to find a benchmark.

Ben Rigby: Yeah, [I] don't think it's possible - other than by finding comps.

iVolunteer: Before we ever started to code anything, we talked to a number of folks who are heavily involved in volunteer coordination to make sure that saw a need for what we were thinking of building.

Joe Solomon: I think it's a challenging question, but one we have to try to answer so as not to full prey to shiny new thingy syndrome.

Amy Sample Ward: So, let's change the question a bit then - how do you identify metrics that actually be measured for your mobile app that are "social change" thngs?

iVolunteer: Basically, we treated it like a startup. We took our elevator pitch around and got input from as many people as possible.

Ben Rigby: It depends on the initiative, but there are lots. [There's a] great post just today from [Beth] Kanter here about ROI. I dont think it makes sense to start any project without first figuring out how you're going to calculate your ROI (in however you choose to define it)

iVolunteer: Once we were sure we found the sweet spot, we started collecting our team and building.

Jon Bedford: Is it a question of setting your own goals for what you think would be a success? And then, once developed, see what changes come out of what you've finally developed? Once you have something tangible, it's easier to demo, obviously.

Jacob Colker: iVolunteer -- how has the response been from nonprofits?

iVolunteer: We've got a business development team which is figuring out metrics to measure the impact of our products.

Amy Sample Ward: Jon, you add in a great point about changing and evaluating as you go that's important to note.

Jillis: Maybe this has been suggested before but wouldn't buying ads for "fantasy variations" for the app to be built and checking the response help in the way of finding out what people are interested in?

iVolunteer: They're excited. From the ones we've talked to, we're opening up an untapped source of volunteers for them. And we've tried to keep the barrier to entry low for the nonprofits by using event data from existing sources - they don't have to reenter into our system.

Ben Rigby: There's lot of lessons too in the world of web metrics:   That can be applied beyond the web, per-se.

Joe Solomon: This post also rocked my socks for understanding and approaching meaningful outcome measurements from Paul Brest on HuffPost.  

How does worldwide access shift the dynamics of the market?

Mark Grimes: At the end of the day, once people engage with the mobile/online technology in developing countries/emerging markets, they still need/want food, clothing, shelter, jobs, education. Any thoughts (ala Txt Eagle) as to how this new app could generate revenue for people in developing countries?

Joe Solomon: What is Text Eagle?

Ben Rigby: Mark brings us back to Amy's opening question - How does worldwide access shift the dynamics of the market? ie: Can someone in Africa earn money via the tool of access (mobile phone)?

Ben Rigby: TxtEagle is a good starting point.

iVolunteer: At the end of the day our main metric is: "How many people have we helped get engaged in doing good in their community?" iVolunteer is about bringing bodies to bear on a problem. Once they are engaged with a cause they might then choose to give money.

Connie: Similar to what Mark asked, i have a question regarding how you vision social change mobile apps in low income communities. The extraordinaries is a great idea but it requires a device that in some countries can cost more than a basic laptop, and requires a data plan that costs 20-30% of the average monthly income for middle class families. How you think this barrier could be overcomed?

Jacob Colker: But! If a water expert in Berkeley can help solve a water sanitation issue in a village in Africa from HIS or HER smartphone. The other thing is that smartphones are going to be the devices people in the developing world get first, NOT laptops. They are cheaper and easier to distribute. I've seen research that predicts 700 million smartphones worldwide by 2012.

iVolunteer: We actually are targeting the population that has these pricey mobile devices because we want them to do good where they are right now. Those people who have these devices can be part of the solution. Many studies say the primary reason people don't get involved is because they don't know how. We're all trying to fix that.

Amy Sample Ward: What's the difference between developing something that people need and something people could need?

iVolunteer: Since we have a startup mentality, the market will ultimately decide, there is more risk in developing something people might need. To be honest, something people need and something people might need is a matter of perspective. We live in a bubble for the most part and what we think we need is generally distorted. So, ask for as much input as possible before building anything, then iterate based on feedback and efficacy.

Jacob Colker: But what if your input is wrong?

Amy Sample Ward: Of your input group is biased/unrepresentative, etc.?

Joe Solomon:
Ha!

Connie:
Regarding what people need/want, I think that some projects fail on this part.

It's all part of a process

Jacob Colker: I'm not extrapolating to the Extraordinaries here, but Newton, Galileo, and so many more were thought of as crazy -- right up until they were right!

Jacob Colker: When do you step your foot out there, and lead?

Ben Rigby: (with good data)

Jacob Colker: My mom can't turn on the air conditioner in her car

iVolunteer: Either we're going to have market penetration or we won't. If we don't, then we didn't get input from the right people or we built something that wasn't useful.

Jacob Colker: How is she going to know what's best for mobile?

Connie: Jacob - it ´s all part of a process; all are steps on a ladder that sooner or later will reach the best solution for a problem.

Jacob Colker: Absolutely.

Amy Sample Ward: But she has valuable time, energy, passion and know-how on a certain subject, so building an app that she could use even without the AC on could really be powerful - nonprofits don't only need legal and tech advice after all.

Ben Rigby: I'm a fan of solving the problem via frequent iterations.

Amy Sample Ward: Ben - the perpetual beta idea has definitely surfaced itself in the last couple years as an acceptable state of development.  

iVolunteer: The technical challenges are less complicated than the business development and go-to-market strategy.

Jon Bedford: You might even find that people take your app and do stuff that you hadn't even thought of. Testing is all good, but once in the wild, anything can happen. I agree, that an iterative approach works there.

Jacob Colker: Great point, Jon.

Jacob Colker: Idealist never thought they would end up as the nonprofit job posting leader.

Ben Rigby: Embodied by "agile" approach.

Jacob Colker: But they did!

Amy Sample Ward: Jacob, and the important part is that they didn't resist that as an option or reality.

Jacob Colker: Exactly.

iVolunteer:   Right on that Jon. When we started, we thought we were only building an iPhone app. Our team decided to also build a facebook app and a wordpress plugin.

Joe Solomon: I found this iVolunteer post interesting, when you guys shared your "beyond the iPhone" thoughts.

iVolunteer: Guess we're using the entrepreneurial shotgun method, also tied with agile methodology. One of our supporters is Rally Development.