Unicef launches device contest for developing world

By Chris Edwards |  1 Comment  |  Posted: May 19, 2015
Topics/Categories: Blog - Embedded  |  Tags: , ,  | Organizations:

A design competition to find wearable and other sensor-based systems that can help mothers and their children in developing nations may demonstrate how little digital technology is needed to come up with viable designs.

Blair Palmer, Unicef’s Innovation Labs lead, said at the Next Billion conference in London, England (Tuesday, May 19): “We are looking for solutions that can be game-changing for women and children around the world.”

The six-month Wearables for Good ‘design challenge’ is being organized by Unicef in partnership with ARM and consultancy Frog Design. The group aims to select two winners who come up with ideas that show the greatest prospect of leading to a commercially viable device.

The winners will receive in addition to $15,000 funding, design support from ARM, Frog and, potentially silicon and electronics partners, to help carry the project through to a market launch.

Low-tech choices

The successful designs may have minimal local processing, if at all, although the organizations involved are keen to employ digital technologies as they see data capture as being important.

Denise Gershbein, executive creative director at Frog, pointed to an existing design used by Unicef today that consists of a sub-10¢ color-coded tape measure attached to an armband. The circumference of a young child’s arm. “It’s a low-tech way of measuring a child’s level of malnutrition. But today, it’s used in a way that does not allow that data to be captured easily. “

Palmer added: “The armband is the lowest tech we can get. Is there a way we can create things that get the right type of data that is needed?” She argued the work with ARM would allow Unicef to “really look at how mobile technology can be an enabler in these communities”.

Gershbein said: “At the other extreme would be something like the Apple Watch. But the wearables need not just be worn on the wrist. We’re looking at applications in areas such as health and disaster response. The challenge is very wide-ranging. If you look at applications in disaster relief, it could be something used in the environment, tracing conditions at the community level.

“The devices we are planning may not be for individuals. They may shared among members of a family or a local community.”

Investment options

ARM also intends to work more closely with Unicef’s Innovation Labs to try to find projects that can be taken to a national pilot stage. Over the longer term, the two organizations will carry out research in developing countries that they hope will provide a business case for mobile financial services, transportation, as well as wearables and environmental sensor technologies. “We aim to bring ideas to investors and help them grow and go worldwide,” said Ian Drew, executive vice president of ARM.

Drew added: “Simple ideas will grow the next billion. Those simple ideas won’t just come from US or Europe. They will come from the rest of the world. We as an industry need to listen to the rest of the world. There is a huge opportunity out there. But it won’t be driven by where we are at the moment.

“Those ideas won’t just shape what’s happening in Africa and emerging markets but around the world.”

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