Apps Have Got Your Back

Who needs governments? The ongoing trend toward mobile, social and crowdsourcing apps have led to a wealth of new community-based resources that support or supplant traditional civic and government services. Think Kickstarter instead of the NEA or Canada Council. Or consider the new Circle of 6 app, which is intended to help prevent violence before it happens, by letting users reach out to friends when dicey situations arise, instead of calling 911 after they get out of hand.

Circle of 6 is the brainchild of health educator Deb Levine and anti-violence activist Nancy Schwartzman, who have found that it’s often easier for people to reach out for help via a screen, and that it’s important for groups of friends to offer concrete strategies for supporting each other. It’s already won the White House’s Apps Against Abuse challenge, and racked up tens of thousands of iPhone downloads. “We are working to get the app in the hands of Android users as soon as possible,” says lead developer Christine Corbett Moran (an astrophysicist with a double-major Physics/CS degree from MIT, who develops apps in her copious spare time.)

Apps like Circle of 6 are the thin edge of a really interesting wedge. In the rich world, apps that obviate or replace the need to call in the authorities are merely useful; but in the developing world, where competent authorities are much poorer and more thinly stretched, such services are far more disruptive. Community-sourcing apps won’t replace government services that already exist, at least not anytime soon. But where those don’t exist at all, these new services can be downright revolutionary.

Some concrete examples: I Paid A Bribe (which I’ve written about before) helps Indian communities fight the scourge of corruption. Ushahidi maps crises where governments are too poor or paralyzed to do so themselves. A few years ago I helped build the EpiCollect app for Imperial College London, which anyone can use to collect, store, and map their own data; veterinarians used it to track the spread of diseases in East Africa. Ulwazi collects “community memories” — ie cultural knowledge — in South Africa. Esoko helps African agribusiness entrepeneurs share and gather data that is tracked by government statisticians in the First World, but not necessarily by theirs.

As smartphones continue their relentless conquest of the planet — in particular, as the price of a decent Android phone drops below $100, and more than 50% of the poor world has access to one, a mark that I expect will be passed in the next few years — these kinds of community-sourcing apps will grow ever more important. In the same way that the developing world bypassed wired phones and jumped straight into mobile, they may bypass certain forms of top-down hierarchical government services in favor of crowdsourced resources and resilient communities. (More on that last concept in my forthcoming interview with John Robb.) That’s going to have some very interesting ramifications … and I predict that some startups that target this shift ahead of the curve will ultimately make a killing.

Image: Circle of 6 app