Focus on Netexplo 2014: the emerging trends in the use of digital technology

All 2014 Netexplo award winners. © Loran Dherines

The 7th edition of the Netexplo Forum was held at UNESCO on 26 and 28 March 2014. Over the two days, the event has gathered more than 1600 business, media and political decision-makers. This year’s edition was characterized by the virtual participation of young people expressing their views on the Netexplo innovations awards (Digital Young Leaders), and a third day completely online hosted on DailyMotion with a series of roundtables on the themes of the forum.

The Forum also attracted more than 12,000 online visitors from 60 countries worldwide for more than 27,000 connections, the best performance since its beginning in 2008. Through its network of 200 experts from universities around the world, Netexplo identifies every year the emerging trends and innovations in the use of digital technology, shaping the society of tomorrow, where digital technology is more and more integrated and individuals are more and more connected. Unique in its approach, Netexplo focuses on the multiple aspects of digital technology and their impact on our society, by revealing the most innovative projects from every continent, including inspirational initiatives from the emerging and developing markets.

The Forum was opened by Mr Getachew Engida, Deputy Director-General of UNESCO, and by Mr Thierry Happe, co-founder of the Netexplo Forum.

Catherine Morin-Desailly (left), French Senat, Yotam Cohen and Zohar Dayan (right), WIBBITZ. © Loran Dherines

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web by Sir Tim Berners Lee, Mr Engida recalled the synergies between the Forum and the ambitions and mandate of UNESCO:  “it is not technology that  can change the world [but rather] the use that we make of it”, he said.

The Grand Prix of this edition was awarded to WIBBITZ, an Israeli start-up which has developed an innovative application to quickly transform any text article into a short video (and audio) news less than 2 minutes long.

Juliana Rotich (right), BRCK. © Loran Dherines

Among the outstanding innovations which won an award at Netexplo is BRCK, an innovation made in Kenya by the team who invented world-known tools such Ushahidi (Netexplo award 2009), Crowdmap and the iHub.

“We designed the BRCK for the changing ways we connect to the web around the world, from cafes-hoppers in San Francisco to struggling coders in Nairobi”, says Juliana Rotich, from Ushahidi.

At the heart of Netexplo is the analysis and decryption of digital trends revealed by the innovations identified in the previous 12 months. The keynote by Julien Levy, professor at HEC Paris, gave the Netexplo audience an exceptional and insightful analysis of the Trend Report 2014: “My Life with Data”.

This year's Forum awards were selected among a large pool of 1,034 projects, of which around 70% were developed by start-ups. Interestingly, most of these innovations are developed as mobile applications and most of them also deal with large amounts of data, in line with the current trends explained by Professor Levy in his presentation. Three main trends were decrypted at Netexplo: modeling space; modeling the body; and modeling behaviour.

Modeling space

Nimesha RANASINGHE, Digital Lollipop. © Alain Beauvais

Netexplo's award Click & Walk, a service proposed by a French firm, uses a new “crowd-walking” scheme for visualizing and analyzing data captured by a network of 90,000 users for quick micro-surveys for brands and distribution chains, revealing sources and data until now largely unexplored. Conversely, the awarded project Shodan puts in place an innovative search engine identifying 1,5 billion connected objects worldwide.

Many new services are used to model and break the barriers of space in ways which were impossible until now: for example Netexplo's award winner Digital Lollipop, developed by the National University of Singapore allows the transmission of taste on the tongue by means of electrical impulses.

Modeling the body

Marc Pollefeys (right), Mobile 3D Scanner. © Loran Dherines

The body is more and more seen by technology as a data-source, and has become the object of surveillance and monitoring through different kinds of devices. Several services operate this “quantification” of the body: among those, the Netexplo award SimSensei proposes a tool for psychological distress diagnosis through a simple video interview operated by a digital avatar.  The tool analyzes objective measurements of the user’s verbal and nonverbal behavior and can allow the clinician or healthcare provider to make a more informed diagnosis. 

With the advent of 3D printing, the Forum explored the transition from biometrics to bionics with technology that prints human skin (SkinPrint), reducing the risk of rejection by the body.

At the same time, Mobile 3D scanner proposed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, is an application that transforms a smartphone into a 3D scanner, reconstructing a 3D representation based on a very large number of photos taken from different viewpoints by the phone’s in-built camera.

Modeling behaviour

Johann Huber (right), Soma. © Loran Dherines

The increased capacity of major internet platforms to track users' data is certainly giving rise to questions linked to privacy and the data exploitation by business. Are we heading towards transparency by surveillance, asks Professor Levy in his trend analysis.

Developed by a team of German students, Soma Analytics identifies stress-related behaviour among people at work by measuring the warning signs of a burnout: voice pitch, quality of sleep, and typos on computer keyboards.

On the same line, a number of innovations spotted by the Netexplo international networks seem to prefigure an increased monitoring of behavior at work, in a quest for increased productivity and “useful” interaction among employees.

However, among this year's awards is Jelly, an application created by one of the co-founders of Twitter (a Netexplo award winner in 2008) proposing a way of helping each other in a connected society: the application offers a new way to search, based on images and the sharing of knowledge on social networks. Jelly is a cousin of classic search engines: the user asks a question, and the search engine provides one or more answers. 

The Forum has also addressed several other topics such as the dissemination of knowledge in Africa through digital technologies; or the experience of Start-up Chile as a way to promote the digital economy in Latin America.

The Internet: a human and social issue

Getachew Engida, Deputy Director-General, UNESCO. © Alain Beauvais

Most, if not all of these fascinating innovations would not have been possible without the Internet and the Web. In his introductory speech, UNESCO's Deputy Director-General Mr. Engida Getachew strongly reaffirmed that “the web is not a technical and technological issue [but] a human and social issue”.

As of today, the Internet sees each and every minute, hundreds of millions of messages sent by its 3 billion connected users. It is full of human stories and emotions and shaped by human practices and behaviors.

Netexplo demonstrates that the digital revolution is impacting on all spheres of public and private life and brings with it unparalleled opportunities and challenges. UNESCO's vision of knowledge societies moves the focus beyond technology and infrastructure, to emphasize the centrality of human beings.

This is why, said Mr Engida, “we cannot just invest in technology –- we must invest in ecosystems – in quality education, in media literacy, in public policies fostering freedom of expression, freedom of the media.”

UNESCO's role and mandate aim at developing support to applications and services, with investment in relevant content, in local languages, drawing on the richness of cultural diversity for mutual understanding and creativity. The richness and international dimensions of the Netexplo Forum support UNESCO's effort to sustain creativity and innovation in all aspects of society.

Meanwhile, many ethical challenges and questions were raised during Netexplo's round tables and through some of the innovations presented at the Forum. UNESCO works in this area since the very beginning of the Web, in the '90s, and has recently been mandated by its Member States to prepare a comprehensive study of Internet-related issues within the mandate of UNESCO, including access to information and knowledge, freedom of expression, privacy, and ethical dimensions of the information society. UNESCO will do so through an inclusive multi-stakeholder process which includes governments, private sector, civil society, international organizations and the technical community.

The successful partnership between UNESCO and the Netexplo Forum contributes with quality substance to these debates.

Discover all the winners of the 2014 Forum Netexplo: http://en.www.netexplo.org/palmares/2014/top10

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