Jean Lievens: 10 Digital Social Innovators to Watch

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Jean Lievens
Jean Lievens

Ten digital social innovators to watch

Many innovations tackling societal problems have developed online. Jon Kingsbury and Peter Baeck highlight rising stars

What is digital social innovation?
The internet is playing an ever-increasing role in how we work, play and relate to each other. As a natural result of this, many of the most exciting new innovations that enable people to collaborate to address societal challenges are being developed online. At Nesta we call this activity digital social innovation (DSI) and it includes a diverse set of services, entrepreneurs and organisations.

However, while DSI has been around since the birth of the web (and, in fact, fits the internet’s original ethos of social good), there is little collected public knowledge on what best practice looks like, how networks of innovators might work together in order to understand its potential impact, and what policies might best help to encourage a greater use of the internet for social good.

We are currently leading a large research project funded by the European Commission to explore how we can better understand the potential in DSI and support more of it to happen.

So, with that in mind, here are 10 innovative people that are driving some of the most exciting digital social innovations:

1. Tomas Diez, co-founder, Smart Citizen kit @tomasdiez
Tomas Diez is the co-founder of the Smart Citizen Kit project – an initiative that empowers citizens to improve urban life through capturing and analysing real-time environmental data. The Smart Citizen Kit is based on two components: the “kit” itself and the platform used to share data between people operating a kit. It is built on the open hardware product Arduino, and equipped with sensors that can measure air quality, temperature, sound and humidity. Via the platform anyone who owns a kit can share and visualise their data.

2. Massimo Banzi, co-founder, Arduino @mbanzi
Massimo Banzi developed the Arduino, a simple, cheap circuit board with a microprocessor in 2005 to enable more people to build electronic contraptions. It has been described as “LEGO for electronics” because it is easy to use and can be a “building block” on which to make services and applications, which has helped social innovators develop low-cost tech solutions. More than 300,000 Arduino units have been sold worldwide to date.

3. Chris Lintott, director, Zooniverse @chrislintott
Chris Lintott is founder of Zooniverse, a website that hosts online citizen science projects involving the public in crowdsourcing academic research. Often over-burdened academic departments don’t have the time or the resources to process large datasets and some of the most important available information is in forms that computers still can’t process. Zooniverse asks people (via large online communities) to devote their free time to projects such as analysing formations of galaxies and studying cancer cells. In the latter, Zooniverse got people analysing more than 2 million cancer images.

4. Sean Bonner, co-founder, Safecast @seanbonner
Safecast – a project that enables citizens to capture and share measurement on radiation levels – was founded by Sean Bonner, Joi Ito and Pieter Franken in March 2011 as a response to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Using open hardware the team built low-cost Geiger counters that were used to create large open datasets on radiation levels. All data is plotted on a map that visualises radiation levels in a given geographical area. To date, Safecast has captured more than 15 million data points.

5. Robert Bjarnason, co-founder, Your Priorities @CitizensFNDN
In 2008 Robert Bjarnason and Gunnar Grimsson developed Your Priorities, a platform that enables groups of people to debate and prioritise policy ideas, budget decisions and micro-issues affecting their neighbourhood. The best ideas, with the most support, are elevated to the top and actioned on. In Reykjavik, Iceland, up to 40% of citizens use the platform and the city council has committed itself to discussing and implementing the most popular ideas on monthly basis.

6. Bas van Abel, founder, Fairphone @basvanabel
Fairphone was founded by Bas van Abel in 2010. It started as a campaign against the conditions endured by people working in parts of the global electronics supply chain, including those in the mineral mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the assembly lines in China. Fairphone is a smartphone with a low environmental impact, using minerals from independent miners and manufacturers who guarantee basic standards to their employees. To ensure transparency Fairphone works with NGOs and its 50,000 Facebook followers on monitoring its supply chain. On 13 November 2013 Fairphone sold the first batch of 25,000 smartphones.

7. Olivier Schulbaum, co-founder, Goteo @goteofunding
In 2011 Olivier Schulbaum and Enric Senabre founded – a network for crowdfunding and collaboration in Spain. Their idea was to help finance and support independent creative and innovative initiatives that contribute to the common good. In similar style to Kickstarter, Goteo helps facilitate the crowdfunding of projects. However, Goteo will only launch projects that contribute to free knowledge and the open source community. As a result, Goteo projects must use free and open licences, making them transferable and reusable by other people. As well as finance, projects can also source non-financial support from backers. Nodo Móvil, a mobile wifi connection unit for social movements, sourced developer support, a hacklab space for working, a 3D printer, and an offer to collaborate with local authorities on testing.

8. Juliana Rotich, co-founder, Ushahidi @afromusing
“Ushahidi”, which means “testimony” in Swahili, was founded by David Kobia, Juliana Rotich, Ory Okolloh and Erik Hersman, to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout in 2008. Since then Ushahidi has developed software that allows people to crowdsource and map crisis information from mobile phones or the internet. Applications built on the platform range from monitoring elections in India, to monitoring medical supply chains and co-ordinating disaster responses. After a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, the Ushahidi platform was used to report more than 40,000 incidents on locations of collapsed structures, damaged schools and fires.

9. Ramon Roca, founder, @guifinet was founded in 2000 as a response to the lack of broadband internet in rural Catalonia, where commercial internet providers weren’t providing a connection. The idea, developed by Ramon Roca and his co-founders, was a “mesh network” where each person in the network used a small radio transmitter that functions like a wireless router to become a node in the Guifi net. Only one node needs to be connected to the internet and from it the connection is shared wirelessly with all others in its vicinity, who again share the connection wirelessly with those closest to them. With its more than 23,000 nodes, Guifi has been described as the largest mesh network in the world. The majority of Guifi activity is in Spain, but the network reaches as far as Argentina, China, India and the US.

10. Chris Taggart, founder, OpenCorporates @CountCulture
OpenCorporates was founded in 2010 by Chris Taggart and Rob McKinnon to make information about companies and the corporate world more transparent and accessible. OpenCorporates does this by opening up data about corporations.The data is turned in to searchable maps and visualisations of complex corporate structures, often illustrating the layers of control across global organisations (in some cases showing thousands of subsidiaries). One analysis of the complex corporate structure of Goldman Sachs based on data from the US, New Zealand, the Cayman Islands, Luxembourg and the UK, identified 1,475 subsidiaries registered in the US and 739 in the Caymans alone. OpenCorporates has grown to become the largest open database of companies in the world, with data on 60m companies.

Jon Kingsbury is director, creative economy programmes, at Nesta and Peter Baeck is principal researcher at Nesta

• This article was amended on 28 February 2014 to correct the founder information listed under Ushahidi