June 6th, 2011
12:00 PM ET

A message to Millennials: Innovate to save lives

Editor's Note: Josh Nesbit is CEO of Medic Mobile, which uses existing communication technologies to improve medical care. The "Global Innovation Showcase" is a special feature created by the New America Foundation, a non-partisan, future-oriented think tank based in Washington DC, and the Global Public Square.

By Josh Nesbit – Special to CNN

I understand that you can get rich off iPhone applications. Projected revenue for Apple’s App Store in 2011 is $2.91 billion, and 70% goes to app developers.

I know we’re overwhelmed by stories of big money in tech startups (see Facebook’s $50 billion valuation and the box office success of The Social Network).

That said, I’d like to deliver a message to Millennials – you can innovate with a different purpose. There are new and exciting platforms for social impact.

More than 5 billion people now own mobile phones.

50% of people on the African continent use mobile devices, and they will soon be ubiquitous.

90% of the world’s population is covered by a mobile signal.

This technology is spreading faster than anything we’ve ever seen.

This past Sunday marked the 30th year in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Millennials won’t remember the first diagnosis, but we do know the stakes have escalated. Our moral circle has expanded, and we are taking action locally and globally. Ever-expanding tech infrastructure provides opportunities to tackle seemingly intractable problems.

In 2007, I met community health workers in rural Malawi who were walking 45 miles every week to hand-deliver updates on HIV-positive patients in their remote villages. We bridged that gap with text messaging, using 100 cell phones and open source software.

In six months, the number of patients treated for tuberculosis doubled, emergency care was provided for the first time, and the health workers saved thousands of hours of travel time.

The success of that pilot launched a nonprofit mobile technology company, Medic Mobile. Today 3,000 health workers across 12 countries use our tools to improve healthcare for 500,000 people.

We often use SMS, or text messaging, because it is the lowest common denominator and it reaches the last mile. This week, we’re announcing the first SIM card application for healthcare, which will run on 80% of the world’s phones - from $15 handsets to Android smartphones to tablets.

Knowing that over 1 billion people never see a healthcare worker, we’re building applications to support patients, health workers, doctors and public health officials using technology that’s quickly finding its way into everyone’s hands.

The first SIM app, Kuvela (which means “to listen” in Chichewa), will let community health workers track vital drug stocks and provide real-time reports on disease.

If you’re looking for whiz-bang tech to get you excited about social impact, examples abound.

Dr. Aydogan Ozcan and his team of graduate students at UCLA have built a $20 camera phone add-on that uses a new imaging technique to auto-diagnose malaria, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases using MMS (multimedia messaging).

Rob Munro, a computational linguist at Stanford University, is harnessing artificial intelligence and natural language processing to classify symptoms reported by health workers and patients for disease surveillance.

Check Out: More from the "Global Innovation Showcase" created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

These are some of the smartest people on earth, and they’ve chosen to innovate for the public good.

Justin Timberlake, playing Sean Parker in The Social Network, scoffed at a million dollars and set the revenue bar at a billion dollars. I’m looking forward to the next blockbuster movie about our generation, where the most memorable line will be, “You know what’s cool? Improving the lives of a billion people."

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Topics: Africa • Development • Ideas • Innovation • Technology

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Would somebody invent a flying suit , which can be worn for short distances? It can help reduce the dependence on automobile and traffic jams in the cities.

    June 6, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Reply
    • John Denver's ghost

      If you really want to spur innovation, you should lobby the government to protect our intellectual property better.

      June 8, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  2. Paul Mikos

    Great article. Thank you for posting it. I read some research in the book The Millennials by Thom Rainer and Jess Rainer that fall right in line with what you are saying: 96% of Millennials believe they will do something great. 76% are highly motivated to serve society. The ebook is free right now for Kindle, Nook, and iBooks.

    June 6, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Reply
    • JJ

      96% of millenials feel they will do something great...Wow, all you millenials have such egos. I know that I am a bitter Gen-X'er but at least I know how to work by myself, don't expect to be spoon fed, or get prizes for everything I do and I certainly realize that I will NEVER do anything great to be FAMOUS. Get over yourselves millenials.

      June 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Reply
      • James A

        You conveniently left out the second statistic which is an important qualifier for the first.

        June 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Josh Nesbit

      Many thanks for the reply, Paul - I'll be sure to check out Thom's book. I often refer to this generation as a relentless, positive current; I hope we'll look back on the next ten years as a positive inflection point, down the line.

      I think JJ's commentary on our motivations are very backwards. In my experience, Millennials are optimistic realists, utilitarian, diverse, and biased towards collaboration.

      June 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Reply
      • Josh Nesbit

        *comments on our motivations

        June 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
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    June 7, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  4. moladi

    The poor do not have cellphones nor do they have access to networks – This I venture to say will end up like the dot com or rather the dot App. – So many titles would be used to promote income – is it truly to save lives? Maslow's did not mention "mobile phones' as BOP?

    June 14, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Reply
    • E S

      Wrong. There are 6 billion cell phone subscribers world wide. In Vietnam (a "poorer" country), there are 1.15 cell phone subs/person.

      September 25, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Reply
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