Monday, September 15, 2014

Tech hubs: Silicon Valley vs. Phnom Penh

This is everything that is wrong with Silicon Valley: Alfred won the TechCrunch Disrupt competition. To be fair, I have no idea if the TechCrunch Disrupt competition is or is not important. I hadn't heard of it until the HBO show Silicon Valley made fun of it. But in any case I feel this represents everything that bothers me about the Silicon Valley start-up culture (which can be extended to the Cambridge, MA start-up culture).

Alfred is a butler/maid/personal servant service that organizes all your other service apps (dry cleaning, grocery delivery, house cleaning, etc). I guess the name Alfred is supposed to remind you of Batman's butler. Because you're basically Batman? Apparently it's really great to have your own personal servant whose real name you don't need to know because you just call him your Alfred. Slate much more eloquently discusses why Alfred winning a tech competition is terrible in this article.

And Alfred is not a unique start-up by any means. So many of these start-ups are solving what I like to call "non-problems." They just seem self-serving; their services are targeted at other people of the same privileged socioeconomic status. For example, I once met a woman working on a start-up that would deliver food from restaurants to offices of other start-ups. I'm still not sure why these other start-ups couldn't use one of the existing food delivery services (e.g. GrubHub, Seamless, etc) or--GASP!--call the restaurants themselves. Food delivery to offices is not a real problem. 

What bothers me most is that some of the most brilliant people work at these start-ups. Graduates of Stanford, MIT, Harvard. Do we really want the brightest minds--or at least the most privileged ones--working on non-problems? Shouldn't those of us who were fortunate enough to receive the best education on the planet be working on making this planet a better place?

Last week I attended the Innovations in Development Technology expo in Phnom Penh. I was really inspired by the great work young Cambodian engineers are doing. They are creating apps, much like their software developing brethren in Silicon Valley, but their apps solve real problems--and many of them don't even require a smartphone. Here are just a few examples of interesting projects I learned about:

  • For those of you who don't know, one of Cambodia's primary industries is clothing. That's right, your shirt was probably manufactured down the street from me. You may or may not be aware that over the past year there have been many intense protests by garment workers to raise their wages and improve their situation. A group in Phnom Penh has been working on a two-pronged solution: (1) a smartphone app for factory owners that tells them all the laws regulating the garment industry and the rights of their employees and (2) a missed-call voice system (missed calls are free, and the number will immediately call back the caller--an affordable solution for poor garment workers) that tells garment workers their rights and how to seek help. The garment workers can even make anonymous complaints about their employers, and the system will report the factory owner to the proper authorities.
  • To reduce violence against women, a game to teach men how to properly treat women and why abuse is wrong. (And I think it's fantastic that they are focusing on educating men to tackle the domestic violence problem--that's way too rare.)
  • Logging is a huge problem in Cambodia. Only 1% of Cambodia's forests remain! Much of the logging activity is (often unofficially) government-sanctioned, but some of it is illegal. One organization uses a hidden motion-activated camera that takes pictures of illegal loggers and poachers then immediately sends out a signal with the photo and GPS coordinates to the authorities to catch the criminals and stop the activity. (An animal can of course trigger the camera, but the authorities will check the photo first.) They also use drones to monitor the forest. The remaining forests are in areas belonging to indigenous hill tribes, and the organization that developed this system works closely with the local communities to run this program.
  • Apparently it's a big problem that government ministries only briefly post data before taking it down. In order to improve transparency, Open Development Cambodia grabs the data, maps it using GIS, and makes it publicly available. They also get data from various NGOs and companies. You can see their maps here. In my opinion, their most interesting (and perhaps most useful) map is of economic land concessions.
  • A variety of education tools for both teachers and students at all levels
  • An app to report bribery (much like India's "I Paid a Bribe"). While it's unlikely there will be any punishment for those who demanded bribes, what's interesting is that Bribespot maps each bribe, so at least citizens know where the bribes are happening.
  • Mobile banking to increase access to financial services in places where there might not be a physical bank (and to ease transactions where there are), to more easily transfer money between accounts (e.g. for migrant workers sending money home), and to facilitate microfinance loans
[Also, side note, I ran into a group of 10-year-old Cambodian kids who had 3-D printed their own pencil holder. They are ten years old and know how to CAD!! (I was 24 when I learned how to CAD.) They also had business cards, which was ridiculously adorable. I was very impressed.]

I understand that people want to make money, and making an app to help garment workers in Cambodia may not be a way to do that. Fine. But there are a lot of ideas that can help society and make you rich, too. For instance, Google revolutionized access to information, and those guys got super rich. Also, business at the "Bottom of the Pyramid" is the hottest thing in international development right now. My organization is starting up a for-profit venture to sell water and sanitation products--improving people's health while (hopefully) turning a profit.

There are still plenty of real (and potentially money-making) problems to be solved, in both developing and developed countries. Shouldn't we all be working on solving these real problems?

Tech geeks of Phnom Penh, you win this round. Silicon Valley, time to step up your game.