In almost all of India, you can go into any village and find cell phone towers. In Juanga, a village of less than 3,000 lives off rice, lentils, and scarce supplies of water, but lives comfortably with their cell phone. Due to the size of the village, running family businesses and keeping strong family ties are two important reasons why the cell phone appears to be more important than a ubiquitous supply of healthcare centers and provisional stores. The multitude of these towers is also being used by mPowering to help empower smaller villagers to reach their living potential.
Based in San Francisco, mPowering is using the low cost of GSM connectivity, falling rates of mobile subscriptions and of phones in India to create solutions to help reduce the poverty in India. The San Francisco non-profit organization has partnered with Citta, a charity working in one of the poorest states in India—Orissa. Citta built a hospital in Juanga first in 1996 and a school in 2001. The hospital serves a community of 100,000 people within a certain radius, and the school has increased the size to around 400.
When mPowering came into the equation in 2010, they handed 56 Juanga families a smartphone custom built for a proper cultural experience. Included in the device as well were location-based analytics and all the apps were based on the concept of rewards and incentives.
Each family received one phone and was to be shared among the family members. Children earn points for attending school and mothers for attending healthcare clinics to practice better nutrition and hygiene. Incorporating teamwork, families share the points and redeem them for provisions—food, clothing, and medicine. To record points, teachers and clinicians scan barcodes off of the smartphone. Although these were the first interactions with a smartphone, the villagers did not have a hard time learning the gamified environment. It is important to note that mPowering’s use of cultural modifications to the apps were crucial to creating smooth, easy-to-learn experiences for the villagers.
Jeff Martin, the founder of mPowering, is also the CEO of Tribal Brands and of Tribal Technologies. As a former senior executive at Apple, Jeff used to travel to India for business. Jeff now utilizes his extensive experience and resources to support the vision of mPowering—to defeat poverty in India with already existing infrastructure—the great sea of cell towers in India. The non-profit chose to start their services in Orissa. By improving lives in a state where the poorest of the poor live, it will give hope and reason to believe that poverty can be defeated at a national scale.
Jeff’s series of future plans starts with tracking the artwork of children. By mapping their artwork to optimism scores, mPowering is seeing great improvements in children’s eating habits, grades, and positivity. He also plans to give out Lifestraws (portable water filters) and extra methods to redeem other necessary provisions. He believes that mobile analytics is the key to helping charities because it brings forward low-cost solutions and measurement to life-changing services. Charities with the ability to obtain real-time feedback on their efforts will also boost the positivity of the charity workers. Mobile analytics provides a two-way communication between charities and villagers, and mPowering hopes to continue tackling poverty using this strategy.
To say the least, mPowering does have significant measurable impact. The number of reported diseases reduced by about 50% and there was an increase in clinic visits. There was also an increase in school attendance rates. Michael Daube, founder and executive director of Citta said, “This year every student in the middle school passed the state level exams we were very excited to say the least.” mPowering is a key example of how rewards and incentives structured properly can help tackle healthcare, education, and poverty. This is a win beyond epic measures, and we hope this helps paves the way for more “gamification-for-good” initiatives.