Practical, socially relevant technology

explore app
Peo­ple use the word  tech­nol­o­gy for “every­thing that does­n’t work yet.” Danny Hillis, a com­put­er sci­en­tist and entre­pre­neur, point­ed out that the best tech­nol­o­gy is unseen: once tech­nolo­gies works, they sim­ply become com­put­ers, tele­phones. cars, etc. Peo­ple accept tech­nolo­gies, when they regard them as providers of reli­able rou­tine solu­tions of prob­lems, most of them belong­ing to one if the the “3Ds” cat­e­gories: dull, dan­ger­ous and dirty.
Take robots: as long as we talk about “robots” we imag­ine some fas­ci­nat­ing man-like machines, try­ing to mim­ick human behav­ior as muc as pos­si­ble. But just “try­ing”. We don’t see those robots as equiv­a­lents to our own race and we don’t expect them to live with us as other humans do. But if you think of robot­ech vac­u­um clean­ers, a trol­ley mov­ing beds around hos­pi­tal cor­ri­dors, or indus­tri­al work­hors­es used for auto­mat­ed process­es in man­u­fac­tur­al plants world­wide, they cease being seen as robots. They are sim­ply named after their func­tion­al­i­ties. How would you name the CoBot of Carnegie Mel­lon, which — stand­ing by the lift door — dis­plays a lit­tle sign ask­ing passers-by to press the appro­pri­ate but­ton for it (Arms are expen­sive and fal­li­ble — so self-navigating robots don’t have them).

Every tech­nol­o­gy is as good as its prac­ti­cal — or social — rel­e­vance. This is, what Neel­ie Kroes, Euro­pean Com­mis­sion­er for Dig­i­tal Agen­da, refers to in her con­tri­bu­tion to a dis­cus­sion about dig­i­tal pri­va­cy. And this is ‑in my opin­ion — the biggest chal­lenge of tech­nol­o­gy star­tups all over the world. In the after­math of the dot­com bust more than ten years ago, a new gen­er­a­tion of entre­pre­neurs has been lever­ag­ing mobile tech­nolo­gies to all sorts of more or less use­ful appli­ca­tions. As seen in the last ten years, the crash of the inter­net boom has not exact­ly brought an end to the inter­net, e‑commerce or any other online busi­ness. If any­thing, the key play­ers of those times are stronger than ever, with ama­zon as the poster child of a com­pa­ny hav­ing read its own obit­u­ary sev­er­al times, but still being alive and well. In this light, the recent dis­cus­sion of a bub­ble (in the tech­nol­o­gy busi­ness) should be assessed care­ful­ly. Most prob­a­bly, many of the actu­al tech star­tups won’t sur­vive their first liq­uid­i­ty droughts, and many will fail just because nobody needs their prod­ucts or services.
And that’s where the above men­tioned prac­ti­ca­bil­i­ty comes in: if a prod­uct or ser­vice is prac­ti­cal and has social rel­e­vance, it will be used. If it only pro­vides a nice-to-have fea­ture but is nice­ly designed, it will only be used by the fans of that spe­cial fea­ture. If it’s nei­ther well designed nor does it pro­vide a prac­ti­cal ben­e­fit, your start­up pre­sum­ably won’t survive.
With our own start­up, Datarel­la, my busi­ness part­ners and I launched the app explore and we are try­ing to build a social­ly rel­e­vant ser­vice for smart­phone users based on the app.
The three pil­lars of explore are:

  1. Every­body can use explore. The app itself is free and there is no need of using an addi­tion­al gad­get like a fit­ness band, or else. It’s in the user’s smart­phone – with her all the time.
  2. It’s absolute­ly easy to par­tic­i­pate: explore asks the right ques­tions at the right time – nobody must be over­ly cre­ative and fill in an empty diary – the user just answers short ques­tion­naires in under a minute.
  3. The user gets indi­vid­ual per­son­al­ized rec­om­men­da­tions to change her behav­ior, if nec­es­sary. No stan­dard­ized pro­grams, but indi­vid­ual advice.

We think that with explore we match our own expec­ta­tions of devel­op­ing a tech­nol­o­gy which is prac­ti­cal and social­ly relevant.
Do you know other exam­ples of social­ly rel­e­vant tech­nolo­gies? Be it an app mea­sur­ing your radi­a­tion expo­sure, pre­vent­ing wild­fires or more. Please share them with me!

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