Posts Tagged ‘social change’

Touch interface for good

Hong Kong May 22-23, 2009

Touch screen NYC ticket vending machine (photo credit: yuen_long / flickr)

Here’s a comment I posted on Changemakers AshokaTech discussion board in response to question How would you use touch-screen technology for good?

Following our blog post on touch-screen technology, I’d love to hear about your ideas on how we can make such technology work for the social sector, or if you’ve heard of organizations that are already doing so.

The great thing about touch interfaces are in the ease of use. It is intuitive. I moved to Korea two years ago and learning to type in Korean on a keyboard or a cell phone was not without its pain. Computers have a keyboard and mouse as its main input devices, however the use of these have to be learned. Not so with a touch-enabled device.

Touch-enabled devices is closer to how the real world works. You directly press buttons on the screen rather than moving the pointer with a mouse to a graphic that represents a button and click on the mouse that in turn simulates pressing the button on the screen.

Touch devices are intuitive to use. Look at a well designed touch-enabled subway ticket vending machine. The ones in New York thousands of tourists use every day without having ever used them before.

Computers 20-30 years ago were only accessible to those who were trained to use them. Windows (or MacOS) is a big step but it still has a learning curve. Use an iPod Touch for the first time and the learning experience is actually enjoyable. That’s the power that an intuitive touch interface brings.

So the potentials are huge. For those who do not use PCs or laptops everyday it can be a way to overcome the digital barrier. It can be used to bridge the digital divide. For kids, it’s a more intuitive, educational device. For the elderly, its a more humane interface especially for those with arthritis. For developing countries, its a better way for them to access information.

Displays, touch-screens and processing power are becoming cheaper everyday. I spent a whole week without using my laptop while it was in repair, surviving on my iPod Touch. It was possible, and this opened my eyes to the future that will be touch-enabled smaller devices that are as powerful as PC’s, but infinitely more portable and intuitive to use.

I would love to hear more about the actual application in the social sector.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty in Korea through Education: A Social Business Proposal


A couple of years ago I asked a friend in Korea with a single child if he considered having more kids. He told me that he wanted to give the best for his son, and he couldn’t really afford the education cost of a second child. He told me a his son was taking 3 classes outside school and that it cost him about 1/3 of his then salary.

Like many countries, the Korean education system is biased towards create elite member of its society. This has been historically true. In ancient Korea, there was the state examination called Gwageo (??). Its purpose was to select officials for government office and shortest route to achieving aristocratic status. In modern Korea, many still think that the purpose of the educational systems is to generate an educated elite of administrators for the high public office through Goshi (??) examinations and university professors. This is really not surprising given that it is these administrators and professors who create education policy and systems.

One is lead to ask, what should the purpose of public education be? To send kids to a good college? To land a high paying job? To marry into a good family? Then perpetuate this cycle? It does seem like the purpose of education is a self-serving cycle without real social benefits or meaning but to advance economic gain and social tenure for the few and the elite.

Sir Ken Robinson, in his address at TED 2006, puts it more elegantly:

Education is supposed to take us into the future we can’t grasp… If you were to visit education as an alien and ask, what is public education for, you would have to conclude if you look at the output, the purpose of public education is to produce university professors. The whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant and creative individuals think they are not.

This situation in Korea is compounded by the fact that the education-crazed population is not satisfied with public education alone and takes matters into its own hands, investing an absurd amount of time and money is Sa-kyo-yuk (???) or “private education” which consists of carting kids off to Hakwon (??) or educational institutions to get that extra one-up on English, math, Taekwondo, arts or public speaking.

It seems that only the affluent or the crazy could afford to keep up this kind of frenzy. And so many do.

In this kind of climate, schools serve only to invest in those who excel. They have limited resources, demanding parents and an evaluation system that only looks at the grades as it measure of success. Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book Outliers call this phenomenon, the Matthew Effect, coined by sociologist Robert Merton who eluded to the verse in the Bible, Matthew 25:29: “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given all kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success.

He goes on to point out that in fact kids from poor families work as well as students from affluent families during the academic year, however they start to fall back as a result of laying fallow during the long summer breaks, when rich kids go to camps or received any additional mind-stimulating education.

The Cycle of Poverty2

So what about the rest that do not fall into the academic elite? What about those below average? What about those who do not have the economic means to have that extra education?

