Benetech Labs: Exploring New Strategies for Diversifying Innovation

By Benetech, posted on

Benetech Labs, Benetech’s new product development arm, is on a mission to create innovative, effective, and sustainable solutions for social change by engaging with communities, other technologists, and nonprofits in order to achieve lasting impact. One of the best ways to ensure that the technology we build follows a human-centered design approach is to gain a firsthand understanding of the real-world challenges faced by communities in need and the organizations that serve them. With that goal in mind, in June I attended the Humanitarian Technology Conference and visited a Pop-Up Care Village.

HumTech 2016: Innovative Technology for Humanitarians

Boston, Massachusetts, was the site of the third annual Humanitarian Technology Conference. The experience Photo of attendees at HumTech conferenceprovided a glimpse into humanitarian efforts that focused on resources and services related to disaster and emergency relief. Despite being unfamiliar with most of the represented program areas, I found that the shared processes and strategies resonated with learnings and experiences recently garnered through Benetech Labs.

Gisli Olafsson of NetHope kicked off the conference with a talk on “Disrupting Humanitarian Response.” Gisli’s presentation emphasized the potential of emerging technologies to bring disruptive change, but also cautioned against the implementation of new tools without first assessing implications specific to the humanitarian sector. One example is the rise of smart phones and crowd-sourced reporting mechanisms (i.e., social media) which have completely revolutionized the speed and breadth of digital data collection on the front lines. These tools, however, have simultaneously introduced challenges with data redundancies and lack of interoperability. In efforts to combat obstacles that frequently accompany innovation, Gisli concluded with reminders of a few best practices common among our for-profit peers:

  • When [a technology] disruption occurs, old habits need to change
  • Seek out funding models that encourage exploration and are more tolerant of failure
  • Build an ecosystem that supports entrepreneurship (i.e., “lean methodology” commonly used by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs)
  • And finally, focus on sustainable models: invest time learning about the underlying issues and find ways to partner as well as protect the dignity of affected communities

While all of these practices make sense, the final point was echoed repeatedly throughout the conference by other HumTech presenters. Before seeking out funding opportunities, prospective partnerships, technology tools, and free resources (e.g., day-of-service events), the most important first step is taking the time to interact with users and comprehend the core issues in person. This user-centric approach is the key to success among peer organizations and served as a reminder of what Benetech needs to strive for, especially as we expand our impact beyond our existing program areas.

Volunteering at Lava Mae’s Pop-Up Care Villages

Shortly after HumTech, members of the Benetech Labs team (Vice President Anh Bui, Product Manager John Higgins and I) jumped on an opportunity to volunteer and learn firsthand about challenges faced by the Bay Area homeless population and the organizations serving them.

On June 29, Lava Mae, a nonprofit that provides mobile hygiene services, hosted a Pop-Up Care Village, the second of its kind in San Francisco. The aim of these Care Villages is to provide homeless neighbors with access to temporary services such as haircuts, clothes, food, showers, mental health support, and job counseling. For each Care Village, Lava Mae brings together multiple organizations to provide these services in person in one location.

Lava Mae logo with icons of a shower and peopleParticipating in this event provided unique interactions and insights about the lives of homeless individuals. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 80% of people experiencing homelessness are only temporarily homeless; 30% for a week or less, and 66% for 30 days or less.  I also came to better understand the tremendous diversity of this community. The clients of the Care Village represented people of varying backgrounds and family structures as well as a range of reasons for homelessness (including a few individuals who expressed it was a personal lifestyle choice). Throughout the event, I was exposed to some of the additional subtleties and needs deemed important by this community such as a warm meal (as opposed to any edible item) or how the dignity of homeless clients can be protected by presenting free goods and services in a respectful, orderly manner.

While we all gained different insights through our volunteer experience, each of us recognized Benetech’s potential to provide tools that facilitate more efficient data collection and exchange among the participating nonprofits. Rather than use disparate data-gathering tools (pen and paper, online surveys, shared Google docs, etc.), a centralized data collection mechanism could better support data reporting to different target audiences. This standardization also enables data interoperability across organizations, paving the way for more efficient and effective service referral connections. The experience of helping these organizations collect data about their activities throughout the day gave us new information to add toward our growing understanding of a collective approach toward Data for Impact.

Silicon Valley has a wealth of technology and resources, but also just as many humanitarian, environmental, and societal challenges. As Benetech looks to expand its program areas, the Labs team encourages everyone to remember your own neighborhoods and to “be there” for missions that matter to each of you. As we continue to learn and share more about fundamental problems, we’re confident that scalable technology solutions will naturally emerge.

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About Benetech Labs

Benetech Labs is our new product development arm, where we explore new areas of need by engaging with communities, other technologists, and non-profits in the ecosystem around an issue to prototype new solutions. We experiment to find effective tech solutions that Benetech can take to scale and achieve large, lasting social impact.

Do you have an innovative idea to share? Submit it to the Labs’ Idea Pipeline.