1 Foot in Humanitarianism, 1 Foot in Tech

Joe ProBono was created around the value of: giving. During the COVID-19 crisis, we are proud to stand true to our values, and are continuing to offer pro bono services to those who desperately need it. We are thrilled to see other technology companies shifting to humanitarianism to support their communities as well. But, with one foot in humanitarianism, and one foot in tech, what are the best practices for creating a solution in this environment? Sharing insight into these unique business challenges is Ivan Gayton, former Head of Mission and Board Member at Doctors without Borders, who worked actively as part of the Cholera outbreak after the earthquake in Haiti, as well as the Ebola response and many others, who we recently had the pleasure of interviewing with. Here are some key take-aways:


Q: What’s the biggest mistake technology-oriented solutions make?

A: Starting with a solution.

People naturally want to help, and they have a solution they love. “I have this hammer, where’s the nail?” The key is, find the problem first. Look at who is actually having an impact and ask them, who helped you? How did they help you? In software startups, the idea is not to build something for scale-first, but to find someone who has a really serious problem and solve it deeply and well. The idea is just the same for humanitarian efforts. Don’t worry about solving everyone’s problem, just solve that one problem, and do it well. Move on to the next person, and keep iterating and refining your process until you get to a point you can scale. By then, you will have a reserve of people who champion your product already, so bringing it to a mass-audience will be much easier.


Q: Where to find a problem?

A: Clinics.

Many of the successful projects Ivan has seen has come from a clinician setting. Government-vetted challenges are often a good place to start as well, since they usually are in contact with hospitals and like-facilities, and can advocate for their challenges. In general, starting from the lower-level, that is places where the impact is direct, is more helpful than starting from the higher-level, places that are indirectly affected.


Q: What are some examples of a genuine problem that is worth pursuing?

A: Aligning incentives, shortage of tests, and sharper messaging.

The deepest problem in almost every epidemic, is aligning incentives. You don’t control an epidemic by treatment or vaccines, you do it by bringing the reproductivity rate below 1. The reproductivity-rate is the rate of which one infected person can spread it to others. For instance, if one person with COVID-19 infected 4 people on average, the reproductivity-rate, also known as r naught, would be 4. In order to bring r naught to below 1, people need to get tested, so that the infected can be identified and properly isolated. But why would anyone want to get tested in this environment? If you test positive, you lose your job and you’re ostracized from your friends and family. Without insurance, the hospital visit itself can be costly, and there’s no real method of treating it. There must be a level of comfort in people, that is if you’re tested you can be guaranteed of good care and minimal downside to you, or at least be motivated by messaging that the downside to you is so beneficial to the rest of the population that you can be motivated to test through selflessness. Of course, there’s a lack of testing right now at least in the U.S., which is another problem entirely. 


On the other hand, we have messaging from the government and media that has gone awry. People are hoarding toilet paper and sanitizer instead of the most effective treatment, soap and water. So clearly, there is a fundamental lack of clear messaging. In order to align incentives, we need to start with the messaging and make sure people have accurate information at all times and aren’t being swayed by public fears and ‘panic-buying’, which, as we see, isn’t helping anyone right now.


Q: What are your opinions on the homemade medical supplies controversy?

A: In this case, it’s acceptable.

Normally, I’m against homemade medical supplies. However, because of the inevitable shortage of supplies, especially in the U.S., it may be a necessity. But still take the appropriate steps when designing homemade medical supplies. DO NOT do it if you do not have a medical client on your team, that is someone who has direct experience and credentials to assist with your design.



In order to really help with the COVID-19 crisis from a technological perspective, start with the problem, not with the solution. Start solving a very small, concentrated group of people or even one person’s problem and refining your product before taking it to scale. The best place to find the problems to start with is at clinics. Beyond that, problems worth solving are aligning incentives, addressing the shortage of tests, especially in the U.S., and giving people a clearer and sharper message on what to do and what not to do during the coronavirus epidemic. Homemade medical supplies may be a necessity, but exercise extreme caution, and make sure to have a qualified medical team member.


As a disclaimer, the opinions expressed in this piece are not factual authority. Please continue to follow all official guidelines from WHO and your local and federal authorities.

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