Mobile + Social + Future: M4Change DC

This week I had a rare opportunity to get to an event that is a departure from my usual circuit of professional conferences and client confabs—Mobile Tech 4 Social Change in Washington, DC. Put on by Katrin Verclas at and held at Google's offices in the nation's capital, "M4Change" followed the barcamp traditions of being created not just for but by the participants, which adds so much more value to the content of the day. While I initially had planned to lurk and learn from others, I decided just before the event to step up and run a session.

With a little advance prep, I ran what was supposed to be one but became two rounds of mobile social brainstorming and rapid solution creation (thanks for the encore, players). This was done using a tool that proves quite handy in these situations—a deck of trend cards which, in conjunction with a set of constraints and a mission—allows teams of diverse players to get together and create, in this case, a mobile-related solution that serves a social need somewhere in the world.

The teams that played our game were immediately and deeply engaged in exchanging ideas, understandings, points of view, concepts, and some damn clever solutions to the barriers and discontinuities they faced in their dealt hands. Given just 30 minutes to assemble, read, discuss and create, the groups at M4Change—representing a mixture including technologists, activists, creatives, academics and policy folks—pulled together some fascinating approaches, particularly faced with some stingy barriers (sorry, guys).

As I tweeted briefly about Wednesday night after the event, some in particular stood out. While they were all excellent ideas, some items that stuck in my head were (I won't do them justice, but here goes):

  • One team was a global foundation that sought to spread religious tolerance virally by using contactless communication between players of a global multiplayer game as a way of secretly identifying with each other in public as members of the same belief. In this team's overall game concept, players could earn currency by finding commonalities with people of different backgrounds and building the group based on diversity.
  • A team representing a small advocacy utilized sensing networks to allow Sudanese villagers to find out how much water was in area wells by having well monitors text their water levels to locals. The idea was to save villagers having to walk miles to an empty well, and the aggregate data would provide a live map of water levels across the region, alerting aid groups where water supplies may be needed.
  • An urban project serving a US city created a system to educate low-income women by distance learning using their local library for Internet access, then text quizzes and other reinforcements to the women's basic mobile phones as a means of reinforcing the learning afterwards. Friends could text questions and knowledge to each other as well, with more participation rewarded. The barrier this team had to work with was a lack of Web access on the women's mobiles. The solution therefore used shared Web access to deliver lessons and SMS to reinforce the learning and provide collaboration.
  • A team representing a commercial mobile app developer designed a government-funded solution for Chinese eco-activists to record and send environmental violations and corruption to the government as a way of crowdsourcing law enforcement. In a twist, the team added a hidden ability to anonymize the app' s useand even scrub transmitted data, allowing the app to be coopted by other activists groups to communicate and report other types of violations.

All in all, these and other presented concepts were a terrific return for just 30 minutes of ideation among teams that had never met, with sometimes unfamiliar trends and concepts and some wicked problems to solve—thanks to all who took time out to play and create. Add to this some fantastic sessions on SMS data collection, using mobiles for political participation, open development tools and more, and the day was a huge opportunity to learn from bright minds at the forefront of using mobiles to affect social change. For more information on upcoming Mobile Tech for Social Change events, check