The poor remain poor because they are not given the opportunity to generate the escape velocity to break away from the gravity of poverty. It takes extraordinary effort for the poor. Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 talks to length about this in his book, Creating a World without Poverty

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, the poor are a victim of circumstance. In Korea this is more true, given the climate of extra education and the breakneck pace of classes and subjects that are covered. Teachers simply do not have the time for those kids who fall behind. They are also not given any incentive to bring those below average kids up, since they are evaluated on how many kids do well in exams.

Silo’ed Efforts

So what to do? Where to break this cycle of poverty in education? How do we give poor kids a fair shot at escaping poverty? This seems to be a two-part problem:

1. From the beginning and all the way through public education, provide poor kids some of the guidance, attention and extra-education that their more affluent classmates get;
2. Once they have made it through the public education system, provide them with an opportunity to attend college.

On the public education side, there commendable efforts such as We Start, a program run by Joongang Ilbo, one of the major daily newspapers in Korea, which provide after-school programs for poor kids. It seeks to provide a community-based educational, health and mentoring support for underprivileged kids. But the program only has a limited reach and it stops when the kids graduate primary school (1-6 grade).

I am sure there are the foundations and non-profits working to help the poor students through public education. But all have the limitations in funding so their enterprise have limited reach and scalability.

Another issue is the availability of teachers for the kids. These non-profits mostly rely on volunteer teachers to help poor kids, and here again is a limited supply.

On the college side, if they are lucky they gain access to various scholarships offered by the government, colleges, foundations and religious organizations. But these are not easy to come by, not centrally or systematically organized, and too few.

For those who do not get a scholarship there are for-profit educational loan institutions. Most of them provide inflexible 6 month to 5 year loans. These obviously serve to profit from their enterprise and do not cater to special the needs of the poor students. I am sure they would prefer to provide loans to middle/upper class students who can pay back their loans on time.

An Integrated Approach

It would seem that the issues mentioned above can be approached an integrated (and possibly financially sustainable) way:

1. Offer “patient” loans to college students from poor families.
2. Allow these students to pay back some of their loan by working as teacher for the kids in public education.
3. Make poor families pay a small amount to commit their kids to this extra education help.

These principles can be the basis of establishing a social business, which could be scalable and replicable.

Loans Instead of Scholarships3

For poor college students, loans and not scholarships are good for many reasons:

It is not a free lunch. It gives kids who have lived most of their lives on a survival instinct to make most of their instinct to find a creative ways to pay back their loans, either during the school year or after they graduate. The whole giving them the fishing rod and not the fish thing.
It creates a sustainable model. Funds are replenished as students graduate and pay back their loans. These funds will be available to the next student.
It encourages independence. They studied hard and overcame odds to get this far. It reinforces their self-confidence. Handouts breed dependence.

The loans are must be targeted and only be offered to those who mean a certain poverty criteria. Yunus is careful to point out that social businesses should not benefit the non-poor. Loan recipients should consistently be engaged and loan conditions and terms adjusted to meet the needs of each student. If they have an opportunity to pay it off quickly, then they should be encouraged to do so. If they fall behind, then the loan should be restructured. Defaulting is not an option. Repayment plans should be strucutred so that they only start paying once they are employed and for a couple of year, no interest is applied.

Korean college education is still relatively cheap compared to US schools. A quick back-of-the-napkin calculation shows that the recent graduate with an average paying job out of college dedicates 10% of his/her salary to repayment, they should be able to complete payment in about 8 years.4

Community Component

The loan recipients should be offered the employment during the school year or during summer and winter breaks to repay part of their loans through mentoring of disadvantaged kids in poor neighborhoods. Ideally they would return to their own neighborhoods and communities. Here a matching grant from foundations or corporate sponsorship maybe be helpful.

Students in upper years can also be offered jobs administering the loan program, mentoring students new to the system so that the program has a strong community aspect.

Many religious groups and local communities offer and maintain scholarships for disadvantaged kids within their communities. These group could “bank” their funds in the loan and offer it to their students. A loan rather than a scholarship gives both the group/community and students a reason for them to stay engaged. You can walk away with a scholarship, but you are tied to a loan. The group/community should provide as many additional opportunities for the students to repay their loans through community service and mentoring to kids who are in similar situations as they were just a couple of years ago.

