How We Define Public Good Technology: By Examples

Caravan Studios
Nov 10, 2017 · 4 min read

Recently, we asked, “Do we need to establish Public Good Technology as a field?” In that post, we talked about what we see as the benefits of having a field and the characteristics of public good technology. Here’s the thing: we don’t know if we are right.

This idea surfaced by spending time looking at existing projects, grouping them, categorizing them. We were exploring what they have in common so we could develop defining characteristics for the field, a precursor to standards.

We have some examples

We’ve been using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as a litmus test. If a project is attempting to move us toward those goals, we’ve put it on the list. Here are four examples of Public Good Technology projects.

Zero Hunger

Goal 2 is focused on ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition, as well as promoting sustainable agriculture. Here are two examples of projects that move us toward that goal:

In the United States, Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) is a system that allows states to issue benefits via a magnetically-encoded payment card. The recipient can use that same card — like a credit or debit card — to purchase groceries. But figuring out the balance on the card? It is difficult. Fresh EBT attempts to solve that by making it easy for a user to find their EBT balance, find nearby stores that accept EBT, and keep track of their spending. Will this end hunger? No. Not at the global systemic level. Does it help an individual better spend their food budget? Yes.

Spoiler Alert provides real-time data visibility to better manage unsold food inventory. The goal? Reduce waste and increase access to useable food. They focus on corporations that provide discounts and donations of food that would otherwise end up in waste. Like Fresh EBT, this does not solve the problem of hunger. However, better management of food inventory pushes the needle toward that overall goal.

Clean Water and Sanitation

Clean water and sanitation everywhere and for everyone is the core of Goal 6. Here is a project that supports that goal:

The Human Utility allows individual donors to help pay water bills for people who need support. As they point out, everyone needs running water. Sometimes that is about infrastructure and access. Sometimes, it is about the ability of an individual to keep water flowing to their home. To date, over 10,000 donors have helped pay someone’s water bill.

The Water Tracker provides a method for people to monitor their own water use. With that information, they can understand where and how they might conserve. In their pilot, they compared water use among students in Colorado and Mexico City. Their findings? Students in Colorado drink more water because clean drinking water is more accessible in the United States. In this pilot, Water Tracker helped to highlight a systemic inequity by looking at the usage patterns of two different groups.

What Do These Examples Have In Common?

It is easy to understand how all four of these examples fit within the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They are front and center in solving a problem within the broader issue. Just by looking at what the product does, you cannot discern if it is run by a non-profit or a for-profit, a government agency or an academic institution. Because these examples are not about the organization that produced them. They are about the change they want to create.

These examples meet the issue-facing criteria that we’ve been using as a part of a Public Good Technology framework.

Citizen-owned is our second hallmark of Public Good Technology. We’ve been using “citizen” to mean the “inhabitant of city or town.” In other words: a member of a local community. Frankly, this is the criteria that we need to spend more time defining. Does it mean open source? Does it mean that the community had input on the development? Does it mean that it was publicly funded? It can mean any or all of those things. Here, it means that it is solving a real problem of people in the community and is rooted in that community and a curiosity about what happens when one part of an issue is resolved. Or, if not resolved, at least addressed.

Impact-creating is much easier to see. These all make a tangible difference to people engaged in these issue areas. Sometimes, as in the case of Water Tracker, impact happens because of an increase in awareness. In other cases, it happens because the product increases access to a tool.

What Happens Next?

Over time, these common elements can be built into set of standards. Standards help to define and build the field of Public Good Technology. In combination with infrastructure, intermediaries, and networks, standards are a key part of developing a field.

On the third day of the Public Good App House: Festival of the Americas, we will gather together at the opening plenary to discuss standards and other components of field building and the work that we need to do to continue to develop the idea of Public Good Technology.

We will report back. And we hope it gets you engaged in the conversation.

This post is by Marnie Webb, CEO of Caravan Studios. Caravan Studios builds technology to increase the public good. They are a division of TechSoup, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, CA.

Caravan Studios

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Connects nonprofits & social benefit orgs w/ app-based tech to build solutions for real-world problems.Also tweets #opendata #hackathons.A division of @TechSoup

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