Tech in Action: A computer virus for good

A Spanish non-profit purposely infected students' devices to raise awareness for a largely unknown language disorder.

ATELCA is a non-profit in Spain that has a big problem. It supports families with children dealing with Specific Language Impairment (SLI), a largely unknown condition that makes it difficult for children to develop language skills. Because it is so unknown, it often goes undiagnosed by medical professionals.

Working with Contrapunto BBDO in Barcelona, the organization created a memorable way to raise awareness of SLI by giving targeted students a brief but frustrating view into its effects.

Working with university faculties in Spain, students were encouraged to download an app called ExamAlert that ostensibly notified them about upcoming exams. But the app also installed a virus that scrambled inputs from the keyboard, making it impossible for students to communicate using their devices.

Eventually, a pop-up appeared explaining what was happening, informing the students what SLI was and how they had just experienced a small taste of what a child with SLI feels when they try to communicate with the outside world. The app then uninstalled itself from the student’s device automatically.

The “good virus” specifically targeted students studying medicine, teaching, speech therapy and psychology – fields most likely to encounter children with SLI – in the hopes that they’d remember the condition in their professional lives. While SLI is slowly being added to school curricula, ATELCA says the pace is very slow, meaning most of the professionals who would be expected to diagnose or identify SLI in children still don’t know that it exists.