Jonathan Jackson argues that empathy is necessary to make technology effective.

I have been fortunate enough to have been in the emerging field of mobile health well before there was much mobile to hype about. At Dimagi, our first “mobile” project was on a personal digital assistant that had no wireless capability. Over the years I have seen mobile technology help save lives. But I’ve also seen mobile technology employed in nearly identical situations, do absolutely nothing, or worse, make healthcare delivery more cumbersome.

We have certainly had deployments that fit in both categories. As I reflect on our work and impact, I find myself asking how the same technology can yield such vastly different outcomes. Ironically, the deciding factor usually has little to do with the technology itself, but everything to do with empathy.

Last May, I was fortunate to participate in the World Economic Forum “Summer Davos” in Tianjin where I learned of the Doi Tung Development Project, an organization founded by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation. It was clear that mobile technology could potentially advance the foundation’s impact in healthcare and education for Thailand’s vulnerable communities, but how this technology could be sensibly used remained undefined.

It was a subsequent meeting between M.L Dispanadda Diskul or Duke, Doi Tung’s Chief Development Officer and fellow Schwab Social Entrepreneur, and Dimagi Field Manager Saijai Liangunsakul that supplied the missing link – a strong passion for supporting the target population.

With Duke’s experience in rural development and Saijai’s dedication to refugee rehabilitation, interests merged to devise a sensible way to employ mobile technology for Mae Fah Luang Foundation in partnership with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The technology will be the easy part; the key to success is strong collaboration and dedication by local leaders like Saijai and Duke. Given our long history in the field, we have a pretty good barometer for which collaborations are likely to be successful. When Saijai first briefed me about this project, she spent 75% of the time talking passionately about Doi Tung and her desire to support its population and 25% on the tech needs. She then spent another several months working with Duke and his team ensuring the technology could be useful. The outcome will be a mobile application that will digitize the responses of Burmese refugees regarding which form of vocational training and livelihood programmes to prioritize in lieu of resettlement.

Perhaps what’s worrisome to some is that empathy is a difficult thing to quantify and maintain as technologies go to scale. I’m optimistic, however, that technology translators like Saijai and leaders like Duke will continue to find each other to make a difference in millions of lives. In this case, supporting more than 120,000 refugees embark on a long-awaited journey back home.


Author: Jonathan Jackson, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Dimagi, USA; Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2012

Dimagi, a social enterprise that delivers open and innovative technology to help underserved communities everywhere. Dimagi has developed CommCare, an open-source mobile software platform currently deployed in 35 countries and used by thousands of community health workers to track and support their clients with registration forms, checklists, SMS reminders and multimedia.

Image: A man rents mobile phone chargers by the hour in downtown Port-au-Prince January 17, 2010 – REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz 

The data in this article is found in Information and Communications for Development 2012: Maximizing Mobile, published by the World Bank.