Tag Archives: NGO

Playing for a better world

1 Mar

Foreword: a few things worth a lot of attention

This post is about an idea that came some time ago and that I’d like to share; before  getting to the point there are a few concepts I’d like to introduce. I’m writing this post mostly for myself and my friends, but I hope if it can inspire people to dig into the concepts I bring here, if they are new to them, and enjoy the very early stage of a crazy idea (yes, yes, another one).

Videogames matter! (confession of a videogames addict)

one of my pg in wowI’ve grown up with video-games since they exists. I’ve been playing a lot,  too much. Beside the fun, I’ve always tried to study them, evaluate, analyse and enjoyed a lot of discussions about them with a couple of friends, passionate as I am. World of Warcraft has been my second life for several years now, an unbelivable source for learning and the ultimate time-sink.  Videogames are, at the same time, bliss and a curse.

No matter if you are a videogame addic, if you never understood them or if  you and never played or hate them: videogames is not something that can be ignored. (I suggest reading the book Fun Inc.: Why games are the 21st Century’s most serious business by Tom Chatfield, for an introduction to the role of videogames in our present and future).

More than fun

Then something I would have never imagined started to make his way into these discussions with friends and colleagues: gaming can be used with different purposes than “fun”! About two years ago we started imagining several possibilities to engage people in real world  using “games” and game techniques. The original idea came from looking at the emerging social gaming, especially on Facebook, and analysing some of the best in leveraging the network of friends, creating a new wave of time-sinks and ultimately a lot of fun and some little good.

Since then we discovered Games for Change: a multitute of innovative and often very experimental games aimed to change the world for the better: in education, training, democracy, politics, climate change, etc. etc. We have been inspired by Jane’s talks and articles, and we’ve been studing and working to be able to bring this passion into our professional future.

Good changes can be brough to the world leveraging the little gamer that is inside each one of us… with a Purpose.

Gaming as an interface

The last important concept I need to introduce is that games can teach us a lot on how to design powerful engaging applications and tools. Learning from psycology, motivational design or BJ Foggs work on behavioural changes, the message seems always to be that what some game developers is very relevant and meaningful for application design.

The phenomenon is hyped as gamification: “Gamification is the use of game play mechanics for non-game applications, particularly consumer-oriented web and mobile sites, in order to encourage people to adopt the applications. It also strives to encourage users to engage in desired behaviors in connection with the applications” from Wikipedia.

In other words Gamification is the concept that basic elements that make games fun and engaging can be applied to things that typically aren’t considered a game, to bring real-life changes and behaviours (see also The Gamification Encyclopedia): nice examples are Foursquare, Wii Fit, Jinx and …

But, as some of my friends, working in psycology put it: gamification focuses on using gaming as an interface. The approach is definitively much more than only badges, points and achivements. All literature on the topic dates 2010 or 2011, the very term “gamification” is too recent (and ugly) to describe the concept and the approach new and not mature at all; there is too much hype about it and a lot of promeses about it that will not be fullfilled.

I’m not sure what will be the true role and evolutions of the concept but I’m firmly convinced that yes, “gaming” can be used as a paradigm to design new powerful applications. In paricular observing the latest developments in MMORPGs, gaming platforms, and “social gaming” (Zynga, etc.) there is a LOT to learn.

This very week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco gamification enthusiasts and traditional videogame designers are meeting and joyfully fighting (The Great Gamification Debate!).

“Better World” project

So here is the idea, crazy and worth pursuing: build an environment to match resources (time, ideas, money, skills, etc) needed by NGOs and resources availables in the world (from all people) in a huge games-like experience aimed to changing the world.

The idea came while working on Miomood (a startup on mood tracking&sharing): to build an application, a Facebook application or Facebook “extention” that would help engage users in quests, missions, “call to arms” and battles… in the real world. The application would make it easy for NGOs to develop it’s social mission (whatever it is) using the Social Network.