The “Patient” Loan Institution

A “patient” loan institution of this sort does not currently exist, but it would have many benefits:

  • Transparency
  • Better reach
  • Efficient management / economies of scale
  • Effectiveness of loan process
  • Stability and patient capital
  • Success metrics tracking and improvement in products and services over time
  • Institutional knowledge
  • Credibility through branding
  • Accommodation of individual donors and institutional donors

Challenges Ahead

Obviously these are just untested thoughts at this point. There are many foreseeable challenges:

  • Will this model be a sustainable social business?
  • Should this business be a non-profit or a for-profit enterprise?
  • Can a loan institution of this kind be created? What is the legal framework that it needs to operate under?
  • What would be the governance structure for an business of this kind?
  • How to initially fund this social business?
  • How to form meaningful partnerships with schools, universities, foundations, non-profits and religious groups to support this effort?

I also believe strongly that if this model is indeed sustainable, scaleable and (socially and economically) profitable that special provision for special education students who can volunteer/help kids with disabilities. These kids are one of the most stigmatized, abused and neglected in Korean society. If the measure of a mature society is how well it takes care of those who cannot take care of themselves, Korea ranks pretty low, looking at the way it look upon and treats it disabled.


Similar to my proposal, there was an article in the New York Times Iím Going to Harvard. Will You Sponsor Me?, about which provides a service where alumni can give a loan to students in financial need. As of writing the service is only limited to Harvard students and alumni with plans for other schools. It also not limited to students from poor families. It’s the idea of providing interest free loans to students is worth comparing. The loans are limited to $2,000 and are interest free, and repaid within 5 year after graduation. The article also mentions that a crowd-sourced microfinance site will soon be offering loans in the U.S., planning eventually to expand to student loans.


1. This post came from the result of many conversations with my father who is a volunteer English teacher for the We Start program. Two books I read recently further shaped my thinking:

  • Muhammad Yunus, Creating a world without poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism
  • Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

I am pretty sure that many people (smarter than I) have already though of this idea and have developed much further than what I write here. If so I’d love to hear about their work.

2. There are many ways to break the cycle of poverty. Microfinance has been proven to be a very powerful one. I believe upward mobility through education is another.

3. I have to say that by knowledge of banking, student loans, scholarships etc. are very limited. None of these ideas have been tested in any way. God is in the details. The challenge is working out the details, refining the ideas and testing them.

4. The assumptions for this calculation are: 5 million won / year for tuition, 20 million won salary with 10% increase per year based on the following information sources:

Hong Kong trip and thoughts on social business

Hong Kong May 22-23, 2009

Click image to view slideshow of the Hong Kong trip, May 22-23, 2009

The last time I visited Hong Kong was in 1989.

Some things have indeed changed. For one thing, it’s part of China now. Also the skyline has many new additions, including the 88-floor (415m) 2 International Finance Centre tower, which is apparently the world’s 8th tallest building and tallest in Hong Kong. This will be soon surpassed by the International Commerce Centre being constructed across on the Kowloon side which will stand at 118-floors (484m).

Hong Kong also has a shiny new Norman Foster designed airport. Clean and efficient and the landing is not as super-hairy as the old Kai Tak airport. At the old airport you passed through mountains, cleared slums and then after a steep bank landed on a strip that seemed to go out into the water. As much as this is thrilling to some, I would prefer something a lot less eventful.

Hong Kong May 22-23, 2009
Hong Kong May 22-23, 2009

Many things haven’t changed. Hong Kong still maintains itself as one of the financial capitals, a shopping haven, one of the world’s most important shipping ports and trading gateway to China. And trams still run through its streets as do ad-covered double-decker buses.

I did the usual touristy things. I wandered through the infinitely looped and connected shopping malls and made the trip up to the Peak via the Peak Tram. Another new thing, there they built the Peak Lookout and charged HK$20 to take the escalators to the top for the view down to the skyscrapered financial district. What a rip-off! But I had to commend the thorough capitalistic mindset of extracting (extorting) money even for the view.

Even as a tourist, I was very impressed at how efficient a city Hong Kong is: The 24-minute train ride from the new airport to the center of the city. Buildings connected via covered walkways so that you don’t get wet and remain chilled. Public transport is cheap and fast. HK$5 (=US$0.65) for a 4-stop trip on the MTR from my hotel in Causeway Bay to Central. And apparently this efficiency is the reason people choose to do business here, reflected in the minimal red tape. When I asked my brother, who works for HSBC, where Hong Kong citizens’ loyalty lies, it is indeed money over state. Many Hong Kong businessmen fled to Canada, Australia, UK and other countries before the handover in 1997 only to return after they secured their citizenships.

