Curing Tech Malaise with Apps that Embrace True Problem-Solving
Apple and Google and Facebook and Microsoft and Amazon.
These are the big five in consumer tech, and the most commonly used apps on your phone are probably made by some or all of them. Nobody is going to knock them out of their ivory towers. If you read any tech blog, you’ll almost certainly find no fewer than three articles from the last week about each of these five companies.
I’m a product manager by day, so I spend a lot of time analyzing and collecting feedback on products and how they solve real user problems. Part of my job also involves being aware of software that’s solving similar or other problems. I make a point of reading about what the big five are working on, and about software from relative newcomers, on sites like Product Hunt.
It gets old to read about a new photo sharing app every week.
But this is starting lose its luster for me. As I recently wrote on my own blog, I’m becoming less and less impressed with how much true problem solving is being done. It gets old to read about a new photo sharing app every week—why not try to address growing wealth inequality, or the terribly slow pace of government action? Or even the racket that is the wedding industry (a problem currently near and dear to my heart)?
If you feel jaded by this stuff too, it’s valid—but I don’t blame anybody in particular. Tech products, and the people who make them, have just as much of a tendency to follow trends as any other sector of popular culture. Social products, smart on-demand services and lists of resources are hot right now, so all the makers are trying to make those things. (Oh god, what if someone builds a social network for on-demand delivery workers?)
Beyond all the throwaway social networks and overpriced delivery apps, there are people building truly interesting, difference-making things for the world. Charitable organizations, activist groups, startups and even individual developers are using the same [cutting-edge/overhyped] technology, design and business models you read about on tech blogs to try to solve tough social and economic problems. You know those things called “hackathons” that are portrayed as high-energy bro-outs? (Thanks, The Social Network…) These people are actually using those to address social issues.
Here are just a few products that are solving real problems in critical spaces:
Interested in donating to charity? Compute for Humanity uses your computer to mine cryptocurrencies, then automatically donate the output to charities. I recently installed this on my own Mac and was pleasantly surprised that it required absolutely nothing of the machine or my time, and yet in a few hours I had generated a couple bucks. I’ve generated $22.64 so far, again, for doing literally nothing.
Why is this remarkable? Cryptocurrencies! No work for the end-user! But also, real money going to real, unsketchy charitable organizations like Pencils of Promise and GlobalGiving.
Want to help people with disabilities? Be My Eyes is an app that lets you help out a blind person from anywhere. Remember this thing? It got a fair share of journalistic praise a year ago but naturally fell out of the limelight. It’s worth reminding ourselves, however, that this is an app that literally helps blind people see. That in itself is an amazing feat we shouldn’t forget about.
Why is this remarkable? (Sort of) social networking! Unconventional use of the iPhone camera! But also, it helps blind folks.
Want to be more socially conscious? Archives + Absences is an app that notifies you anytime the police kill a minority in the US. This is based on real data from The Guardian. If you’re concerned about police brutality and discrimination, this app can provide some much needed context.
Why is this remarkable? The most minimal design ever! Push notifications! But also, it keeps you aware of the actual loss of life at the core of a galvanizing social topic.
Know somebody with substance abuse issues and want to try and help? Addicaid is an app that aims to make drug and alcohol recovery a little more comfortable. You can find recovery groups nearby, get tips, maintain a plan, and evaluate your progress toward recovery, all while staying completely anonymous, if desired.
Why is this remarkable? Material design! But also, it helps people with real, crippling problems get a little closer to solving them.
Interested in improving America’s legal system? Ravel, Everlaw, Judicata and others aim to make the practice of law, and lawyers, more affordable. The first two are building tools to help law firms streamline their operations, and the third tries to capture the “law genome” to simplify complex legal decisions for lawyers and everyday people. As Judicata says, “Legal research isn’t just about finding needles; it’s about understanding the haystack too.”
Why is this remarkable? Big data! But also, lawyers are really expensive and law firms are incredibly inefficient right now.
Generally interested in social issues and understanding their impact? SumAll.org is a tech non-profit hellbent on “empowering change makers to maximize their social impact through data.” They build amazing, sometimes-interactive studies on key humanitarian issues including human trafficking, homelessness and the Syrian refugee crisis. Its founder, Dane Atkinson, wants tech to make a tangible impact for social good, and formed the foundation out of a portion of his social marketing tech company, SumAll (including its technology).
Why is this remarkable? Data science! But also, the topics they’re covering are, like, really bad things.
Products and businesses, when done right, are about solving problems, not chasing ideas. It’s worth reminding ourselves that in the midst of product/maker overload, that there are millions of people making great, incredibly important products, and they’re even publicizing them—they’re just a little bit harder to find.
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