There’s An App for Everything, So These Funders Ask: Why Not Adult Literacy?

Attention, techies and software developers: Got a solution to the problem of adult illiteracy? If so, the X-Prize Foundation and two funders of literacy programs want to hear from you — and they’re putting up a multimillion-dollar prize for your creativity.

More than 30 million U.S. adults lack basic literacy. This not only impacts the social and economic progress of the adults themselves, but also has dangerous implications for their children. Research shows that a parent’s literacy level is a significant predictor of a child’s educational success.

X-Prize, a self-described “innovation engine” and a leader in incentivized prize competitions, has joined forces with the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation to launch the Adult Literacy X-Prize. This is a worldwide competition that challenges teams to develop mobile applications for adult learners that result in the greatest increase in adult literacy skills over a 12-month period.

Now, before sharing more details, let’s pull the back the lens to mention that more and more funders are interested in harnessing the smart phones we’re all glued to constantly to advance their causes. At IP, we’ve written about a growing slew of philanthropic efforts to use apps and texting to tackle various problems, from getting patients more involved in their health care to helping students navigate the maze of college applications and financial aid.

Looking forward, we’d bet this trend will only accelerate, particularly since there have been promising results from some of these efforts, and you can understand why: Our phones have become such personal close companions that they open new avenues to change how we behave, in ways good and bad.

Using apps to promote adult literacy is brilliant, since people who can’t read often feel deeply ashamed. What better way to help them enter the world of words and reading than through a private device they access anywhere? That sure sounds more appealing than showing up into a classroom.

The contest has a six-month registration period, after which particpating teams have 18 months to develop their mobile application solutions. An expert panel will review the submitted apps, selecting the top five teams to move on to a 12-month field testing phase. Each of the top five apps will be tested with a minimum of 1,000 adult learners (5,000 total) between the ages of 18 and 64 who read at or below a third grade level.

The team with the app that shows the best performance over the field testing period will receive the top prize, worth $4 million. The two teams with the best performance by adults learners in two key demographic groups — native English speakers and non-native English speakers — will receive bonus prizes of $500,000 each.

Once the winning apps are selected and prizes awarded, X-Prize will invite cities across the U.S. to compete to encourage adult learners to download and use the winning applications, using a combination of outreach, marketing, and education campaigns. Finalist teams that meet the minimum performance benchmark will share a $1 million prize. The city that encourages the highest percentage of its adult learners to download and use the winning apps will receive $1 million.

X-Prize believes in the power of innovation and that creative individuals respond to incentives. That’s why the funder sponsors large-scale contests in the following areas: learning, exploration, energy and environment, global development, and life sciences. Current competitions sponsored by X-Prize include a $30 million competition to land a privately funded robot on the moon, as well as a $2 million contest for ideas to improve the health of the world’s oceans.

The Barbara Bush Family Literacy Foundation, started in 1990 by First Lady Barbara Bush, a longtime champion of reading, supports literacy programs and scholarships across the country. Dollar General Literacy Foundation, based in Tennessee, supports adult and youth literacy programs in 40 states.

If you want more information on the X-Prize contest or want to register for the competition, visit this link.

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