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  • Writer's pictureJames

Great apps for good

Updated: Sep 12, 2018

Ahead of joining the Zinc Mission 2 (check them out if you've not heard about them) in October, I've been thinking about some of the really impressive and innovative ways in which technology can be used for social good. Here three apps (loosely defined) I've come across in the last couple of months which have really struck me for different reasons:


1. TeacherTapp: How rapid data can change perceptions

There's an age-old problem in education research - It's really hard to get data out of teachers. Teachers are already swamped with data in their own classrooms, and have precious little time in a hectic timetable to answer somebody else's research questions, which may not provide any useful conclusions for months, if not years.

The whizzy guys at TeacherTapp (@profbeckyallen, @miss_mcinerney and @a_weatherall) have come up with a great solution. Every day at 3pm (just as the school day is finishing), the app pops up with a couple of multiple-choice questions. In return for completing the questions, the app points you to some free professional development that can be digested in just a couple of valuable minutes.

In less than a year, the app community has grown to over 2,500 teachers, dotted around the English education system, with a reasonable spread of demographics.

The key to TeacherTapp is speed - a brief analysis of the previous day's responses is usually available within 24-hours. Of course there are limits to what can be asked with a multiple choice model, but with such a large sample size the app is replicating the responses of more extensive surveys with astonishing accuracy.

In its short time active, TeacherTapp has given a valuable insight into the working minds of teachers. Crucially, the fast turnaround gives the teaching profession a direct voice into the world of policymaking, rather than having their views presented vicariously by think tanks and teaching unions.

Just last month, the Secretary of State announced a much-anticipated pay rise for teachers. TeacherTapp panellists were able to give their response directly, within hours:

So, not only is TeacherTapp creating an exciting new pool of data for education researchers, it's enabling a whole profession to improve policy and ultimately outcomes for kids.

2. Sexual Health London - Really understanding user need to create system benefit

London faces a real challenge over sexual health - existing sexual health services already struggle to find the capacity to offer sexual health checks to all those requesting them and yet they vitally need to increase the number of people being checked regularly.

The answer, it seems, lies in home-testing kits ordered online and delivered through the post. The vast majority of tests are negative and therefore don't require expensive face-to-face interactions so system capacity is increased. Equally, uptake seems to increase with the convenience and discretion offered by an efficient test taken at home.

Pushing services into the hands of the user is not unique to sexual health, or to London. However this project has a stand out feature - the attention to detail around understanding user behaviour.

Every stage of the interaction has been carefully thought-through to ensure it is foolproof and reassuringly straightforward for the user. For example, on completion of the test the user is required to input the date on which the test was taken. Just inches below, the form leads you to the next step pointing out local postboxes with a bespoke map generated using the user's postcode.

Self-service interactions can too often be infuriating for the user, but this project shows how careful attention to detail can lead to great results for user and provider.

3. Duolingo - Combining profit with social good

Duolingo is now established as one of the dominant apps for learning new language skills around the world. The app has been hugely successful, with an estimated value of $700m.

I've had a couple of pretty intense conversations in recent months about whether an organisation can be both for-profit and dedicated to achieving social good. Duolingo is a good example of doing just that.

The user interface is great, and Duolingo talk a lot about monitoring usage so they can better understand the learning process... and users have a choice of paying for a premium version, or putting up with ads to keep their learning free. This enables 25 million active users to develop their language skills and enables Duolingo to look at a $40m revenue.

Crucially, Duolingo's own research has identified some fascinating trends in how users engage with the app. Not least among these is the quirky fact that Swedish is the most commonly learned language in Sweden - not because Swedes can't speak their own language, but because refugees in the country are keen to engage with their host communities in a positive way.

No doubt there are plenty of examples where companies have behaved appallingly in the pursuit of profit, and I haven't undertaken a root and branch review of Duolingo's ethical practices... but we shouldn't dismiss the possibility of commercial investment generating a social good for some of the most vulnerable in society.

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