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Renee Farris headshot

Lifebits: UNICEF's Wearable Technology That Will Save Lives


Hey, Fitbit-wearers: Tracking calories is cool, but saving lives is legit. Enter Lifebits. The wearable technology you can invent to save lives. (It doesn’t matter that it sounds like a cereal brand.)

A recent study shows that fitness tracker owners stop using the wearable devices after an average of six months. UNICEF says that these unwanted wearables can save lives in developing countries.

The organization just joined forces with design firm Frog and smartphone chip maker ARM. They created a global competition to challenge designers, technologists, scientists and all other badasses (aka, experts in any field) to join forces and create “Wearables for Good.”

The mission? Find solutions to problems plaguing women and children in developing countries. Why wearables? Because technology is the newest secret weapon in the war chest of ways to defeat bad bacteria, natural disasters and all other less than ideal things in the world.

The effort is part philanthropy and part business. UNICEF states: “It is predicted that the revenue from smart wearable devices will generate $22.9 billion in revenue by 2020. As it grows, the market will expand beyond devices aimed mostly at consumers living in developed economies to include products and services that support the needs and aspirations of people around the world living in developing markets or in low-resource geographies.”

ARM hopes to improve its product and licensing sales, as well as generously suggest that its processor chips be included in wearables. These new T4D (technology for development) campaigns are hot and also make for a good hashtag: #T4D.

So, what’s the problem, and how can you help? So glad you asked. Here’s the list of primary problem categories with examples:

1. Alert/Response

Problem: Fires scourged three Nairobi slums for three months in 2011. An estimated 25,000 people were left homeless. Fires are common in slums due to indoor stoves, trash burning, faulty wires and cold people trying to stay warm. Homes are close together, so fires spread rapidly. Alleys between homes are tiny, so evacuation and fire control are difficult and chaotic.

Need: A warning system that tells the community to “get outta here!” via alarms and mobile texts.

2. Diagnosis/Treatment/Referral

Problem: Children under 5 are most likely to die from infections, pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, measles and HIV/AIDS. Around 70 percent of these children could be easily cured if they saw doctors sooner. Every day, 1,000 women die from issues related to childbirth; 99 percent of them are in developing countries. This is not okay.

Need: An easy way to non-clinically review and diagnose viral and bacterial infections.

3. Behavior change

Problem: 1 in 4 children under 5 years old have stunted growth due to malnourishment. The most crucial hold-your-breath time is during pregnancy and the child’s first two years.

Need: Find a way to provide mothers and babies with nutrition, access to basic health care, and instruction on feeding practices for children. They don’t have Flintstones gummies.

4. Data collection/Data insights

Problem: An estimated 230 million children have undocumented births. Without a government birth certificate, the child may prematurely enter marriage, the labor market or armed forces.

Need: Find a way for children to be officially registered despite living in the middle of nowhere, having limited supplies and lacking data collection capabilities.

Finding a sustainable, wearable solution

Once the wearables are designed and presented, judges will ask questions such as: Is the wearable comfortable, is it necessary, is it sustainably powered? Can it be scaled? How much of an improvement is it? Is it cost effective and easily maintained? Would you want your mom to use it?

Pressing challenges the judges are likely to focus on include:

  • Geographic distances to facilities

  • Low-quality services

  • Inadequately skilled personnel

  • Time constraints

  • Competing economic motivations

  • Social marginalization

Feeling like you’re in a leg lock? Don’t give up yet. The fashion fun is about to begin.

Wearables can be worn inside the body (cochlear implants, pacemakers, ingestible devices), on the body (head, ears, eyes, chest), or by a hospital bed near the body.

They can be low tech or high tech. Electronics are optional. A wearable is simply something worn as a solution to a problem. One low-tech device UNICEF uses (pictured right) is a multicolored arm measuring tape that shows at a glance whether a child is receiving enough nutrition. Green is good, yellow is concerning, red means “Get that kid to a doctor!”

Last year Intel also hosted a Make it Wearable competition, and the winners had incredible designs: a wearable drone camera that can fly, a low-cost robotic hand for amputees, and a glove that records data from goods handled.

Those are awesome devices for first-world countries. Now UNICEF is upping the ante by saying “Okay, now go save lives” and generally without electricity, or water, or access to anything but dirt. I can’t wait to see what’s invented. It’s going to be mind-blowingly simple, beautiful and, above all, life-saving.

This is the first project launched by ARM and UNICEF. ARM can’t get enough of UNICEF though and also agreed to work with the organization’s 14 Innovation Labs working on 270 projects. Most labs are located in developing countries. Each lab brings together business, universities, governments and civil society to develop solutions.

Ready to get started? Click here to sign up. If you win, you’ll receive $15,000 in funding and mentorship from ARM and Frog.

Making a wearable for good isn’t on your bucket list? You don’t have to work for UNICEF or participate in a competition to help innovate. UNICEF’s Innovate for Children website states that the organization partners with centers around the world in various development and implementation phases. You might find a project that fits your niche.

In the words of Kid President “This is life people! You’ve got air coming through your nose! You’ve got a heartbeat! That means it’s time to do somethin’! […] This is your time, this is my time. This is our time. We can make every day better for each other. We’ve got work to do. […] We can cry about it, or we can dance about it. You were made to be awesome. Let’s get out there! It’s everybody’s duty to do good and give the world a reason to dance.”

Image credits: UNICEF Wearables For Good Handbook and website

Renee Farris headshotRenee Farris

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

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