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Voices Social innovation

Calling the next billion…

Nathan EagleJana

Nathan Eagle is the CEO of Jana, a mobile marketing and research firm focused on the developing world. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at Harvard University, a visiting assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, and a research assistant professor at Northeastern University. His research involves engineering computational tools, designed to explore how the petabytes of data generated about human movements, financial transactions, and communication patterns can be used for social good.

Between 2006 and 2007, I found myself living in the small Kenyan village of Kilifi. Kilifi is located on one of Kenya’s major thoroughfares, connecting the cities of Mombasa and Malindi, and as a result is the frequent site of serious traffic accidents. The Kilifi local district hospital provided emergency support to the victims of these accidents, which would regularly deplete blood supplies at the relatively small hospital. Messages would periodically circulate around the hospital asking for volunteer donors of a specific blood type, and hospital workers became emergency blood donors far more often than is preferable. This situation was at least partially due to the lack of direct communication between Kenya’s rural hospitals and the country’s central blood banks.

In an attempt to alleviate the blood-shortage problem, my colleagues and I developed a text-message-based system that allowed rural nurses to text in the blood levels at their local hospitals, providing officials at the central blood bank with near real-time information about supplies. It seemed like the perfect fix.

Unfortunately, the system failed. Sending a text message every day is expensive, and nurses, though enthusiastic about the project, simply were unwilling to pay out of their own pockets to send these daily updates. Recognizing that the core issue was compensation, we modified the system to send a small amount of free airtime (about ten cents’ worth—enough to cover the cost of the text message plus about a penny extra as a “thank-you”) to the nurses in exchange for their daily text-message updates. Suddenly, a switch flipped and the nurses began to reengage with the system. For the opportunity to earn one cent of airtime each day, the Kenyan nurses changed their behavior and ultimately the system became a success.

So what did it take to fix the problem of fluctuating blood supplies in rural Kenya? First, we had to understand the source of the problem: poor communication with the central blood bank. Then, of course, we had to develop the necessary technology to solve it. But most important, we had to understand what motivated the nurses and what held them back from participating.

I believe that the insight we gained and the technology platform that flowed from it can be used to address a wide variety of issues, both in the social and private sectors. In fact, I know so. My colleagues and I have integrated the airtime rewards platform that we originally developed for the Kenyan nurses into the backend billing systems of 232 mobile operators across almost 100 emerging markets. Today, we are providing free mobile airtime in exchange for completing surveys or trying out new products. By taking advertising dollars out of the pockets of radio stations and billboard owners and giving it directly to local consumers in these underserved, understudied communities, we are not just responding to consumers’ growing purchasing power but helping to perpetuate it. With revenues in more than 50 countries, our mobile marketing company, Jana, has demonstrated that innovation developed for a social purpose can profoundly impact the for-profit economy.

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