Tech-driven social enterprises doing good in the world

by Peter Griffin / 02 June, 2016
Smartphone eye clinics and gadgets to help the disabled communicate are some of technology’s social benefits.
Good work: Dr Hong Sheng Chiong, and his visoScope in use.
Good work: Dr Hong Sheng Chiong, and his visoScope in use.

I’ve written often about the rapaciousness of the tech world – from Facebook’s insatiable appetite for our personal data to the social costs of Uber’s gig economy. Sometimes we need reminding that technology is also a force for social good. Not every tech start-up aims for exponential growth and a multimillion-dollar share float.

Where I live in downtown Wellington, I’m equidistant from Enspiral, BizDojo and Creative HQ and bump into social entrepreneurs every day. They are people who are smart enough to code for Google and ambitious enough to run Xero’s overseas divisions. But they stay and work here on risky, thinly funded ventures they believe can make the world a better place.

I met representatives of a growing network of these tech-driven social enterprises at a recent event at Te Papa. Among them was oDocs, whose mission is to turn the humble smartphone into an eye clinic. The Auckland-based company founded by ophthalmologists Hong Sheng Chiong and Benjamin O’Keeffe makes visoScope, an optical attachment that lets an iPhone record high-quality retinal images.

The visoScope, which comes in a range of materials and costs from $350-$600, is intended to help up to seven million people in the developing world who go blind each year from cataracts, glaucoma and corneal opacities, conditions that are treatable if detected in time.

Dr Hong Sheng Chiong.
Dr Hong Sheng Chiong.

Doctors in the field in sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia – hotspots of avoidable blindness – can quickly check the eyes of patients and make detailed retinal scans. The scans are uploaded via an oDocs app for examination and diagnosis by a clinician.

It’s the sort of innovation pioneering ophthalmologist Fred Hollows would have taken to if he’d worked in the age of smartphones and 3D printers.

ODocs aims to raise up to $500,000 to get 200,000 of its kits in use within five years. Half the company’s net profits will be earmarked for sight-saving initiatives.

Elsewhere at the event I encountered Thought-Wired, whose founder, Dmitry Selitskiy, placed a gadget on my head and told me to concentrate. I stared at a screen while the NeuroSky Mindwave read my brain signals. Soon I was navigating through menus, gazing intently at where I wanted to go.

Selitskiy wants to help people with severe disabilities communicate more easily with their friends, family and doctors. Wearing his device was slightly draining and cumbersome, but for someone without the power of movement or speech, it would open up a new way of communicating.

At the heart of Thought-Wired’s effort is Nous, software it hopes will allow the disabled to control computers via ocular tracking, speech recognition, muscle activity and the power of thought.

My concentration was broken by Finance Minister Bill English, the event’s special guest, who turned out to be a big fan of social enterprise. “Government has been too passive and supplier-driven in the way it approaches most social problems,” he told the room.

He wanted to “turn government inside out”, producing the intelligence and analytics to better tackle society’s big problems. But would he put his hand in his pocket to support these social enterprises?

“Fuel the fire,” crowd-funding entrepreneur Anna Guenther urged the minister. “Match funding campaigns that come to you if they can prove they have a groundswell of support. Because this work is tiring.

“We’re trying not just to do well, but to do good.”

Five social enterprises to watch

Pledgeme: a crowd-funding platform that has raised nearly $9 million for projects as diverse as a craft brewery and public-interest journalism.

Conscious Consumers: a global marketplace for sustainable products featuring over 300 businesses and 10,000 consumers.

Ooooby: a “collaborative ­commons” that links fresh fruit and vegetable growers with local consumers who pay for the delivery of fresh produce.

Loomio: an online tool that takes the chaos out of collective decision-making – used by community groups through to corporate boards.

Fabriko: uses design and fabrication techniques to come up with technical solutions to social problems. Also runs the Fab Lab in Christchurch.

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