What we’re trying to do is to democratize app development.
While researching our latest report, “13 Mobile Trends for 2013 and Beyond,” we spoke with Iris Lapinski of U.K.-based CDI Apps for Good, a nonprofit focused on teaching teenagers to create apps that solve problems they care about and can help to change their world. Founded in 2009, Apps for Good has grown to 100 schools and 5,000-plus 11-18 year-olds across the U.K. In 2012, the Observer and nonprofit innovation charity Nesta named Lapinski one of Britain’s “50 New Radicals” for her work with Apps for Good. She discussed how mobile apps can be a force for social change, Gen Z’s attitude toward mobile technology and why apps and tech are “the new rock & roll.”
Can you explain a little more about Apps for Good?
What we’re trying to do is to democratize app development. We think that real innovation always comes from the fringes of society, it doesn’t come from the people in the middle. So if you only ask white male 35-year-old developers what apps they can come up with, they come up with problems they encounter in their own lives. If you ask 14-year-old Muslim girls, because they have a different perspective on life and different experiences, they will come up with different ideas for apps. That was our working hypothesis when we started, and then the first course we did resulted in one of the three apps for Stop and Search, which is for young people who are being stopped and searched by the police [to understand their rights].
For us, “social good” is problem solving. We take a really broad definition of what is “for good.” It has to be legal, it can’t be purely entertaining or purely commercial, but it can be a game that solves a problem, it can be a commercial app that addresses a problem.
How can mobile apps foster social good?
I went out and explained to people in 2009, you can use apps not for trivial farting apps or commercial things or mapping or whatever it is, but you can actually use mobile technology as a way to flip who has power, how people give feedback to the local authority. You can take it from a different perspective and create something genuinely interesting.
If you look at new technology and adoption in the social sector, there’s a delay, whether it’s the social media, whether it’s the computing. It also has to do with pricing. When new technologies and products launch, they’re expensive. But as costs drop, people start to say, “Well, this would actually be really useful for us, and we could do X, Y, and Z.”
What are some of the inspiring or innovative ways that nonprofits are using mobile apps?
I think apps can transform social relationships. When we run courses, for me, the interesting apps that come out of that are things that really play to the strength of [the mobile device] to address something that goes beyond what you could have addressed before with different technologies.
One example, an app we never built but we did direct the prototyping session, was an app for chronically ill people. The problem was described by one of the community workers we were doing it with who said, “My mom leaves the house, [then] she gives me a call 10 minutes later and says, ‘I’m lost. Can you pick me up?’ I roughly know where she would go at that time of day, so I walk there. But wouldn’t it be great if I can see exactly where she is? And if someone else finds her and says, ‘Do you have a problem?’ she has a screen that can show, ‘This is where I am, and this is my problem. Can you please help me or call whomever?’”
We then extended that to say, for example, if she has an asthma attack and you need to call the ambulance, one of the key things you can’t do is talk, right? You can use GPS, so you don’t need to explain to people where you are; your phone knows where you are. As long as you had, for example, an emergency button you can press and then it automatically dials and you can get help. That is when you can really tap into the full spectrum of what you can do with the technology. On top of that, you have a screen on your phone saying, “I’ve had an asthma attack. Can you please help me with the following few things?” if someone walks past and really doesn’t know what your problem is.
It’s those types of ideas, where you tap into the life experience of people. It’s really thinking through, what can extend service delivery in a way that couldn’t be done before? It’s not an add-on; it’s extending and improving what you’re already doing.
Why does Apps for Good focus on younger teenagers?
The reason why we’re in the 13-, 14-, 15-year-old age range is because we realize people make career choices and make decisions about who they want to become at that age range, which is early teens. That’s when peer groups become essential, when the influence of parents goes down and all institutions are challenged in general, so that was a perfect point for us. When we worked initially with older age groups, they said, “If I had done this when I was still in school, if I’d had exposure to this before, I would not have dropped out of school.” They said, “It would have changed my outlook on life.”
Working closely with Gen Z, what have you learned about their digital habits and preferences?
One big difference is, they don’t make the distinction between digital and offline. It’s just life for them. Whether you’re on Facebook or whether you talk to your friends, whether you use SMS or whether you use an email—which they don’t—it is just communicating. It’s just a different channel. In their mind, it’s not a different thing, it’s just a different mode of engagement.
But that doesn’t mean they know about what is inside the black box. To give an example, I had young people who thought the Internet was Facebook. Why? Because they’re only on Facebook. That’s where they access all their information. So for them, the Internet is equivalent to Facebook. They don’t know the whole technology underpinning the protocols.
Mobile has disrupted the nonprofit sector. What other sectors is it affecting?
Education and health, for example, are the two big sectors that haven’t been completely disrupted by information, and the only reason they haven’t been totally disrupted is because they’re state-regulated. If you look at the music industry, gone. If you look at publishing at the moment, gone. If you look at all sorts of any other industries, banking, totally transformed by information technology. Even now, the role of the doctor is different from what it was 30 years ago.
The same is happening around education and coding. The coding thing is too narrow at the moment, and it’s one of the things we’re pushing on. It’s easy to convince people now just because coding literacy is so low, but there is a massive gap between the demand and the supply of people who actually have decent literacy levels in coding. Once that gap is filled … coding will become commoditized.
In the past, children might have aspired to be an astronaut or a surgeon. Do you think the digital era is reorienting aspirations?
Now, apps and tech is the new rock & roll. If you look at who all the young people aspire to and who they are inspired by, rock & roll still plays a really important role, and sports will always play an important role, but you have people who fuse those things as well. If you look at Will.i.am, he’s mixing technology with music in ways that didn’t exist before.