akvo’s Smart Idea for Charity

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to be a judge at the finals of Vodafone Mobile Clicks, run by the Vodafone Developer Team and held at Amsterdam’s Picnic 2010. The winner and runner up won €100,000 and €50,000 respectively, so it was certainly a prize worth winning and well done Vodafone for supporting developers with real money, as well as the publicity that spins off with an event like this.

Picnic itself bills itself as “Burning Man meets TED” and attracts a mixed crowd of geeks and people working in various creative industries. No naked people though, so not terribly Burning Man! I wish I had more time to look around the exhibition and take in some more of the speakers. I did catch Cory Doctorow, who I’ve long admired and IDEO’s Tom Hulme, who had a fabulous app that allowed him to automatically Tweet key links and other information during his presentation. See here for more info if you want to try this little piece of magic yourself.

I also ran into Marije Vogelzang, who I met at TEDX Munich earlier in the year when she gave a fascinating talk about food design. She owned the cool little cafe/restaurant where the judging took place, which included quirky little effects like serving coffee in old jars and tea in mismatched tea cups, as well as delicious food. Yum.

There were four entries to Vodafone Mobile Clicks and all were notable in their own way and very worthy finalists. You can read about them here and find out who the winners were and I really recommend that you check it out and take some time to read and be inspired. However, I’d like to write a little about akvo.org, which didn’t end up a winner, but are still very worthy of your attention.

akvo is a not-for-profit run by a bunch of hardcore geeks and charity people, all of whom share the vision of trying to make the world a better place. The organisation allows potential donors to find specific projects to fund, mainly around building clean water and sanitation projects. Rather than giving money to a charity to do what it likes with it, including funding massive administration costs, you can chose exactly where your money goes and how it’s spent.

However, some of the key issues with charity these days are accountability and trust and it’s imperative that ways are found to resolve them. The donor must be convinced that their hard-earned dollars end up doing what they’re meant to, rather than being siphoned off by middle-men and administration fees. As an example, I think that perhaps the reluctance to give aid to Pakistan recently after the flooding tragedy is because donors just don’t believe that their funds end up in the right place. In akvo’s case, they must be able to show that the water pump that was paid for was installed and working, so they needed a tool that did this.

akvo have therefore developed a mobile solution to help solve this problem. Basically, when the field worker has completed the project for which the monies have been allocated, she takes a photo with her mobile. The photo is then validated by a combination of location (GPS), time stamp, text and phone ID, so that in these days of Photoshop, you can be pretty sure that the photo is true and that the project was actually finished. The validated photo can then be used by the charity for audit purposes and the prove to the donors that their money was well spent.

It’s a very simple idea, but one which solves a real problem and will change people’s lives all round the world. Well done, guys!

It’s also worth noting that this technique can be used in a variety of other use cases (not just other charities) where it’s important that an image is verified as being true. During the presentation I was scribbling a list of these, until they said that they’d already thought of that! They plan to launch a for-profit arm of the organisation, wholly owned by akvo, to exploit these and thus raise more funds. Examples of these applications included citizen journalism and the media, insurance claims and reporting infrastructure problems to local authorities.

Amsterdam always impresses me with its unique combination of creativity, tech savvy and passion and I’m already looking forward to my next trip, whenever that might be.

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