Innovators Changing Education, Health By Thinking Outside The Box

It's a "hybrid" approach to problem-solving and it's working.

This year’s Poptech Conference, a 19-year-old gathering for thinkers and world-changers, celebrated hybrid thinking across industry sectors, or “when disciplinary boundaries fall by the wayside.”

Held in Camden, Maine, the conference attracted designers and thinkers from all around the country who look beyond the frameworks often prescribed by their professions. It also honored a class of fellows -- innovators working on responses to some of the world’s toughest social problems.

Here are four projects discussed at the conference that are using hybrid thinking to tackle challenges in their industry.

OpenFn Helps Nonprofits Untangle Technologies

Many nonprofits struggle to juggle multiple technologies -- ODK to collect user data, Salesforce to manage and analyze that data, and Tableu to create visualizations from that data for reporting purposes. But because the backend of all these technologies uses completely different programming languages, nonprofits have to manually move data from one platform to the other. It’s like trying to speak English to someone who speaks Swahili through a translator -- it can be a long and laborious process.

Openfn makes that translation automatic.

Taylor Downs, founder of OpenFn and a 2015 Poptech fellow, witnessed the clunky way nonprofits were managing their technologies while volunteering at Grassroot Soccer, a nonprofit organization operating in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia that uses soccer to teach kids about HIV prevention. Downs worked with two other volunteers, Zak Kaufman and Karti Subramanian, who shared his frustration with the organizations’ painfully primitive data-tracking system. The program staff tracked all their data on stacks of paper and increasingly complex Excel files that were only updated quarterly. Downs, Kaufman, and Subramanian worked with Salesforce to help build an app that tracked each of the program’s beneficiaries and all subsequent testing, referral, treatment, and follow-up data.

From there, Downs launched OpenFn, which allows nonprofits to take an open source code and connect disparate technologies on their own without the need for a developer or programming knowledge. All the code can be manipulated and hosted on local servers. The website now links six different technologies in their marketplace (with more connections in the works) and have processed 197,543 transactions between technologies.  “Imagine the time it would take a human to manually process 200,000 forms, breaking them up into almost a million records to enter into a Salesforce system,” Downs said.

This service helps nonprofits operate more efficiently at a significantly lower cost than it would take to hire a developer. Users can log onto the Openfn “marketplace” where they can search for technologies to best fit their needs. If users need to sync up two different technologies, they can choose from a drop down menu of six different technologies and teach the computer what to do. For example, users can teach the computer to automatically create a new entry for lab results in the data visualization software DHIS2 every time a new patient is registered in the software CommCare, a client-tracking software. In the future, users can vote for new integrations between technologies, and third-party developers can write and submit "adapters" to add connections.

African Leadership Academy Rethinks Higher Education

A classroom that is neither online-based nor completely brick and mortar. A college where you don’t have to choose between political science or theater.

These are both elements of the African Leadership Academy, a unique approach to higher education created by social entrepreneur Fred Swaniker. Studies have shown that increased higher education prospects lead directly to poverty alleviation, but Africa’s higher education system still struggles to match supply to demand. To give a sense of the scope of the problem: according to the nonprofit World Education Services, in 2013, 1.7 million students registered for Nigeria’s college exams, all competing for the half million places available, which left over a million qualified college-age Nigerians without access to college education. And this is despite the fact that the number of universities in Nigeria has grown from 51 to 128 since 2005.

Instead of feeling dejected by this dearth of education resources in Africa, Swaniker saw an opportunity to reinvent the system. “Do we want to borrow a model from the West that is clearly flawed and that many people are questioning? Or could we could use the chance we have in Africa, where we don’t have much to actually reinvent higher education, and build the universities of the future?” he said during his Poptech presentation.

In 2004, Swaniker started the African Leadership Academy with CEO Chris Bradford. The Leadership Academy runs a two-year pre-university program that identifies African youth who have the passion, drive and potential to create change on the African continent and gives them a world-class education that prepares them for university anywhere else in the world.

The African Leadership Academy harnesses technology to achieve its goals in a cost-effective way. For example, after hearing from students that peer learning was sometimes more effective than learning from a teacher, Swaniker started courses where students would learn the curriculum themselves through an e-learning platform and help each other. A professor would be on hand to answer questions and provide additional support. In addition, classes at the African Leadership Academy beam in professors from all over the world through video. Swaniker says he wants students to learn from the very best professors, no matter where they might be. The school provides all this and offers significant financial aid in the form of forgivable loans if the student returns to Africa and works for at least 10 years on the continent.

