By Leila Toplic, Lead for NetHope’s Emerging Technologies Working Group
Today’s news is filled with stories about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and blockchain. These technologies promise massive benefits to nearly every type of organization, including those focused on driving social impact.
While there’s concern about the readiness of these technologies for our sector and challenges related to data, infrastructure, and ethics – the downside of staying on the sidelines of the work related to development of powerful technologies like AI and blockchain would mean lack of representation of the nonprofit sector’s important voice. By actively exploring and testing those technologies in our contexts and programs, nonprofits will not only activate new tools to tackle some of the most pressing problems we’re tasked with solving, but also the development and evolution of those technologies will happen with our input. After months of consultations with NetHope members, tech partners, academic institutions, and others actively involved in AI and Machine Learning (ML) and blockchain, it became clear that a formalized, continuous approach to sharing and learning together, as well as collaborating on new programs and solutions, is necessary.
This is why NetHope is setting up a new Emerging Technologies Working Group, with its initial focus on these two emerging technologies – AI and blockchain.
This Working Group, spearheaded by NetHope members, will be a sector-wide approach to integrating AI and blockchain in humanitarian, development, and conservancy work. Initially, the Working Group will focus on three areas identified as immediate needs at the NetHope Global Summit: (1) Education - capacity needs will be addressed via workshops, webinars, conferences, and the NetHope Solutions Center. (2) Programs – Working Group will facilitate collective impact collaborations focused on leveraging those technologies to solve problems across humanitarian, development, and conservancy contexts. (3) Toolkits & standards –the whole sector will benefit from this Working Group through the toolkits grounded in the learnings from our collective work, with the focus on scaling the most promising programs, processes, and methodologies.
You too can play a role in this Working Group. The key component to successful Working Group is the involvement of individuals and organizations actively working on AI/ML and blockchain technologies as well as NGOs that know the problems that need to be solved, contexts that need to be planned for, and barriers that need to be overcome to make ethical and widespread adoption possible. We encourage people to contact us to become involved.
NetHope members can register here for the Working Group. We also encourage other thought leaders in the space – technologists, humanitarian agencies, academic institutions, philanthropic organizations – to contact us to become involved.
For those interested in reading more about the insights that informed the formation of the Emerging Technologies Working Group, I’ve put together a brief recap of the AI for Good sessions from the recent NetHope Global Summit. We'll provide highlights from Blockchain for Good discussions in the next post.
In November 2018, I hosted a set of conversations on the topic of AI for Good at the NetHope Global Summit in Dublin. I was joined by the experts from the NGO community including NetHope members like CRS, NRC, Oxfam, and Plan International, as well as Amnesty International, War Child, and NetHope supporters like Microsoft, Google, IBM, University College Dublin, and the University of Michigan.
Our sessions set out to explore the significance of AI/ML for humanitarian, development, and conservancy contexts. We talked about both barriers and opportunities, the roles of the NGOs and technologists, and the necessary conditions for AI/ML to benefit all.
While we’re still in the early days of AI for Good, many in the NetHope community believe it is important to engage in the discussions now. The reasons are many:
What are the examples of applied AI in our sector?
We’re in the early days of applying AI in social impact sector. In the AI for Good sessions at the Summit, we discussed several examples, including:
Many of these and other examples of applied AI in our sector are in POC stage (i.e., not yet delivering any major benefits on a sustained basis) and focused on improving existing programs and processes rather than creating solutions that would not be possible without AI. As applications of AI/ML in international development move from POCs to broader adoption and scaled impact, we will learn more about what AI/ML can do – what needs it’s suited for, what risks need to be prevented or mitigated, and what dependencies need to be accounted for.
What are some of the challenges that prevent adoption and effective use of AI in our sector?
AI/ML is new for our sector and complex. Barriers to adopting AI/ML remain high in comparison to other technologies such as mobile apps. Also - how we define, design, implement, scale, maintain technology solutions has an ethical impact on people’s lives. Nonprofits have an obligation to have an adequate understanding of what those technologies can do and implications on their work and populations they’re supporting.
Three challenges were identified at the AI for Good workshop at the Summit:
Tech companies that attended the Summit sessions said that they are looking to understand what types of problems humanitarian organizations are working to solve and support them with expertise and resources. This can be accomplished with trusted coordinating bodies (like the Emerging Technologies Working Group) where both humanitarian agencies and tech experts can share expertise, work and learnings.
What are the necessary conditions for AI to benefit all?
AI-for-development shares similarities with other technology-for-development (ICT4D), including data, sustainability, inclusion, funding, oversight – so necessary conditions must include addressing those challenges and applying the existing frameworks and principles such as the Principles for Digital Development.
But there are two other important conditions that need to be considered given how nascent AI/ML is in our sector: Resources and Knowledge.
Resources are necessary for NGOs to explore and incorporate AI into their programming. Funding could be in the form of grants, employee volunteering, product donations (e.g., Azure credits). Here are a few examples of the organizations that have already established AI for Good programs and are actively looking for ways to engage with NGO community so resources and expertise can be applied in an effective and sustainable way.
Knowledge of AI/ML needs to be transferred from a few experts at tech companies and research institutions to many, including humanitarian staff and affected communities, so they can become active participants and creators of solutions and better informed about how AI-powered products and services might impact them in their work and daily lives. That can happen through training or through the process of co-creation of AI-enabled solutions which would in turn inform how technologies might evolve in order to meet a diverse set of needs, across a diverse set of contexts.
What should nonprofit sector do today?
Though it is early for our sector, the time for learning about and incorporating AI into our work is now. We need to shift the mindset from “It’s too soon,” to “We need to get started now.”
Here are a few examples of how to get started that were highlighted at the Summit:
Speakers who participated in AI for Good discussions at the NetHope Global Summit: