Project Literacy Makethon: Technology, Literacy and How A Diverse Group Can Deliver Real Solutions

Project Literacy helps children read

I had the chance to participate in the Project Literacy Makethon in partnership with Mashable on September 12, 2015 in San Francisco, CA. Project Literacy, a major new campaign convened by Pearson, seeks to make significant and sustainable advances in literacy over the next five years, so that all children, no matter their geography, language, race, class, or gender—can grow up to be literate adults. This event focused on building new tools, web apps, websites and data visualizations designed to make learning to read more accessible, fun and effective.

As a judge on the panel, it is always amazing to discover what a newly formed team, generally strangers prior to the event, are able to create in just six hours.

I used criteria very similar to those I apply when deciding on which social ventures will receive angel funding (see My Five Criteria for Evaluating an Investment), including:

  • Gut reaction—What was my overall first impression of this app?
  • Impact—Is the app is solving a real problem in an innovative way?
  • Innovative concept—Is the app’s concept creative, forward thinking, innovative and resourceful?
  • Usability—Is it easy to learn? Can the content be quickly navigated? Does the learner receive value early?
  • Ability to scale—Is the project the start of something bigger?
  • Execution—What was the team able to deliver in just a few hours? How well did the team work together?

All in all I was impressed by each team and how they used technology to create new possibilities.

Every team included members with very diverse professional and cultural backgrounds, and a few other common themes emerged, including:

  • Leveraging an array of multi-sensory assets in the form of video, voice or text to build part of their solution.
  • Utilizing open APIs published by leading technology companies.
  • Employing rapid prototyping skills to deliver working apps.

Here are a few examples of solutions:

  • In just under six hours the second place team, YouRhyme, had a working demo using YouTube’s API for a reading learning app that employed rhyming as an education method.
  • The Winning team, Read-Write, and the third place team, GOCabulary, both turned to Google translation APIs to deliver multi-lingual context, such as those found in India with its many local dialects, and English in the US, with its many Spanish speakers.
  • Two of the three projects designed-in the ability to map images to text to help mobile learners obtain a translation of a sign they could not read.

The big difference maker between all these great projects came from the Read-Write team who made accessibility a key project feature.

While most of the projects needed access to the Internet, through either a browser or a smart phone, the Read-Write team focused on a low-cost, low-power device that could deliver as much value as the smartphone.

Something else was special about that team as well:  they had members who were close to the target audience they were trying to help. In addition, unlike many participants at this event, they combined a rich knowledge of hardware with their software engineering expertise that enabled them to design an end-to-end solution. Team diversity, and having members who understand the target population well can be a golden bullet for success.

The event was a great reminder about the need for rapid prototyping. Teams really do not need months to get a prototype working. If they concentrate on creating a prototype early, it is so much easier to sell an idea or build a case about a proposed solution. Start-ups should always include prototyping capabilities in every product team so they can more rapidly evolve their solutions from concept to value delivery.

Project Literacy logo

Read more about Project Literary here.

Read the Mashable announcement here: Join Mashable and Project Literacy for a ‘makeathon’ to tackle illiteracy

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