The pain it addresses: activism, social engagement, volunteering, lobbying, etc. are quite painful, hard and complex activities for most of the people: the result is that there are millions of “sleeping activists”, marginally-engaged people, lost volunteers-to-be. Becase these issues are complex, the contest is complex, true engagement expensive and time consuming.
The good news is that social engagement seems to be very important in the “personal network” of a person, as it relates to “shared values”, moreover, a lot is about “education” and “information” and gaming is excellent at both training and forming.

io senza frontiere scheenshot

Game-like Facebook application by MSF Italia

The opportunity it delivers: move huge amounts of spare-time, game-time (& cognitive surplus) into changing the world for real.
NGOs  would “create” the content in a guided, simple, clear format: the same way they manage a Facebook page they would be able to add a “Quest” or a “Mission” or an “Action”. Title, difficulty, location, requirements, goals… storyline. NGOs would need to well design their contents, their messages and stories, but will not have to develop any mechanic, user interface or web platform.

A world-changer, the user, the player would join the “call”. The identity of the “world-changer” would be his/her real identity, enriched and customized with special skills and abilities, experience, place visited, language spoken, etc. The world-changer answering the call would need the help of his/her friends very often to complete the Quest, the Mission or the action. She/he would along the way socialize with others, maybe even people of distant countries. Along the way discover new and more complex ways of interacting. And be rewarded.

Here is an overview of the main motivational drivers that should be considered the design:

1) Achievement

  • Advancement (points, badges, medals, titles, stats, experience, talents, …) example: “green points”
  • Mechanics (how to spend points, talents, get rewards, …)
  • Competition (there can be good competition too, even in social engagement) example: “world-travelling ladders”

2) Social

  • Socializing (within the personal network and beyond) example: exchanging messages with the volunteers in Haiti.
  • Relationship (everywhere is the design!)
  • Teamwork (everywhere is the design!)

3) Immertion

  • Discovery (new people, new problems, new landscapes, both local or very distant)
  • Role-Playing (world-changer would be taken into being THE BEST possible themselves, right?)
  • Customization (background, avatar, objects carried, t-shirts weared, photo uploaded, …)
  • Escapism (very different from a MMORPG, not sure how it fits, right now)

I’m sure someone have more than enough imagination to “see” how such a project could look like.

It is worth noting that Facebook is already evolving to support some of these needs, expanding our “online self”. Moreover such platform is not only about game mechanics, badges or points, but an evolving system to allow the design of rewarding and joyful experiences when acting in changing the world!

Key design challenges: simplicity, cleanness, avoid transforming serious things in a game (but “play” for real changes!), avoid retoric, avoid frustration when approaching real-world problems as complex as hunger, poverty, etc. and reach the MAXIMUM number of people (get the “marginal” engagement of millions).
A lesson we have all to learn again from WOW: it has brought to a MMORPG millions of people that where not even gamers before! Now popular games such Zynga products and loads of online and social games are expanding this territory. I feel it is the right time to expand into more massive “serious” gaming.

One particular reason HTML5 matters

21 Jan

I’ve always been a loyal fan of standards and openness, but there is one particular reason HTML5 matters  to me: it promises to be extremely valuable for the development of powerful ICT4Dev tools.

It is true in general that HTML5 is there to move forward the extent and widespread of web (someone would say “cloud”), but why such a technical thing as web standard is meaningful for software aimed to serve international development and human rights?

The Web have already begun to have a mayor impact on development and crisis response, I will not dare trying to discuss that in a blog post, but for those not familiar with these issues, here are three projects you absolutely have to look at:

Ushahidi – a platform that allows collecting incidents reports by everyone in an emergency or crisis, and mapping the reports visually on maps to allow quick analysis and faster response. It has been successfully used in very large scale emergencies including Haiti. (http://www.ushahidi.com)

Kiva – a website that “connects people, through lending”; a wonderful story on how the web can be used to develop microcredit, and at the same time connect people from different countries or conditions. With minimal investments in technology or marketing, Kiva has  facilitated so far more than 150 millions in loans (http://www.kiva.org).

Refugees United -a website and mobile application aimed to directly help refugees reconnect with missing loved ones. A rather simple idea, not easy to implement, but with the potential of having a mayor role in rebuilding refugees families worldwide (http://www.refunite.org)

Those are only some of the most visible initiatives and organizations that are bringing an incredible change in this world, not to speak of the impact that the “social web” is bringing to international development (and btw: I love Twitter).

Indeed the developing world has some extra needs in terms of technology: here is three elements that we should always consider. Reuse: the developing world benefits a lot from open source and technologies that can be freely reused. Mobile: mobile technology is key in the innovation in many countries. Connectivity: internet access, through a PC or mobile phone can be limited, in bandwidth, depending on the location, and variable in time.

