Constructive Disruption: Advancing Social Change Through the Cloud

Submitted by Brett on Thu, 03/18/2010 - 7:52am

Jane Meseck, Microsoft Corporation

The technology scene today is distinguished by the growing connectivity among devices, mobile phones, the PC, and the browser, which enable people and organizations to access information, communicate, and collaborate in more powerful ways. This convergence is being driven by widespread penetration of mobile devices (up to 4 billion people now have access), advances in software innovation and powerful applications, and the maturation of the internet providing a gateway for "cloud" computing where data and applications sit and run over the web. Broadband continues to expand and become more accessible in remote places in the world -- we're not there yet, but the trends over the next 3-5 years will allow much greater access for those in the developing world.

What we will see over the next 3-5 years is a new paradigm of computing where the use of these devices will be more and more seamless. You will be able to use your phone, PC, and browser (sometimes TV) interchangeably and regardless of location.

This new paradigm offers great potential to improve how we all work. But even greater potential for nonprofits to manage their operations more effectively, deliver a broader array of services and achieve greater impact for the communities they serve.

But how can these technologies be used by social mission organizations, social entrepreneurs, NGOs and nonprofits to benefit the most vulnerable people in society?

Many nonprofits have already embraced technology to improve their productivity. But today's technologies have the potential to go much further -- the potential for "constructive disruption" that enables social mission organizations to achieve dramatically greater impact. It is a game changer, and a great opportunity to improve communication and collaboration, but also great opportunity to develop disruptive new business and delivery models.

While we may not all be ready to start working in this paradigm today (and not all the technologies are ready either), we want to keep our heads up and begin taking practical steps to prepare, so we don't get left behind, and more importantly, so we don't allow our unpreparedness to mean we leave our communities or others in need behind.

It is critical to engage in this change and lead where possible.

New Models of Social Change

We are already seeing this "constructive disruption" of traditional nonprofit business, delivery, information, and networking models already under way, as the upcoming examples illustrate.

  1. New Business Models -- Innovative new ways of doing business for social change are emerging by those nonprofits embracing the cloud. Kiva.org's development of the world's first person-to-person micro-lending website is facilitating micro-transactions that were previously prohibitively expensive, thereby helping alleviate poverty and raise awareness on a different, more personalized, level.
  2. New Service Delivery Models -- Organizations are finding new ways to extend their reach and reduce its costs through new service that utilize cloud-based services delivered on intelligent devices. Many communities, especially in impoverished and remote locations, lack sufficient healthcare services. A team led by the International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad, India, is working on a battery-powered diagnostic device, costing less than US$100, which can monitor a patient's heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen levels. This device can send the information through a cell phone to a physician hundreds of miles away who can then offer expert diagnostic and treatment advice to the local health care provider.
  3. New Information Exchange Models -- the creation of new models of collecting and sharing information via the cloud resulting in more transparent, open, multi-directional, group-driven, real-time sharing. Effective collaboration is critical in emergency situations that require multiple nonprofits and development agencies to work side by side. Shortly after a Cyclone struck Myanmar in May 2008, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) created a web-based collaboration portal for aid workers in the region that enabled more than 100 relief organizations to communicate, analyze information and manage resources. Using e-mail, texting and basic Web connectivity on a mobile phone or other mobile device, aid workers in remote or heavily damaged areas were able to view content, create alerts, file reports, participate in discussion forums and update information on the portal. This portal was also launched at the onset of the Haiti earthquake and utilized by relief organizations.
  4. New Networking Models -- Lastly, new networking models are starting to change the game for the community development sector. Social networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube keep many of us connected to a continuous stream of information. Nonprofits are also seeking to effectively use these powerful tools for social change. Removing barriers to nonprofits telling their stories, making it possible to engage new and different stakeholders who may not have traditionally been engaged without a PC. We are connecting otherwise isolated groups to share information about parenting, cancer recovery, etc.

These new models hold great promise for the social sector to transform their work and create tremendous impact. The reality is, however, that most nonprofits are not prepared to take advantage of these new models. Together, we should all take a more proactive and methodical approach to ensuring nonprofits are adopting IT effectively and planning appropriately so that they can directly engage in the solutions and platforms that will be available.

Supporting New Models of Social Change

Realizing the potential of the cloud will require attention and investment in 4 key areas -- all which require a high level of collaboration and partnership among nonprofits, foundations, governments and corporations.

  1. Technology Innovation -- Nonprofits must continue advancing their technological capabilities, and technology providers need to help ensure that today's IT innovations are relevant, affordable and accessible to the sector.
  2. Developers -- We must all encourage the developer community to create innovative technologies that address societal needs and help strengthen the nonprofit sector. Further, these solutions need to be built to take advantage of the cloud to replicate across the sector and scale impact.
  3. Capacity Building and the Partner Ecosystem --Engage both nonprofit capacity building organizations (like NTEN, TechSoup, NPower and NetHope) as well as for profit technology service providers to deliver scalable IT services for the broader nonprofit and social mission community.
  4. Social Networking - The immediacy and influence of online social networking make it a powerful tool for NGOs to use to improve services and operational capacity. Help nonprofits better understand how they can use social media to reach their constituents and beneficiaries.

We are at a crucial juncture where the business and social sector communities must act as visionaries and partners to translate the disruptive and promising opportunities offered by new technological capabilities into economic and social change. We need to work together to bring the benefits of technology to nonprofits, and by doing so, help the social sector use the cloud to drive real social change.

To learn more about Microsoft's cloud strategy and services, visit www.microsoft.com/cloud.

For information about Microsoft's investment in the community and how we work to strengthening NGOs through technology, visit www.microsoft.com/communityaffairs .