Hong Kong May 22-23, 2009
Hong Kong May 22-23, 2009

Hong Kong is by far one of the most cosmopolitan places I have been to. They don’t care where you come from, just as long as you have the money or you are willing to do business. Given how global Hong Kong is, it’s still amusing to see that taxi drivers and clerks at 7-Eleven don’t speak English and didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about. And Statue Square in front of HSBC which is the heart of Hong Kong still gets inundated with Filipino maids on Sundays, which is their only day off.

The weather was awful most of the two short days I was there, so I hung out a lot indoors. I ended up buying 2 books: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism” by Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, father of microfinance and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 2006.

It’s hard to believe that it has been 20 years since I visited Hong Kong, which was half a lifetime ago. now that I have reached about the halfway mark of my life, I think it’s about time I figure out how to spend the rest of my life. I now realize the irony in my second book selection, given that I am was in one of the most capitalistic cities in the world. But it seemed appropriate that this is at the core of a decision that lately I have been thinking very hard about: whether to pursue capital gains or social gains.

According to people like Muhammad Yunus and Bill Drayton the world is changing. There is emerging a new type of business: Social business or social entrepreneurship. You know it’s gathering steam with you can see it appearing as MBA tracks in major business schools such as Oxford, Duke and Stanford just to name a few.

According to Yunus, Social Business is defined as:

Social business is a company that is cause-driven rather than profit-driven, with th potential to act as a change agent for the world.

Bill Drayton elaborates in an interview in 2007 that:

In the last two and a half decades we have seen all across the world, the structure of the social half of the world become as entrepreneurial and competitive as business.

They both forecast that we will see radical change in the way business will be conducted in the future, especially given the backlash against the greed of the past decades and the present danger to the world not being nuclear annihilation as it was in the 60’s and 70’s but the destruction of our life-giving environment and the fragile state of the world’s economy.

The current economic crisis is indeed a harsh wake-up call that there needs to be a fundamental change in attitude and values and not only in way we conduct business. If we can put our minds so singularly to solving business issues and the generation of wealth, it can also be applied to solving the crisis in environmental and social justice we are facing.

It’s strange how physical trips often lead us on thought trips.

More photos from the trip on Flickr.

Hong Kong May 22-23, 2009

Hong Kong is a harbor/port in addition to being a financial capital and shopping haven.

Cytogether: Cyworld’s Social Action Network

Cyworld\'s social action website

Cyworld's social action website

Recently I decided to take a systematically look at online social action sites in Korea, and whenever possible trying to arrange an informal interview with the sites’ manager(s) to gain a little more insight into their operations and also get a better general sense of the landscape for online social action in Korea. How is the internet bettering the lives of the less privileged in Korea, and how is it achieving social impact?

A couple of weeks ago, I netted my first site, when I had a chance to sit down and talk with Ms. Park Jie-hyun who is one of the manager’s of Cyworld’s Cytogether service.

Cyworld, for those who don’t know, pretty much dominates the online social networking space in Korea. Having launched in 1999 it boasts 22 million or over to a third of the Korean population as its members.

All things that go up must come down and Cyworld is no exception. Lately it has seen a noticeable decline in traffic, as it struggles to find the next generation of services that will appeal to the hyper internet-savvy Korean users. To add insult to injury, it has seen a string of failed launches abroad, due in no small part to its over-confidence in its platform and hence a failure to recognize and pay due-diligence to cultural difference in the way that users in different cultures use the internet socially. It has all but abandoned many of the markets it has entered abroad, and the US may soon be its latest casualty.

Despite its many ailments, one of the bright spots in Cyworld’s traffic is its online social action site, Cytogether or in Korean, ??????, which literally translates to: "a world of good relationships" or more meaningfully, "a world where we get along".

Cytogether uses the Cyworld platform of socially networking its members to achieve 3 main functions: online donations, online petitions and matching volunteers with non-profit organizations. It was launched in 2005, and has currently over 800 registered non-profits and NGO’s in its network. Users can choose to donate to these vetted organization by giving "dotori", Cyworld’s online currency, or by changing to their mobile phone service, which allows for monthly planned donations. Current stats show about USD 20,000-30,000 in online donations (monthly average of about USD 0.90 per donor), about 5,000-10,000 petition signups daily and about 20-30 volunteer matches per day. The most active issues on the site are children (abuse, education, poverty etc.) and, surprisingly, animal rights.

