Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Tech Steps Up to Back Bono

The Irish rock star's mission to fight poverty in Africa is getting serious support from the likes of Sun, Cisco, AMD, and more

Business Week -- It looks like a still black-and-white photo of Brad Pitt on your Web browser. And then he starts talking about how people step forth, one by one, to save lives. It's the launch of slick antipoverty video ads featuring Pitt and fellow actors George Clooney, Cameron Diaz, and Tom Hanks, and even conservative preacher Pat Robertson. These ads have played more than 100 million times on thousands of Web sites since June 1. The goal is to run 1 billion of them this month alone.

The Internet ads are part of a concerted corporate campaign to fight poverty in Africa, inspired by the Irish rock star Bono. In February Bono, who was rehearsing in Mexico with his band, U2, appeared on a video screen before a gathering of business and tech leaders at the Technology, Entertainment Design (TED) conference in Monterey, Calif. He was one of three winners of the inaugural TED humanitarian prize (the others were Edward Burtynsky, an environmental photographer, and Robert Fischell, an inventor who helped develop the cardiac defibrillator).

The awards of $100,000 are the brainchild of Chris Anderson, a British journalist and entrepreneur whose Sapling Foundation bought the TED conference in 2000. The money -- small potatoes for a rock star -- was Bono's to distribute as he saw fit. Far more important, it gave him the privilege of asking the 800 attendees to grant him three wishes.

Bono focused all three on Africa, and he issued a sweeping challenge: "Ours is the first generation that can look disease and extreme poverty in the eye...and say, we do not have to stand for this."

WIRING A NATION. His message struck a chord. And now, less than four months later, tech companies including Sun Microsystems (SUNW ), Cisco Systems (CSCO ), and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD ) are busy organizing antipoverty ad campaigns and mapping out fiber-optic plans for Ethiopia.

Bono's wishes were: 1) to organize 1 million American activists committed to fighting poverty in the world, especially in Africa; 2) to spread an antipoverty message 1 billion times before the July 6-8 Group of Eight meeting; and 3) to wire every hospital, health clinic, and school in one country -- Ethiopia -- to the Internet.

One executive at the meeting, Jay Amato, CEO of online-advertising company Viewpoint, got to thinking. "I knew I couldn't wire up Ethiopia," he recalls. "But given our relationships in the industry and our technology, I thought we could get the billion ads online." (It's just an informational ad to get people to sign up as activists.)

ONE WORD. Working with Bono's Washington-based lobbying group DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa), Amato got other ad agencies and publishers, including cable network MSNBC and AOL, to donate ad space to the campaign. "There's lots of default inventory that would normally run a house banner," says Sherri Valenti, vice-president for marketing at 24/7 Real Media, an ad company active in the campaign. She says 24/7 has distributed some 40 million ads a day across its network of 850 sites.

Before Bono spoke at TED, other execs were already at work on his wishes. Sun's chief researcher, John Gage, had met with the singer in January at the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland. Gage helped bring Sun into the campaign by launching a Sun-sponsored Web site and harnessing cell-phone messages at U2 concerts. Sun designed a system that encouraged concert-goers to send short messages with the word "unite" when Bono sang the song One.

The callers' names appeared on a giant screen behind the band -- and activists would later contact the callers and bring them into Bono's organization. Between the concerts and the One Web site, nearly 800,000 activists have signed up since the beginning of the U2 tour in March, according to Sun.

SUSTAINABLE AID. Even before Bono picked Ethiopia, that country's government had embarked on an ambitious project to wire hospitals and schools to the Internet. Bob Ayres, executive director of the TED prize, traveled to Ethiopia following Bono's speech. "You see people digging huge ditches with picks, axes, and shovels," he says. Cisco, AMD, and others are planning to pitch in with technical and financial help. The idea: If they can prove that enhanced communications help a poor country battle AIDS and other diseases, similar efforts will likely follow elsewhere.

Ayres says tech companies are still studying Ethiopia before committing resources. "We're a month or two away," he says. "The trick is to provide help that's sustainable. Lots of companies and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] have put in machinery over the years. If it's not well thought out, it bites the dust." That outcome is definitely not on Bono's wish list.

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