Xprize Launches $7M Competition For Mobile Apps That Improve Adult Literacy

by Anthony Ha, Techcrunch

Xprize may be best known for its efforts in space travel, but it’s also working to solve social problems here on Earth.

The foundation announced a $15 million competition last fall, focused on bringing literacy to children around the world. Now it’s working with the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation on its second learning-related campaign, which will provide a total of $7 million in prize money to teams building mobile apps that improve adult literacy.

Liza McFadden, CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation, said that while most efforts to improve literacy are aimed at children, there are also 36 million adult Americans who read below a third grade level. And less than 1 percent of them are enrolled in adult literacy classes.

Mobile apps, she said, have the potential to reach a much broader audience of adults who might not have the time or interest to enroll in classes, or who might not get into those classes even if they tried. After all, McFadden said there’s a two-year wait list for some of the Barbara Bush Foundation’s programs.

Jennifer Bravo, who led the development of this new Xprize, added that one of the big challenges in adult literacy is persistence — in other words, making sure that people engage with these programs consistently and over a long enough period of time to make a difference.

“They have busy lives and don’t go to class, or they can’t access those classes, which crates a problem for persistence,” Bravo said. “There’s also the stigma … Maybe they want to use a mobile app because there’s an element of not wanting anybody to know.”

Here’s the competition will work: There will be an initial six-month registration period, followed by 18 months of product development. McFadden and Bravo noted that Xprize can also help with team formation, for example connecting educational experts with programmers.

Then the top five teams (as selected by expert judges) will advance to a 12-month field test, with a $4 million grand prize for the product that performs best across all adults. There will be additional prizes for all the finalist teams, for the teams that perform best with native English speakers and non-native speakers, and even for the US city that does the best job of promoting the finalist apps.

McFadden added that the aim is to jumpstart sustainable businesses: “It has to be entrepreneurial. People should be able to make money on this.”

You can read more at the Adult Literacy Xprize homepage.

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