Interesting beneficial uses of the Web?

by Eszter Hargittai on November 14, 2006

I’m collecting examples of interesting ways in which people use various online services for their benefit. Of course, I can come up with lots of hypotheticals and examples from my own life, but it’s helpful to have concrete cases from the world at large.

Here, for example, is an interesting case of IT being put to use for the potential benefit of folks in a realm having little to do with IT. It’s about the use of Google Earth to back up claims about the value of some land that the government in India wants to acquire from farmers for limited compensation. The piece doesn’t say whether the use of these images ultimately led to a different outcome, but the potential is there.

Another relevant example is how people exploit spelling errors on ebay listings to get good deals. Because most people searching for those items don’t find them, there is much less of a bidding war and the final price is lower than would be otherwise. There are now even Web sites that help you exploit this, for example, eBooBoos does the guessing on your behalf. The results of a search on “turtle” yield items such as a turle neck sweater or a trutle box. (One wonders why ebay hasn’t worked on this issue in-house, but that’s another matter.)

I am looking for other examples concerning the beneficial uses of IT by average folks in particular, although interesting uses by super techies are welcomed as well. I’m not so much interested in (this time around) cases of xyz Web site helping to deal with other realms of IT uses (e.g. a handy tool for following blog posts), but uses that have a relatively direct impact on other realms of life as well. If you can share pointers to articles like the one above regarding the farmers in India that would be great. I also welcome stories from personal experiences. This is all related to some talks and papers I’m working on. Thanks!



Deron Bauman 11.14.06 at 1:03 pm

I use google’s spreadsheet application as a modified to-do list based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done book.


Paul C 11.14.06 at 1:41 pm

I guess that would be my entire career, which consists mainly of working out how to use various aspects of IT in humanitarian action, disaster response, post-conflict reconstruction, etc. If you’re looking for specifics that I’m involved with:

Sahana is an open source application for disaster response that’s been used in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Pakistan and Indonesia. I’ll be leaving this Sunday for DR Congo to prep for a deployment there. A good example of open source development for a non-technical end user.

Aid Workers Network is a community website that provides a forum for aidworkers to share their experiences, aggregates aidblogs and provides a range of advice pages written by aid workers. A good example of the Web enabling the formation of a community service that couldn’t otherwise exist.

– The Humanitarian Information Centers established by UN OCHA in various countries (I worked Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Liberia), particularly for their pioneering use of GIS in the humanitarian sector.

NetHope is an interagency collaboration for improving telecommunications access in remote locations, a good example of how the lowering costs of satellite communications have made better communications possible.

BrightEarth is a project which is exploring how to use new map-related technology (yes, like Google Earth) for purposes like mapping human rights abuses more effectively (yes, like in Darfur).

There’s a load more of these kind of projects out there; I blog about some of them at I guess it also depends on what your definition of IT is, since you’re talking specifically about web-based services in your post – just one aspect of IT. The technology that’s probably had the biggest impact on the everyday lives of people in developing countries is mobile telephony – MobileActive has good coverage in this area.


zabuni 11.14.06 at 1:47 pm

There’s always the use of Myspace by independent musicians.

Online Numismatics and fake coin spotting.


Ask Metafilter is pretty much the end all of advice sites. Everything from what to do with the rest of one’s life to how to get stains out of the carpet.


Aidan Kehoe 11.14.06 at 3:35 pm

That’s a very, very general question, which may be why you’re not being inundated with answers.

I worked once upon a time for a company where I helped people orient satellite dishes by telephone. was really useful for that, because the orientation of a dish is dependent on the user’s latitude and longitude, and their coverage of Europe was good enough that we could determine where they were from their address.

And now, Microsoft seem to have crippled that—this should not give me an error—and after my day developing on Windows, I’m asking myself why I quit that job developing code on Unix, where when breakage happens, it has rhyme and reason, and you can pre-emptively avoid it by paying attention. Argh.


India 11.14.06 at 4:12 pm

I know a book jacket designer who uses blogs to present comps (sample designs) to his clients.

He has a separate blog for each publisher and posts a separate blog entry for each title, usually presenting three to ten comps per entry. The client can then review the samples whenever is convenient and post comments.

This way both designer and client avoid a lot of file-transfer headaches, as well as having to deal with a zillion separate image files.


Eszter 11.14.06 at 4:18 pm

Aidan – yes, you’re right that it is a very general question. That was partly on purpose, although certainly not with the intention of stifling discussion.

