Whether it’s schoolkids with goldfish attention spans or online trolls with a penchant for racism, read the news and it’s hard not to feel that technology is changing society for the worse. What doesn’t grab headlines are the thousands of apps, startups, and companies fighting to make the world a slightly better place. That’s why we’ve rounded up the best in responsible tech to find the innovators searching for solutions to some of today’s most pressing questions.
For refugees arriving in a new country, some barriers seem insurmountable. There’s a new language to contend with, mountains of bureaucracy, a whole new culture to understand. Caritas Poland is helping refugees overcome those hurdles with a mobile app providing accessible information in a range of languages: Polish, English, Russian and Arabic.
“Many migrants face difficulties with the Polish language and insignificant knowledge of legal and administrative procedures,” says spokesperson Marta Bernarz. “Foreigners very often find themselves in Poland as strangers. This foreign culture, religion and social structure makes them vulnerable, particularly to difficulties resulting from lack of local or family support.”
The app puts information on Poland’s asylum procedure, refugee rights, health and social care system and labour rights in one place, alongside primers on Polish society and culture. More than 5,000 people have downloaded the app, which is available on iOS and Android.
Rossi Mitova connects small, Bulgarian farms with urban shoppers wanting fresh, healthy food. The idea behind her app, Farmhopping, was born after she heard about the plight of local farmers unable to find buyers. “It’s cheaper for supermarkets to fly products from thousands of miles than to source them locally,” she explains. “The quantities [which small farmers] produce are not enough to be sold in supermarkets, or not good-looking enough because they don’t use pesticides and chemicals.”
Despite graduating in finance from a London university, Mitova opted out of a corporate career and threw herself into the startup. “It was risky and it was a great deal of work,” she admits. Now, farmers can use the platform to sell food directly to customers, while users get fresh fruit and veg, grass-fed meat or dairy, raw desserts or bio wine straight to the doorstep. “It’s a win-win situation where everyone gets what they’re looking for,” says Mitova.
Founded in Hungary, SignAll uses a computer to automatically translate American Sign Language (ASL) into written English. The Deaf user signs towards the camera which can detect and read body movement, facial expressions and finger shapes: all vital elements of ASL. Their words are then translated into written text and displayed in a dedicated chat. The hearing user responds by speaking aloud while a voice recognition programme picks up and converts their sentences into written words.
For many Deaf people, sign language is their native language — they can use it express themselves easier and more clearly than in written English. Many other disabled people also find it easier to sign. Research has shown that some people on the autistic spectrum can consistently express themselves better by signing than by speaking or writing. It’s simply about giving people the ability to choose to communicate in the way which suits them best.
Iva Tsolova and Joana Koleva met while working for an organisation for people with hearing impairments. Both became increasingly frustrated with Bulgaria’s lack of job opportunities for disabled people, so decided to team up to do something about it.
Their startup, Jamba, helps disabled people move into employment by providing inclusive training and support for would-be employees, and practical programmes, such as help providing accessible workplaces, for employers. “Job market inclusion [is] one of the biggest challenges for the people with disabilities,” says the team. “[Finding a] solution to this problem is a prerequisite to increasing people’s economic welfare increase the number of actively working Bulgarians.”
With more and more urban dwellers finding themselves packed into cramped apartments and working overtime to keep up with rising rent prices, the idea of getting back to nature can seem like a luxury for the privileged few. Estonian startup Click and Grow hopes to break down those barriers by giving users the chance to grow their own fruit and veg — even if they don’t have access to a garden. Users place a pod full of seeds and soil into a small indoor garden with its own LED lamp, with the biggest gardens holding more than 50 pods, which can be mixed to include herbs, vegetables and flowers.
“Most people don’t have a backyard or the time to garden,” says company spokesperson Matthew Lomart. “Increasing urbanisation has distanced us from nature and from the knowledge of how to grow food. We want to make it possible for people to grow the most delicious, nutritious food even in modern city homes.”