Tech group drags non-profits into IT Age | Bangkok Post: tech

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Tech group drags non-profits into IT Age

Opendream's successes include launch of 'medical Google'.

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The advent of information technology (IT), particularly the internet, has brought millions of companies online, each vying to capitalise on and empower themselves through the new medium. 

While the capital-rich private sector has been adept at harnessing the benefits of IT, non-profit and civil society groups have been left behind in this race.

"One of the biggest hindrances to the success of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or civil society groups is their lack of access to the communication channels made possible by IT," said Patipat Susumpow, a 31-year-old computer science graduate and the founder of Opendream Co.

"As an IT guy, I thought I can be the bridge between NGOs and the public by using available technology to create a channel of communication between them."

Opendream was established in 2008 as a social enterprise aimed at empowering the non-profit sector by offering NGOs their expertise in internet solution development and information design.

Despite being a social enterprise, Opendream operates in most ways like a business. It selects clients based on both their potential to have a positive impact on society and the amount of revenue the company can generate from them.

"However, as our intention is to optimise profits, not maximise them, organisations with the potential to make a huge impact but with a low budget will also be taken on," said Mr Patipat.

He said the costs of taking on such a client are covered by profits generated from other projects. For social enterprises to be sustainable, they must be financially stable and not run on a deficit.

Opendream has 300 clients _ 90% from the non-profit sector and 10% from the private sector.

The company's first major undertaking was to design a web-information platform for the Folk Doctor Foundation, an organisation committed to raising awareness of health issues and their remedies among the general public.

"For the last 30 years, the foundation has been producing more than 10,000 publications of very informative and reliable materials on health for the public, but it turns out very few people have access to them," said Mr Patipat.

Opendream created a framework for converting the organisation's printed material into electronic text and developed a comprehensive website that linked together the information produced by the foundation.

"This website is something similar to a medical Google. It enabled users to search for an illness and related issues of interest very easily simply by typing in some keywords," said Mr Patipat.

He said the change brought about by the new website was "phenomenal". The old version was accessed only by 1,000 users a month. With the relaunch, the website registered 100,000 users in the first month alone. Currently, the site gets 300,000 visitors each month.

Last year, Opendream collaborated on the launch of DoctorMe, Thailand's first mobile phone health app. It provides reliable information so users can diagnose their own health problems before rushing to see a doctor.

The app also locates hospitals in close proximity to the user, guides him or her to it with maps and provides instant connection to the institute via telephone.

With 300,000 downloads so far, DoctorMe is the No.1 health and fitness app in Thailand's Apple App Store and Android Market.

Opendream has developed websites for former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, the Somchai Neelapaijit Award Fund, the Office of Knowledge Management and Development Thailand and private firms including TMB Bank and ING Life.

Opendream has also worked with international organisations such as the Google Foundation, the UN Development Programme, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Oxfam GB.

In 2010, the company branched out into consulting and research and was hired to work on Oxfam's Mobile Technology for Social Development project.

That project is aimed at empowering rural residents through the use of available technology, said Mr Patipat.

Villagers in very remote parts of in Cambodia, Indonesia and Philippines do not have access to radio or TV but do have mobiles. The project, implemented so far in three Cambodian provinces, provides farmers with up-to-date information on median prices of goods in the form of text messages.

"Our research found farmers are often taken advantage of by middlemen, as they don't know how much the median prices of goods are," said Mr Patipat.

"The government sends out the information over radio, but many farmers don't have access to radios to receive this information."

Mr Patipat said similar projects are in the pipeline for implementation in other countries.

Opendream's social business doubled annually during its first three years of operations. However, its growth is expected to slow to 50% this year.

"A big challenge in achieving long-term growth for social enterprises like us is the absence of social venture capital," said Mr Patipat.

"Expanding our business is difficult. To grow, we have to use our own revenue stream."

Opendream's profit margin varies from 5-15%, depending on the type of project and client.

As much as 30% of profits are kept for cost subsidisation for clients with small budgets but huge potential.

Sixty percent of profits goes towards salaries, expanding the IT team, upgrading equipment and maintaining the company's cash flow.

The remaining 10% is kept aside as year-end bonuses for staff.

Mr Patipat hopes Opendream will one day be listed on the stock market.

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