Your wearable is selfish. But some are being used for social good

Most of the new wearable devices out there today are focused solely on helping users better their own lives: become more fit, sleep more easily or work more productively. But what if wearable devices could help make the broader world a better place, like enabling more efficient ways to deliver healthcare to poor communities?

A panel sponsored by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Frog Design in San Francisco recently explored this topic of marrying wearables with social good projects in the developing world. For example, Google Glass could better coordinate communication among emergency responders and hospital staff, or a headset could be used for measuring brain waves to enable easier monitoring of conditions like epilepsy.

Google Glass ER doctor

Perhaps it’s not surprising that healthcare has emerged as a good space to meld wearable tech with social good. Some of the most popular wearables out there are wristbands that monitor heart rates and physical activity. Devices that hug the body, are a natural place to use sensors to monitor vital signs.

UNICEF is already using a low-tech wearable device for measuring the nutrition levels of children in developing regions. The non-digital tape, which was showed off during the panel discussion, is wrapped around a child’s upper arm to gauge the circumference, and its tri-color band gives different readings of how well the child is fed.

Designing wearable tech for delivering services in the developing world comes with challenges that aren’t always evident. For one thing, social workers can’t count on a whole-hearted acceptance of high-tech solutions by the people they want to help. There is often a lot of negotiation and figuring out how local culture and practices might affect technology use.

The Embrace bag, which resembles a sleeping bag, protects premature and low-weight babies from hypothermia. It was built for families in developing countries. Photo by Signe Brewster

The Embrace bag, which resembles a sleeping bag, protects premature and low-weight babies from hypothermia. It was built for families in developing countries. Photo by Signe Brewster

“There is an inherent philosophy in every form we create that this serves an empathetic need. But people have bullshit radar for that stuff,” said Denise Gershbein, executive creative director at Frog Design. “We need to think about high tech and low tech. It’s important think about not only the users and their context but also the ecosystems you are plugging into.”

Pompa Debroy, international programs manager at Embrace, which makes the temperature-regulating carrier for premature babies, recalled being surprised at discovering a lack of working thermometers at a hospital where the nursing staff would use a light bulb to keep the babies warm. The fact that the nurses didn’t have the habit of taking the babies’ temperatures pointed to a need that had to be addressed besides training the staff to use the carrier.

One of the major issues that could seriously limit wearable tech’s reach in developing markets is battery life. Access to electricity could be minimal or non-existent in parts of the world where the wearable tech is designed to serve, noted Erica Kochi, a senior advisor at UNICEF.

Are chipmakers ready for this?

Are batteries ready for this?

One way to solve that challenge is to develop and integrate low-power chips that run the device, said Ian Ferguson, vice president of segment marketing at ARM, a chip developer whose designs are found in many smart phones. Another solution is to move much of the data collected by the wearable device to the cloud to prolong the battery life.

Data collection and privacy will also be a crucial issue to grapple with. “If everybody in the refugee camp is outfitted with a band, is that OK?” Ferguson said. “As people rush to get (wearable tech) out, we will need a common framework on what data we have access to and what we don’t.”