By Pilar Lagos

In the last 10 years, the number of internet users has grown to nearly 3 billion. A billion more people are expected to come online for the first time through mobile devices by 2017. What’s exciting? The next billion users will connect from places like Cairo to São Paulo; from emerging nations.

Since 2013, Quartz, an online media company focusing on international business news, has been hosting Quartz: The Next Billion, an event that brings together thought leaders and experts to discuss the challenges and opportunities of connectivity in industries including education, health, technology, commerce, and finance around the world.

On 16 November, Norah Maki, Academic Partnerships Lead and I went to Quartz: The Next Billion New York. We heard about the importance of equal access to education, how technology is changing the quality of life for those without an address, and which skills are helping to transform people with criminal records into entrepreneurs.

I’d like to share with you three companies that, in my opinion, are impacting the internet by reaching people in the last mile, and preparing for next billion users:  

1.  Duolingo – An internet as diverse as the world’s languages

With the idea that everyone should have free access to education, Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker came up with a science-based language education platform known as Duolingo. Duolingo is a free language learning app that, through a game like-system, allows users to earn points for each correct answer. It’s a bit addicting too! I’m currently juggling intermediate French and beginner Dutch.

Photo: Screenshot of Duolingo's site.
Photo: Screenshot of Duolingo’s site.

There is one thing Luis von Ahn said that caught my attention: the different motivations behind learning a language. According to Luis, the number one reason why people in developing countries want to learn English is to get out of poverty. And in developed nations, people primarily learn languages as a hobby. To learn more about Duolingo, watch Luis von Ahn’s presentation here.

Facts about Duolingo:

  • Duolingo has 100 million registered users
  • All public schools in Colombia, Costa Rica, and Guatemala are using Duolingo to learn English
  • Schools in developed countries like Canada are also using Duolingo in the classrooms
  • Duolingo was selected “iPhone App of the Year” in 2013

2. what3words –  A solution for the world’s addressless

Did you know that there are 4 billion people that don’t have a physical address? Coming from Honduras, I know the frustration of not having an address. About 15 years ago, a German friend sent me a package from Berlin to Tegucigalpa, my hometown, by air mail. For a few months, I was hopeful that I would eventually receive the package. That didn’t happen.

How then do you provide services to people that don’t have addresses? Chris Sheldrick and Jack Waley-Cohen, co-founders of what3words came up with the idea of using a universal addressing system based on a 3mx3m global grid. This system is called what3words. The way it works is simple: it encodes geographic coordinates into 3 universal dictionary words (for example, the Statue of Liberty is located at planet.inches.most)

Statue of Liberty. Photo: Screenshot of what3words desktop application
Statue of Liberty. Photo: Screenshot of what3words desktop application
what3words-1
Check out how each 3mx3m square has a different name. Cool, huh?! Photo: what3words

Did you know that the biggest postal service in Brazil now uses what3words to deliver packages? What3words has been used to deliver light to slums in India and, in Tanzania, it’s been used to find out where people put mosquito nets. To learn more about the applications of what3words in developed and developing countries, click here.

Facts about what3words:

  • what3words functions without a data connection
  • what3words is available in 9 languages: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Swahili, Russian, German, Turkish, and Swedish, with new languages on the way
  • The United Nations has built what3words into their disaster reporting app to improve the delivery of humanitarian or development services
  • what3words is more accurate than a postal address and it’s much easier to remember, use and share than a set of coordinates

3. Defy Ventures -Transforming the previously incarcerated into entrepreneurs

Did you know that 2.2 million people in the United States are currently incarcerated? That represents 0.69% of the population in the United States. According to the American Prison Data Systems (APDS), 50% of inmates will return to prison within 3 years of release. But what if you had the power to change that statistic by giving second chances to previously incarcerated people? What if you invested time to teach former inmates about the internet and social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram to ensure they are equipped with the necessary social skills to transition back into society?

In 2010, Catherine Hoke, founder and CEO of Defy Ventures discovered that many of the incarcerated men she met shared qualities with the visionary entrepreneurs she worked with every day —a drive for profit and the willingness to take calculated risks. Catherine also learned that many gangs and drug rings are run similarly to corporations—with sophisticated governance, bylaws, detailed bookkeeping, and complex marketing strategies.

Photo: Defy Ventures
Photo: Courtesy of Defy Ventures

Catherine founded Defy Ventures, an NGO that transforms the lives of business leaders and people with criminal histories. Catherine also led the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a nonprofit organization that serves men throughout the Texas prison system. Want to learn more about Defy Ventures? Click here.

Facts about Defy Ventures:

  • Through an Entrepreneur in Residence program, Defy Ventures incubates and finances graduates’ start-ups with the goal of creating scalable, profitable home run businesses that employ other Defy grads
  • Financed and incubated over 100 startups founded by entrepreneurs-in-training
  • Recidivism for served entrepreneurs-in-training is less than 3%
  • Entrepreneurs-in-training report an 83% income increase and 95% employment rate within 7 months of enrolling in Defy Ventures

Conclusion

I have to say, going to Quartz: The Next Billion strung a few cords. It challenged me to think about the importance of reaching people living in developed and developing countries and what services and products we can provide to ensure that their quality of life improves. It also got me thinking about how we can apply some of these business models to reach and serve the most marginalized children.

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