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Technology as a positive force for social impact

Technology may not be the solution to everything, but it is an important tool in our toolbox for making the world a better place for all.

October 18, 2018

Above: Panel members at the recent Grace Hopper Conference

By Leila Toplic (NetHope), Minnie Ingersoll (Code for America), Erin Coffman (Airbnb), Esra Ozkan (Loon/Alphabet), Sandra Liu Huang (Chan Zuckerberg Initiative)

“The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.”

William Gibson, American-Canadian fiction writer and essayist, made this prescient statement in the early 1990s, but the message rings true today, perhaps more than ever.

While it may seem obvious to say that technology is all around us—in our personal lives, powering how we connect with each other, the way we learn, and how we work. But technology, and people’s ability to effectively use it, is not accessible to everyone.

Continuous iteration and engagement with end-users and their communities allows technologists to address real user needs and ultimately deliver better outcomes. Courtesy Code for America

Why are the benefits of technological advancement not evenly distributed? The answer is simply that building a technology is not the same thing as making it relevant and accessible (including affordable) for everyone, and the knowledge of its creation held in the hands of a relative few individuals and organizations in places like Silicon Valley is not going to empower all people to be creators of solutions for their communities, instead of just consumers.

Our panel at Grace Hopper Conference last month—Driving Social Impact: New Opportunities and Responsibilities—set out to explore what could be done to ensure that the technology being built is truly reaching and benefiting all, that knowledge is getting transferred in both directions so that people can build solutions to the problems their communities are facing and technologists can build products that benefit all. We talked about both barriers and opportunities, roles of organizations and individuals, and the necessary conditions for making tech-powered solutions like connectivity, education, and healthcare services accessible and usable by all, in the contexts in which they live.

NetHope, Microsoft, Pluralsight, and Hult Prize during a visit to Norwegian Refugee Council’s program in Za’atari refugee camp: listening to refugee youth and teachers share their stories. Courtesy NRC

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion.

  1. Start with the problem. While technology is a powerful tool and equalizer, it never should be the starting point for doing good. One of the questions we discussed in our session: How well can technologists in organizations largely based in the Bay Area be attuned to needs of underserved communities? From our work, we know it is critical to first understand your target audience, the problems they are facing. Context is also important. For example, context for education in Jordan is different from Uganda; refugee resettlement and integration in Canada is different from France. There are several ways to do that, from spending time on the ground with the impacted communities, to talking to the experts, hiring diverse teams, and researching national policies that can make or break certain interventions like employment programs for refugees or delivering connectivity to remote parts of the world.
  2. Co-design solutions with end-users and local communities to ensure relevancy and sustainability. Building on point #1, one of the best ways to avoid programs and technologies missing the mark or becoming irrelevant as soon as the humanitarian agencies are gone, is to be inclusive from the start by co-designing with end-users and communities in which they live. Process of co-design is empowering for all involved, and it ensures relevancy, adoption, sustainability.
  3. Act with urgency, plan for sustainability. When disasters strike – from conflicts and disease outbreaks like Ebola to natural disasters – we need to be ready to activate all available resources and expertise to help those in need, including technology and tech sector expertise. At the same time, it’s important to bridge humanitarian response which tends to be urgent, often short-term intervention, with development programs to ensure both urgent and ongoing needs are met, from shelter and food to education and healthcare. Consider these statistics: 2/3 of refugees will spend 26 years on average in displacement; 4 out of 5 conflicts last over 10 years. Protracted crises like the global refugee crisis require more than an immediate assistance to empower people to become active participants in shaping their own futures and contributing in their communities. Education is key, as well as access to dignified work. Technology can help us meet both urgent and ongoing needs, at scale.
  4. Use collective impact as a model for action. To deliver an immediate, yet lasting impact, it’s critical to act together: coordinate the intervention through collaboration. For the humanitarian sector, collective impact means shifting from implementing as individual UN/NGO agencies to incubating for, and sharing with, all agencies, an ultimately lifting up the whole sector. For the tech sector, it means collaborating with other tech companies and humanitarian agencies to ensure that the intervention is complementary vs. duplicative, additive vs. one-off, relevant vs wasteful. There were a number of questions during the Q&A about what specifically tech sector can contribute—companies small and large, mature and startups can contribute in a number of ways from traditional CSR—grants, employee volunteering, product donations—to influencing policy and advocacy and core operations (e.g., hiring of refugees, immigrants) and product development—developing new products like Hakeem chatbot or adapting existing products like Airbnb’s Open Homes that addresses the need for short-term housing in vulnerable communities such as refugees, evacuees, and medical travelers.
  5. Focus on the right outcomes. In addition to the points listed above, focusing on the right outcomes is one of the ways to ensure programs are addressing real problems rather than temporarily treating them. For example, for refugee youth who need to work to support themselves and their families, getting an educational certificate is not the desired outcome. What they need is learning that is connected to realistic earning opportunities and our program design needs to reflect that.
  6. Embrace that innovation comes in different forms and from different places. While innovation can come in the form of a new technology, innovation can also be a new, more effective process – for example, shifting from waterfall to agile development of programs and solutions. Or, a new idea for solving a persistent problem. In a world of accelerated change, organizations and individuals need to look at all aspects of their work - people, process, and tools (including technology) and innovate on all in order to do good better. We also believe that innovation can and should come many different places, not just the well-known centers of innovation like Silicon Valley.
  7. Solve the fundamentals first in order to unlock other benefits. Certain resources and infrastructure are necessary for making other services possibleboth NetHope and Loon have worked to bring connectivity to some of the most remote and destroyed places around the world. Connectivity empowers local communities as well as those who are serving them with access to life-saving information. Identity, which one billion+ people around the world lack, is another example of a basic human right without which it’s difficult for people to unlock access to many important services such as education, employment, healthcare. And, well-trained teachers are key to delivering high-quality education.
  8. Measure, iterate, share. We know from our work that we might not know everything when we start designing, and that’s okay. Iteration grounded in evidence helps us develop the best solution for the changing context, learn from failures, and build something lasting. Iterative process also creates a space for knowledge transfer – from communities and humanitarian workers to technologists, and vice versa.
Linda and Frank host Mohammed and his wife Dinah and son Dani, Iraqi refugees, at their home in Dallas. Mohammed, contractor for the US military during the war in Iraqi, feared for his family's safety because of his service and were granted asylum in the US, eventually moving to Dallas in February 2017.
Linda and her husband Frank donated their Airbnb property to Mohammed and his family and a close relationship formed over the following month. Courtesy Airbnb
Users in under or unconnected parts of the world aspire to a better future for themselves and their communities with better, more reliable access internet, such as this Peruvian farmer. Courtesy Loon

Technology may not be the solution to everything, but it is an important tool in our toolbox for making the world a better place for all. It is our collective responsibility—technologists and humanitarian experts, alike—to ensure that what we build, how we build it, and who gets to participate in the creation and usage of technology is inclusive and empowering.

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