Currently, the African Leadership Academy has worked with 735 youth across 44 countries. Many of them have continued on to create non-profit and for-profit ventures in Africa, or continued on to college in other parts of the world. Collectively, alumni at the African Leadership Academy have won $74 million in scholarships at these universities. By thinking beyond traditional academic models, the African Leadership Academy is able to provide an effective education with limited resources. Makes Money Affordable


Over 2 billion people in the world do not have bank accounts, which means that cashing checks and sending money can be difficult. Currently, this kind of money-moving incurs exorbitant fees for people in developing countries, says Joyce Kim, co-founder of Stellar is a network that enables money to move directly between people, companies and financial institutions digitally. It digitizes the entire process, which drastically reduces transaction costs to almost zero.

Like the internet, Stellar is a network of decentralized servers that powers a distributed ledger. The ledger records every transaction in the system for people and companies alike. A global copy of the ledger exists on every local server. The servers communicate with one another every 2-3 seconds to verify transactions and sync ledgers. The ledgers record your money as a kind of “virtual wallet” which can be disbursed as actual cash (kind of like the way Paypal works now) at participating banks and other financial institutions. People can send each other money in any currency with little to no transaction cost.

The network currently connects users in over 100 countries and processes roughly six million accounts (not all of them are unique users). Currently, Stellar is amplifying their impact by working with microfinance organizations to help them transfer money more efficiently.

It’s rare to see a financial technology startup run as a nonprofit and Kim said they experienced initial resistance from both sectors. “In the nonprofit world, people didn’t like us because they thought we were too money-focused, and in the tech world, they didn’t like that we were a nonprofit,” she said. “In the end, we took the best parts of each industry and left behind the things that didn’t work.” She hopes that more tech start-ups will think about trying a nonprofit model.

City Health Works Trains Peer Health Educators 




Chronic health conditions—heart disease, asthma, diabetes, obesity, and others—are a huge problem in our country. According to studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about half of all adults in the United States had one or more chronic health conditions in 2012. One of four adults had two or more chronic health conditions. In addition, seven of the top ten causes of death in 2010 were chronic diseases.

But preventing and treating chronic illnesses can be tricky under the current healthcare model. Because doctors have to see so many patients, they often aren’t able to support patients through the necessary long-term nutritional and behavioral changes to keep chronic illness under check. Studies have shown that new doctors often don’t spend more than eight minutes with their patients.

To address this problem, Manmeet Kaur, another 2015 Poptech fellow, borrowed from her experience in Cape Town, South Africa. In Cape Town, nonprofit organizations would tackle chronic health problems by hiring people from the community as peer health educators.

“They didn’t necessarily have medical backgrounds,” Kaur said. “They were just local residents who were willing to help out.”  

Kaur realized that this model might have a place in her neighborhood in New York City. She launched City Health Works in 2013 with six “health coaches” who paid house visits to members of the community and taught them about everything from how to take their pills to dietary recommendations. Many of these clients live below the poverty line and speak limited English. “No one makes sure they have a list of things to do day to day.”

City Health Works’ model challenges our current physician-based system by blending social work and medical care. Although not doctors, City Health Works’ health coaches are extremely valuable because of the way they can connect and empathize with patients. “Health is very personal,” Kaur said. To that end, City Health Works selects coaches that are part of the community, bilingual, and have similar life experiences to the people in the community.

Since launching services in 2013, City Health Works has served about 250 clients. In 2016, they hope to serve 500 clients through grant funding and eventually hope to serve people all over New York. The organization will be analyzing data in the coming year to evaluate effectiveness, but so far, the anecdotal feedback has been very positive. Karen Johnson, a City Health Works client, says her health coaches have helped her control her diabetes. “I once had very high sugars because and had to make a visit to the emergency room,” Johnson recalls. “Before even calling 911, I gave my Health Coach a call, since I would rather speak to someone familiar.” The health coach walked Johnson through what to expect and steps she could take to help herself get everything under control.

According to a 2007 study published by the Milken Institute, chronic diseases cost the U.S. a total of $1.3 trillion every year. Those costs could balloon to $6 trillion by the middle of the century. But as City Health Works’ model indicates, chronic disease doesn’t have to be managed using the existing physician model. By thinking outside the box and utilizing people from the community, we could alleviate a lot of the pressure on our healthcare system.

Jenny J. Chen is a freelance writer based in D.C. She writes on health, environment, race, and innovation for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and NPR. More of her work is at