Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) has donated an accumulated US$190mn since 2003 in software and cash to community programs for Latin America and is seeing increasing innovation opportunities as part of its philanthropic work.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Third Global Forum on Telecenters held this week in Santiago, Chile, Akhtar Badshah, Microsoft's community affairs senior director, told BNamericas that the purpose of the company's philanthropic projects is to empower people through training programs to use technology for economic and social development.
The company not only provides software but also helps to draw up curriculums for teaching basic IT literacy skills. In 2010 alone, Microsoft donated US$16mn in Latin America and more than US$600mn worldwide.
According to Badshah, Microsoft sees its role as a facilitator. "We teach people how to use computers, from basic literacy to Microsoft certification," he said.
The company chooses to partner with a range of not-for-profit organizations using strict criteria, but then does not interfere much in running the projects or police them too strictly. Rather, it bases a lot of the relationship on trust that the organizations will use the resources wisely and for the right purpose.
"Once we've written a check, we leave them alone. Let them do what they're supposed to do," he said.
Marcia Teixeira, community affairs and internet safety lead for Microsoft Latin America, told BNamericas that one of the most emblematic projects with which Microsoft has partnered in the region is Poeta (the Partnership in Opportunities for Employment through Technologies in the Americas), launched by the Organization of American States and Microsoft in 2005.
Poeta seeks to train people with disabilities in Latin America through a series of technology centers and prepare them for the workforce.
According to Teixeira, there are 55mn disabled people in Latin America, 80% of whom are out of work, compared with the average rate of unemployment for non-disabled Latin Americans of around 8-9%.
Another project is the ChileConect initiative where Microsoft partnered with Chilean telco Entel, PC manufacturer Olidata and the Universidad Católica to install mobile telecommunications centers in the parts of the country's south most affected by the February 2010 earthquake.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MOBILITY
According to Badshah, Nokia's recent agreement with Microsoft to use the latter's Windows Mobile operating system on its phones could potentially lead to socially beneficial initiatives, given the considerable penetration of low-end Nokia phones in emerging markets.
"With our partnership with Nokia we'll have an interesting play with a company that has half a billion users. So you will get our researchers thinking not just about the smartphone device but other phones," Badshah said.
Microsoft works with a lot of not-for-profit organizations and microfinance companies, many of which have to transfer data in remote areas, meaning that mobile is often the easiest means.
One of Microsoft's partners is NetHope, a consortium of 32 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that specializes in improving IT connectivity among humanitarian organizations in developing countries and areas affected by disaster.
Within days of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, NetHope had set up telecommunications links among a dozen relief groups, helped by a US$1.25mn donation from Microsoft and its partnerships with Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Intel (Nasdaq: INTC).
As most people around the world do not use smartphones but feature phones, NetHope has also devised systems for sending critical data via SMS.
USING COMMERCIAL TECHNOLOGY FOR SOCIAL ENDS
People often find uses for technology that go beyond what it was originally designed for. Such is the case with Microsoft's Kinect technology, which was developed as an innovative interface for interacting with Xbox game consoles using gestures and spoken commands rather than a game controller or a mouse.
University scientists in the UK are developing robots using Kinect's motion-sensing technology to search in unstable buildings for survivors following earthquakes.
Meanwhile, researchers in Seattle are exploring how Kinect can give surgeons a sense of touch during remote procedures.
And others are studying how Kinect's movement sensor and voice control technology can make computers more accessible to people with physical or cognitive disabilities such as blindness.
In 2011, Microsoft Research is due to release a free software development kit for non-commercial applications of Kinect.
According to Badshah, the Kinect technology costs around US$150, which is relatively affordable compared with a lot of medical technology.
"At the end of the day you should think about it from the perspective of how relevant, how affordable and how accessible what we're doing is," he said.
Social networking and other cloud-based tools are also enabling not-for-profit organizations to knit together web-based experiences. The ability to share and exchange information can also lead to more effective community building and increased transparency.