Af Peter Baeck, NESTA
When catastrophe struck the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011, the public rushed to understand the radiation levels in their towns. Unfortunately, most of the devices used by the public to map radiation were of poor quality and there were massive holes in the data sets available from official resources.
Recognising this challenge, Safecast – a global sensor network for collecting and sharing radiation measurements – decided to step in. Using crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to raise money they started bGiegie, an unprecedented project to crowdsource radiation levels in Japan.
To develop the bGiegie immediately after the disaster, Safecast turned to the crowds via Kickstarter to raise funds for the device and help launch the sensor network.
Safecast then worked with Hackerspaces and used grant funding to update the counter, including creating new versions and alterations of the counter including allowing it to be mounted to the outside of a car (latest Safecast experiment is a drone based geiger counter).
To date, Safecast volunteers have mapped radiation levels of over 11 million data points, providing a comprehensive and accurate dataset that was inconceivable before the Safecast project. On September 15, 2012, it was announced that Safecast’s radiation measurements were partially adopted by Fukushima Prefecture to create a local radiation map.
Safecast is one of my favourite examples of a phenomenon we define as Digital Social Innovation (DSI) – ‘a type of social and collaborative innovation in which innovators, users and communities collaborate using digital technologies to co-create knowledge and solutions for a wide range of social needs and at a scale that was unimaginable before the rise of the Internet’.
Why is this so interesting?
The ability of digital technologies to enable entirely new ways of making commercial products and creating new ways of crowdsourcing, capturing, releasing and analysing data has long been big business. Almost no day goes by without a headline story on the most recent development in personal manufacturing, from the guy who built a radio controlled lawnmower using an open hardware kit, to the team who are creating a brainscanner people can 3D print at home. Googles recent acquisition of Nest Labs for $3.2bn is the latest example of how capturing new data through sensors and the Internet of things is big business. The same goes for open data. In October last year McKinsey estimated that Open Data could generate value worth $3 trillion a year globally.
However, while the innovative potential of digital technologies is already massively exploited in big business, we’re still playing catch up when it comes to deliver social and public value. As demonstrated in our research project into DSI and the recent launch of by the Nominet Trust of its 100 most inspiring social tech innovations, we aren’t short of great examples of the potential in DSI. In Reykjavik the Your Priorities platform is transforming democracy, by involving 40 per cent of citizens in real time policy making via dedicated social networks. Tyze (a platform that helps connect people around someone receiving care) and PatientsLikeMe (a social network for people living with chronic health conditions with more than 200K users) is transforming our perception of health and social care services.
Just as digital technologies help us to gather new knowledge from the public for social innovation, the rise of crowdfunding platforms allow anyone with a spare 1£ or more to become a social investor. While it is often platforms like Kickstarter that get most of the attention for helping the funding of gadgets like the Pebble watch, there is lots of niche platforms like Spanish Goteo and UK based Peoplefund.it which help crowdfund projects with social aim.
However, while they show great potential, most of the examples of DSI we have looked at to date are relatively small scale and operate on the periphery of mainstream services that deliver public and social value.
How can government support the growth of DSI?
That is the big question we are trying answer in our research.
There are national and regional governments who are leading the way in their work on supporting the growth of DSI, in particular around capturing and opening up new types of data for the public good. One example is, the Estonian Government and not for profit organisation Praxis’ collaboration on the Meieraha project, which focuses on opening up data about and visualising the Estonian government budget. The work by the city of Vienna on opening up city data for citizens and developers to turn in to new services for the city, such as the the Fruitfly, a map of trees with free fruit around the city based on park data, is another.
Other cities, like Amsterdam, are experimenting with how to integrate DSI services like the Smart Citizen Kit (a tool that, amongst other, helps individual citizens measure humidity, noise and air pollution in the city) in to city services.
To summarize our work thus far has highlighted that there is huge potential for social entrepreneurs and public services to collaborate in using tech for good. The next step is to understand we can better design policies around regulation, funding and research to make the most of this potential.
Peter Baeck is Principal Researcher – Public and Social Innovation at Nesta. He is currently co-leading Digital Social Innovation, a European Commission funded project aiming to define and understand the potential in digital social innovation (DSI), including crowd mapping networks between European DSI organisations and ultimately developing policy recommendations on how the EU and national governments can better support the growth of DSI. You can read more about the project on www.digitalsocial.eu and follow the project on twitter @Digi_Si