Reminder: what is HTML5 about?

the html5 logo

HTML5 is the umbrella name  for the “Next Open Web Platform“. The HTML5 brand includes the new upcoming standard for HTML itself, but also CSS3, Web Storage, SVG1.1, Geolocation, Web Sockets, Web Workers and many more standards; the aim of these new standards altogether is to enhance the web language (HTML), integrate second generation languages (SVG, Video, etc.) and making the web a lot more “reactive” (more about HTML5: http://www.w3.org/html/)

HTML5 promises to allow simple development of rich web applications: dynamic forms, video embedding, geolocation, offline, and much more; even video games can be developed in HTML5.  Some of the most astounding HTML5 apps so far have been collected in the HTML5ADVENT  URE CALENDAR2010 (check it out, if you haven’t already!).

Why HTML5 matters for ICT4Dev?

While working with HTML5 and studying it, it became more and more evident to me how the characteristics of the new platform are very relevant for the context of the developing countries. The new standards:

Allow the development of new generation cross-platform applications

A new generation of applications can flourish and they can be cross-platform, thus running freely on the most different devices, independently from the manufacturer and on low-cost hardware. Adaptation and maintenance costs reduced.

Allow the development of mobile applications

While projects show how, in both rural areas and in emergency relief that texting/SMS can be very powerful (see FrontlineSMS for example), the battle for mobile applications started. On one side the native applications for iPhone, iPad, Android, RIM, etc. on the other side the efforts of W3C and others to bring web development to mobile devices (see Mobile Web For Social Development (MW4D) and Open Mobile Consortuim).  HTML5 has the most challenging role: the faster and better it develops on mobile browsers the highest the possibilities for developers to adopt it.

Allows reusing the incredible number of open source products, libraries and web frameworks

HTML5 could be used to enhance and reuse the incredible variety and abundance of good open source products and libraries; there is an incredible potential in the combination of web, open source, and mobile in ICT4Dev. Again, the most successful HTML5 and web-based development the more the possibilities of this ecosystem.

Allows to deal with the conditions of limited or unstable connectivity

person with mobile phone in Africa

Image (c) textually.org

The single feature of HTML5 I’m more enthusiastic about is the offine and storage or, as the W3C puts it: “HTML5 apps can start faster, and work even if there is no internet connection (thanks to the App Cache, Local Storage, Indexed DB, and the File APIs.)“. Offline and storage will allow the deployment a new breed of web applications, that simply could not exist, because of the need of an active internet connection. We can think of countless great web applications that would be improved to be used in places where connectivity is limited, bandwidth an issue and hardware resources scarce.  We can think also of collaborative tools can run also offline, on any device and without any installation, and repositories of knowledge that can be easily carried in a USB key or external hard-disk, or almost-real-time (TM) gathering of information from different devices, geotagged, and still working when connectivity is not stable.

And it’s an open standard!

That too counts: open and not controlled by any single organization means a lot more freedom of action, competition, and better allows the development of solutions outside the interests of big market players. HTML5 is a vital part of that trend for openness: open source, open standards, open data and open protocols, that is acclaimed by all and threatened by many, at the same time.

The project I’m working on

More than a year ago I started working on an apparently very complex project whose user requirements were: we need a tool that is easily managed by non technical staff, works online and offline, is cross-platform, optimized for different devices, including mobile, is lightweight in data storage and in data replication, and open source, or at lest no licence-based. So far so good… but it also should run from a USB key or other portable device and no installation should be required. Commenting and feedback would be a nice to have (I’m glad there was at least a nice-to-have ).

hey, wait, this is either impossible or insane!

After long mumbling and head-scratching it is my colleague Riccardo that came out with a possible solution based on a web application using some open source libraries already available! That would meet all the requirements above in the simplest possible way, but for the online-offline, not mobile support. HTML5 was not at all ready at that time, but we aimed to invest in a solution that would be viable in the long run, so we developed the first version using Gears (was Google Gears), with the idea of bringing the project on HTML5 later.

The project, which is called OOPS: Online Offline Publication System, is just getting its HTML5 upgrade, and will run without any installation on several platforms, including some mobile devices, online and offline. The OOPS is itself a collection of libraries put together and it is released as open source (http://code.google.com/p/online-offline-ps).


I feel as with OOPS we had only scratched the surface of the many possibilities that this new standards are giving us to develop better web applications aiming to address, by completely new means, very old, dramatic problems.