The timing and technology are right to bring the power of digital sensing to the poor to improve health, safety and education.
That is the animating assumption behind a new project announced on Tuesday. The initiative is led by Unicef and ARM, the British chip designer whose microprocessors power most smartphones and tablets. They are being joined by Frog, the San Francisco-based design firm, along with people described as coaches and advisers from companies and organizations including Google, Orange, Singularity University, the Red Cross and the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The long-term ambition is to jump start an industrial ecosystem for sensing and data technology that serves the needs of mothers and children in developing nations.
The project, called Wearables for Good, is beginning with a contest to generate ideas. Applications can be submitted online on the project’s website until August 4. Two winners will be selected in the fall. Each will receive $15,000, and assistance and advice from ARM, Frog and others on translating their ideas into a product and perhaps a company.
The online application lists the required characteristics for device ideas. They should be, according to the form, “cost-effective, rugged and durable, low-power and scalable.” The form offers no price limits, but it is safe to assume the project is looking for devices priced far less than an Apple Watch or a Fitbit device.
The United Nations and Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, have been working with digital technology in recent years, often taking advantage of the spread of inexpensive mobile phones. Cellphones are widely used for simple banking, weather forecasts, crop reports and public health alerts. For example, the UN Global Pulse unit, set up in 2009, monitors social network messages from Twitter and elsewhere for early-warning signals — “digital smoke signals,” it says — of a disease outbreak, crop failure or economic turmoil in a region of a developing country.
But the Wearables for Good project goes further, focusing less on aggregated data and more on personal monitoring. “This is the next level of what we’re doing,” said Erica Kochi, co-founder of Unicef Innovation, which pursues technology initiatives that advance the agency’s goals.
Asked about the kind of device that might make sense, Ms. Kochi mentioned that pneumonia is a leading cause of death for children under 5 in poor countries. A wearable sensor, she said, that measures breaths per minute — by the rise and fall of the chest — could provide provide an alert that a child has early-stage pneumonia. (Faster breathing is a danger signal.)
In an interview, Ms. Kochi sounded as much like an entrepreneur as a nonprofit official. “We’re looking for entries that are scalable and sustainable,” with business models that work, she said. “We don’t want something that is a neat idea, but there’s no marketplace for it.”
Simon Segars, chief executive of ARM, echoed that theme from a different perspective. “There has to be a way to do this that makes sense for business,” he said.
Mr. Segars pointed to the technology and economic forces that are coalescing to make the timing right for an effort like Wearables for Good. The cost of sensors, he said, can now be measured in pennies or dimes. Cloud computing and open-source software has drastically reduced the expense of collecting and analyzing data. And, he said, there is a fast-growing community of inventors, like the participants in popular Maker Faires, whose ideas can be tapped via the Internet from anywhere in the world.
“The cost of innovation,” Mr. Segars said, “is the lowest it’s ever been.”