Web4Dev conference kicks with an eye on the future of innovation
By Amy Bennett
NEW YORK, USA, 11 February 2009 – With plenty of bells and whistles, and not a few mobile phone alerts and Twitter chirps, the fifth annual ‘Web4Dev’ conference kicked off at UNICEF House today.
Technology experts, academics, UN agency officials and innovators from the development and private sectors are joining forces at the conference to explore concrete ways of deploying new and existing mobile and online technologies to address poverty and disease in the poorest areas of the world.
The three-day conference, ‘Web4Dev: Innovation for Access’, is being hosted for the first time by UNICEF this year.
At the service of humanity
UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman opened the meeting by urging participants to work together toward creative new solutions to age-old problems, such as lack of access to health and nutrition services in many poor and isolated communities.
Veneman asked all those involved in Web4Dev – who not only took part in the meeting in New York but also participated virtually via online feeds – to put innovation and technology at the service of humanity.
By way of example, Veneman discussed a joint UNICEF-Columbia University initiative in Malawi, where health workers are using SMS text messages to send information on malnutrition instantaneously from remote communities. By doing so, she said, they can help ensure that life-saving supplies arrive in time – and in the quantity needed – to help prevent needless suffering and deaths.
Veneman also cited the example of Dr. Sugata Mitra, whose ‘Hole in the Wall experiment’ placed a computer in a wall kiosk in the impoverished Kalkaji district of Delhi, India. Children were allowed to use the computer freely, and their success showed that they could master technology even without formal training. As Veneman explained, the project was the inspiration for the novel and award-winning film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.
‘Pathway to change’
“We are at a transformational point,” former Sun Microsystems Vice President John Gage – now Team Member at the Silicon Valley firm of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers – told the Web4Dev audience. He described, for instance, how fuel cells can create electricity from bacteria, essentially turning garbage into an energy source.
“If you can make beer, you can make bio,” he said.
Discussions on these innovations and many other examples of similarly successful projects will continue at the conference through Friday – in addition to talks on the ways individuals and organisations can, and must, take advantage of new technology to help the world’s most vulnerable children and families.
“The only pathway to change is through dissemination of knowledge,” said Gage.