The Future of Giving

Mobile augmented reality application

Augmented reality is the hottest emerging trend in technology these days. You may remember an early scene from the movie FIGHT CLUB where Ed Norton’s character is walking through his apartment and price tags pop up denoting how much everything costs. Well imagine if that could happened every-time you held up your iPhone to your own wardrobe? Want to know how much your neighbor paid for his or her new car, just hold up your phone and a few seconds later it’s returned the quoted prices from every dealer in a 30 mile radius.

Now, travel with me a few thousand miles to a small village in Rwanda. A few months ago, some members of your organization were here but you weren’t with them and you don’t know what they were up to other than a brief report dropped on your desk earlier this morning. The view of the same smiling people, shanty homes and the broken well you saw in photos from the briefing. As you approach the visit site you hold up your smart phone. Looking at the scene through the phones display, you get an entirely different image.

The shanty houses all have hovering boxes floating over them, some of the people are ‘tagged’ with notes about their health and jobs. That defuct water source has an estimated cost for repair near it, the date the repairman was contacted and when he’s expected to make the journey from the city to the village. Clicking on his photo plays an audio recording of a voice mail he left to confirm the date along with any subsequent information. It’s all right there, in your phone. At the touch of a button (or a screen) you could put in a call to him to follow up, or to HQ to make sure someone has already answered his question.

Great Expectations

Donors are demanding more from the groups they support. It seems like everyone from Gates & Melinda to your mom’s church group are screaming for the same things: Accountability and Results.

Both are tricky because currently there aren’t any universal metrics for how to measure ‘success’ in areas of developmental aid. So in two years how might this change? Well for one, with the increasing ubiquity of the smart phone (iPhone, BlackBerry, Android etc.) and the growing coverage of things like EDGE, 3G, WiFi and WiMax, the future is almost guaranteed to go high-tech mobile.

Augmenting Altruism

In the image above, you see a mobile phone with a bunch of message windows covering an image. In augmented reality applications, there are two views: the real world video image, and an ‘overlay’ of data related to the things seen. This data is entered in the form of geo-cached notes. So, if you have a meeting with someone near a building and leave a geo-cached note, that note is tagged based on your exact latitude, longitude, elevation and orientation. Holding up an AR device while looking at that same spot a year later, I’d see a popup window wherever you dropped the note, time stamped for when you were there, along with whatever notes or files you uploaded to that spot. To make it even simpler, it’s like dropping pins on Google Maps, only in the real world, on real objects. This is why AR has been dubbed, ‘the web of things’ or ‘web squared’, because real-world objects are tracked, tagged and marked-up like a webpages.

This isn’t far fetched at all. Garmin enthusiasts have been leaving geo-cached notes for each other for nearly a decade! They even made up elaborate scavenger hunts using geo-cached riddles.

When you combine Geo-caching, complex satellite mapping systems, facial recognition, and video software what do you get? Augmented reality applications like Layar. Check out the video below to see it in action.

Working from the Field in Two Years

.Augmented Reality for NGOs
Image and Photo by Appfrica Labs. Large scale version available.

The app above is concept art for an application that applies all these technologies to the work various organizations do in the field today. The concept is based on what’s presently possible with contemporary AR technology like Layar.

Already people are recording audio, video, and blogging to keep donors abreast of their work in the field. Imagine making appointments for them to check in for realtime conversations to make sure everything is progressing as planned. Your phone would be a video/chatting device that would allow them to even participate in discussions on the ground in real time. In the image below you can see the AR view more clearly. The top left window has the coordinates of where you are along with the history of that location, and when your organization last visited the spot — all data that could be recorded without the field team ever even knowing it. In the top right you also have photo and video that was recorded by your team at that location at some point in the past, along with notes and files uploaded from that spot.

In the top left you have a ‘chat’ pane with images of people that represent donors, contacts at relevant organizations or other team members. The icons indicate that you can call, email or instant massage them while green dots indicate “presence”, if they happen to be online. You can see that one of that chat icons is glowing, indicating that someone has initiated communication. In the bottom right you can see the message they’ve sent and what needs to happen next. The person wants to send the user a file.

Below the chat pane, there is an area with numbers. These numbers indicate spending trends, what cash the organization or project as on hand, how much is being spent, and where it’s coming from. In some cases donors might add additional funding based on what they see, read or come to expect. Of course, this area could also show any type of data: tracking the shipment of resources, status updates from team members, emergency info.

In the center, a popup bubble has used facial recognition technology to pull up data bout a girl. We can see her bio (the notes someone has left about her and her family) along with her age, history of illness and life expectancy.

In the bottom left, we have a map showing our location with a bright red beacon pulsating to show our orientation and location in the country. The orange popup icon displays the name of the specific sub-region we’re located in, in this case the Kucikiro District of Rwanda.

The possibilities here are endless.

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About the author: Jonathan Gosier is a UI designer, software developer and writer. He currently lives in Kampala, Uganda where he incubates and invests in East African entrepreneurs as the CEO of Appfrica Labs. He's also a TED Fellow.
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