Ms. Park mentioned some of the challenges facing Cytogether:

  • All the duties of promoting, managing, vetting, organizing and improving the site fall on the shoulders of 3 full-time and 1 part-time staff hance the site is extremely resource-strapped;
  • Balancing the promotion of its 800+ member organization on its homepage is no small feat. Organization are always approaching them with "emergency" situations and demand that they be highlighted. Cytogether, to its credit does provide training sessions for its member organizations, organized on a quarterly basis;
  • Better storytelling of member organization causes, activities, and success stories. It hasn’t been doing an effective job communicating the human stories in a more personable voice.

Despite its challenges, Cytogether plans to perform a major update of the site, and focus its offering towards the end of 2008, and partner with a recruiting service to offer job matching services to the unemployed and senior citizens.

The current value of Cytogether lies in its ability to provide exposure to charity organization that would otherwise won’t have the budget or the wherewithal to promote themselves. Traffic is showing steady growth over the past 3 years, where at launch, the site was encouraging its members to give a couple of "dotori" (each is worth about USD 0.10), to now there are regular donations of USD 10.00. The ratio of one-time donors to monthly donors is also on the rise, now standing at around 7 to 3 members.

To me the issue with Cytogether seems to be one of focus. It’s currently everything to everyone. The argument is that it’s a "platform". But I don’t think that relieves them of the tough responsibility of championing key causes. Cyworld is currently too influential not to be using its influence it bring to light tough social issues. Does it want to be IKEA or Herman Miller?

It is also apparent that there is a possibility that Cytogether may outlive its relationship with its parent Cyworld. Just as Cyworld, Cytogether is a platform for activity, there really is no reason why Cytogether cannot be an independent service. If the current downward trend of traffic and popularity in Cyworld continues, it may be in everyone’s best interest for the two to part ways.

Walking away from the interview, my head was full of ideas for improving Cytoether’s service:

  • Donor’s wall: If you go to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, to the right of the entrance there is a wall of all the top donors to the museum. Recognize that some people (organizations) like to be recognized. A page could list large donations;
  • API: Go viral. Allow bloggers to promote Cytogether on their site through a widget or a badge. A widget can show causes/organizatios that they support;
  • Better member profiling: After a member donates, send a follow-up email with a link to a survey that identify what issues and causes the member is interested in. It can also ask members to opt-in for alerts. Building a database benefits both the users and Cytogether to provide more relevant content;
  • Targeted alerts: Based on database mentioned above, Cytoether can send targeted action alerts to those members who have opted in;
  • Matching donations: Corporations and workplaces can sign up to provide matching donations for employee donations;
  • Corporate badges: Cytogether can provide corporations supporting Cytogether "official" badges to indicate that they support Cytogether;
  • Stronger member networking: Members of Cyworld should have tools to alert each other to causes they support;
  • Better "minihomepy" integration: Member "minihomey" (which is Cyworld’s member profile page) should indicate that the member supports an organization or cause on Cytogether and encourage visitors to do the same.

I have no means looked at online social action in Korea in any depth, but from initial research, it seems, like many other things in Korea, to be dominated by large corporations and their services or foundations. Naver, the online behemoth, has a service called Happy Bean, where users register to accrue a "bean" every time they use Naver’s service, such as their email. Each bean is a matching donation from Naver of about USD 0.10 and users can donate these beans to a cause of their choice. This seems awfully self-serving and borders on being unethical to me. CJ Foundation (CJ is a member of Samsung extended "family") has Donors Camp modeled on Donors Choose (Charles Best of Donors Choose actually consulted on the project).

Despite this sad state of affairs, Korea does still have one of the most participatory online cultures in the world. And by all indications it seems like the online donations and participation is on the rise. My hope is that all that participation blossoms into social awareness and responsibility, and flows into growth of grassroots online social action and services.

The Point: Making Things Happen

The Point: Making Something Happen

The Point: Making Something Happen

The Point is a simple website with a clear purpose: making things happen. The way they do it is helping users formulate a campaign statement for action with a clear goal. Users can then choose to participate in the campaign. When the goal is met (or “the point” is tipped), an email is sent to the participants to act. For example:

Stop Zippy Oil from polluting Lake Apache
Zippy Oil must stop dumping waske into Lake Apache or else we will boycott ZippyPump when 100,000 people join

The campaigns can be serious or silly, which is a nice twist:

Bow-tie Tuesday
Andrew Mason will wear a bow tie every Tuesday if 8 people do the same.

The site has a collaboration section for brainstorming ways to approach a problem and also a social networking component to connect people with similar interest.