Technology has, at times, brought out the worst in humans. For all of the potentially magnificent applications to alleviating human suffering and increasing the efficiency of contributions to strengthen society, we have still ended up with iPhone apps like "FlickaBooger" and "Barf Puke-a-Thon" that are, shockingly, not even free, but purchased by consumers for 99 cents.
Or more disturbingly, apps like "iGraveDigger" (morbidly self-explanatory), "100 Nazi Scalps" advertised as a "brutal adventure" with "a long bloody way to victory" to kill and scalp Nazis, or "Blood'NGuns" a shooting game touting the teaser "Did we mention lots and lots of blood?"
I wonder about this last set: Who are these developers? Are they completely ignorant about the fatal consequences of their products in conditioning the human mind towards violence? Or do they just not care?
Thankfully there are many counter-forces in the works, refusing to allow such developments to become the status quo of how technology affects society. And among these forces you will now find The World Bank, who recently launched the "Apps for Development Competition" in order to connect the word's best and the brightest minds at the intersection of software development and poverty-alleviation efforts.
The premise is rooted in a challenge that may sound game-like, because of the superhuman efforts that will be required for success. But the challenge is all too real:
Our world has just five years remaining to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) -- a set of ambitious, internationally agreed-upon targets that include ending poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education and gender equality, and environmental sustainability.
The eight MDGs are made up of 21 quantifiable targets that are measured by 60 indicators, and at the most recent High-level Plenary Meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, dubbed the "MDG Summit," there was concrete progress reported across the spectrum of MDGs.
For example, a joint WHO/UNAIDS/UNICEF Report cited that in 2009, "just 42 percent of people who needed [HIV/AIDS] treatment were receiving it, though this is a substantial increase even on the previous year's 33 percent coverage." And an enormous increase from 2000, when the MDGs were initiated, and when HIV/AIDS treatment was neither available nor remotely affordable on a global scale.
However most voices involved in the MDG discussion agree that at the current pace of achievement, the MDGs will not be reached by 2015. Is it acceptable that 58 percent of people in need of HIV/AIDS treatment still face a death sentence? Or that 10 million children still die from preventable causes every year, alongside 500,000 mothers dying in or directly after childbirth?
The challenge at hand implies immense consequences should we fail, and the time frame feels restrictively short. But the World Bank believes that creating innovative applications of technology, using archived World Bank development data recently opened to the public, is an absolutely necessary next step.
The Bank is therefore taking an important step by publicizing valuable data sets and incentivizing problem-solving. Apps for Development Competition participants are required to create new software applications, for any platform available to the public (computer, SMS, etc.), that use one or more data sets from the World Bank Data Catalog and raise awareness of, or contribute to progress towards, achievement of the MDGs by 2015. Cash prizes and corporate recognition will be awarded to winners, and participants retain all intellectual property ownership in their submissions.
The Competition comes at a time that is not only crucial to keeping the achievement of MDGs on track, but also at a time where, more generally, 'good apps' are needed to counter the increasing abhorrence of 'bad apps'. Consider the 2006 computer game called "RapeLay," which involves kidnapping a woman and her two girls, repeatedly raping them ("until they enjoy it"), and forcing them to have an abortion if they get pregnant. Is there not enough violence and abuse in the real world that it must be commoditized and marketed to the masses?
Thankfully, the army of developers who will submit ideas to the Apps for Development Competition represent the body of people who are interested in alleviating, not exacerbating, human suffering. And in contrast to games like RapeLay, the Competition will bring attention to applications like "Mobile Justice Gender Court," who have created access to the justice system for victims of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I encourage you to advertise the Competition widely, especially in the software development community, and to submit yourself. The Competition is open to all individuals from Bank member countries, and you can create your account here between October 7, 2010, and January 10, 2011.
Let's make sure we use technology to bring out the best in us: our intentions, our ideas, and our abilities to positively develop, not destroy, the world around us.
Follow Kate Otto on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kateotto