Most of people’s comments above have to do with discussion groups, which is interesting in and of itself. It reminds me of the post I wrote last year about the Mr.Excel forums.

I tried to be specific by pointing out that I was looking for examples with real-life benefits as opposed to pointers to resources that are set up to help people, but we don’t necessarily know whether they actually do. For example, Zabuni mentions the use of MySpace by musicians, which is a great point.

On that note, what I would *really* like to see is a story about a singer or band reflecting on how they think use of MySpace helped their musical career. That is, we know lots of artists use MySpace to get their work out to audiences. But how many of these result in any fame or fortune (and I’m willing to be flexible in defining those terms)? So I’ll be more specific in this comment: does anyone know of such a success story? (And we’ll set aside for the moment the difficult issue of isolating particular factors as causing success.)


Martin James 11.14.06 at 4:21 pm

Its fairly simple app but I had a friend whose teenager was having major heart surgery and the hospital facilitates web pages for each family so friends and relatives stayed informed and provided support.

He lives in India but had the surgery in Boston and his family and friends were in over 10 different countries.


magistra 11.14.06 at 5:12 pm

Two minor but personal examples:

1) I’m adopted and in the early 1990s I traced a birth parent (living overseas) via computer databases. I could do that at the time because I was a trained librarian with access to some expensive dial-up services. Now, anyone could do similar things with Google and the like.

2) In the late 1990s I used online discussion groups to help me learn Latin. A group would agree to do the exercises from a particular book and post them together at the same time. It provided extra motivation and advice and enabled me to learn a minority language in a town that had absolutely no other support for doing that.


Cryptic Ned 11.14.06 at 5:32 pm

I’m sure there are a lot of people who use blogspot for purposes that are not diary- or blog-like in the least. I use it to keep a record of the playlists of my radio show. It’s quite handy because I don’t have to do any formatting and I can update it from any computer without actually going to the trouble of downloading, editing and uploading files.


vkri 11.14.06 at 6:17 pm

Here are a couple of links about the use of IT based tools for agriculture (in India again):

I hope these help.


vkri 11.14.06 at 6:22 pm

Here is a link to the use of information technology for land registration (this is to a conference on the topic). This may seem unimportant, but actually has a tremendous value due to enhanced transparency etc:


Quo Vadis 11.14.06 at 8:31 pm

I’ve been developing software since before the Web came into existence. The ready access to open source code and freely available instruction and expertise has completely changed the way I develop software. I spend a lot less time reading reference books and writing code than I used to and a lot more time researching on the web and glueing bits of open source software together. My #1 productivity tool for software development is a Web browser.


Kenny Easwaran 11.15.06 at 1:29 am

If you’re looking for specific band/MySpace connections, I’ve heard that the Arctic Monkeys had their success in the UK largely due to MySpace. Here’s an article:


ian 11.15.06 at 5:37 am

Dvaid Wilcox’ blog has lots of posts on various social networking applications amd other topics like e-democracy. He mat be able to give you case studies.


Alex 11.15.06 at 6:11 am


sanbikinoraion 11.15.06 at 6:18 am is what we’re using to organize our skiing holiday between a geographically discrete group of people.


tzs 11.16.06 at 12:36 pm

Remember that the Internet (and postings on a BBS) was one way the NGOs were able to jump in quicker than the gov’t was right after the Hanshin earthquake.


C. L. Ball 11.16.06 at 1:51 pm

My wife and I used the county auditor’s on-line GIS database

to figure out how much would should pay for our house in the neighborhood we were thinking of buying in by being able to easily access sale prices, building quality, and square footage for houses adjancent to it or in the neighborhood. We have used other auditor’s on-line GIS databases to look at housing quality-cost tradeoffs when considering job offers that would require moving.

It would help if you would define the parameters of your query more explicitly. For example, I use & to compare airline, hotel, and car rental prices and schedules to travel. Often, I do not buy through the site, but use it to decide which airline’s website to purchase from. I’m not sure if this is the service you mean, or if you mean non-sale on-line services that are used for other, real-world transactions or interactions.


greensmile 11.17.06 at 12:26 pm

There are scattered reports of amateurs in archeology finding hints of ruins by studying Google earth or other web accesses satellite imagry.

It is also a first responder’s tool when trying to reach remote places [Kashmir earthquake comes to mind] after an earth quake…but governments that suppress certain features in satellite imagery for their “national security” are at odds with these benefical uses of the images.

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