Humanitarians examine their role in minimizing the risk — and maximizing the potential — of tech

Photo by: Global Philanthropy Forum

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — After making investments in “tech for good” at the philanthropic investment firm Omidyar Network, Paula Goldman has since become focused on the unintended consequences of these technologies.

While some have said social media should be regulated like the tobacco industry, Goldman, vice president and global lead at the network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab, said she thinks of the tech industry more like the automobile industry.

Moderating a panel called “No Bystanders: Technology and the Values that Guide,” at the 2018 Global Philanthropy Forum, Goldman explained that it was a movement funded by philanthropy that led the automobile industry to compete on safety, and she hopes to see the same kind of action from philanthropists when it comes to technology.

Facebook’s ongoing public relations crisis, the fallout from news that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica violated its rules for third party apps and gained access to the private information of 87 million users, has raised fundamental questions about data privacy.

As a result, leaders at technology companies in Silicon Valley have come under pressure to identify ways to mitigate the threats their products could pose to society. Ethics around the use of technology in philanthropy were a key part of discussions at the forum, held in Redwood City, California, last week.

“While technologists provide extraordinary tools, it is up to society as a whole to establish the norms that govern their ethical use,” read the agenda. The funders and practitioners in attendance talked about how to tap into the potential of tools such as satellite imagery, blockchain, and artificial intelligence, while also talking about the risks, weighing the tradeoffs, and establishing the norms that will govern their ethical use.

“These last few years have been humbling,” Goldman said. “We are at a pivotal moment, in which society is wrestling anew with its relationship with technology.”

Goldman asked what the philanthropists gathered in the room could do in order to get more of the tech industry to shift from treating data privacy as a defensive public relations exercise to working proactively because they see this in their business interest.

We’ve been brushing things under the carpet because these services are free,” said Simon Segars, the CEO of the chip design company Arm, in what seemed to be a reference to the collection of personal data by free social media services. “It turns out they’re not.”

This week, news broke that Facebook has quietly shut down Free Basics, the curated web access service it offers in developing countries, which was found to have been used for online hate speech in Myanmar for example. As Facebook comes under scrutiny, it is scaling up elsewhere and reiterates its commitment to expanding internet access.

Still, technology has immense capacity to benefit society, pointed out Chaya Nayak, who leads Facebook’s “data for good” work. “The same data that is really powerful in building profit for the company could be equally, if not more, powerful in solving some of the world’s biggest challenges,” she said at a Thursday working group.

When she described the disaster maps work Facebook has done leveraging geolocation data for humanitarian outcomes, Nayak acknowledged the eyebrows being raised around her, and reassured the group gathered around the table that the key is to gather and share this data in privacy-preserving ways.

The Global Philanthropy Forum also provided an opportunity for funders and social entrepreneurs who are leveraging technology to address problems facing the poor to talk about what more is needed to scale this work to address the global challenges highlighted by the Sustainable Development Goals.

Anushka Ratnayake, the Mali-based founder and chief executive officer of MyAgro, attended the Global Philanthropy Forum to talk about her mobile layaway model.

One recent example of collaborative philanthropy through technology was when Omidyar Network joined forces with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support Radiant.Earth, a platform that aims to gather the world’s geospatial data and make it accessible for humanitarian work.

“Everything happens in a place, and geography is often the fundamental denominator in many of society’s most difficult problems, and now that the earth is being imaged absolutely every day, I believe we should be able to help the humanitarian and global development work put those technologies to work,” Anne Hale Miglarese, founder and CEO of Radiant.Earth, said on the panel.

While she is excited about the potential of “GIS for good,” and is already supporting partners in areas ranging from agriculture to health, Miglarese said she is also worried about how bad actors could access open data.

In some cases, emerging technologies can help mitigate some of the risks that existing technologies present, Hale Miglarese said, offering the example of blockchain. Major buyers of commercial satellite imagery, including the Gates Foundation, are often constrained in sharing the data they have with other nonprofits, because they cannot guarantee that these images will not be shared beyond that network. But because information stored on a blockchain exists on a shared, tamper-proof database, this new system of record keeping would allow buyers to uphold their contracts by ensuring only the nonprofits they intend to access the imagery are doing so.

Opinion: Blockchain for development, explained

Ric Shreves, Technology for Development Advisor at Mercy Corps, explains what blockchain is and how it can be used in humanitarian assistance.

“This is a system to promote efficiency, transparency, and accountability more powerful than anyone has come up with to date,” Tomicah Tillemann, who directs the Blockchain Trust Accelerator at New America, said of distributed ledger technologies like blockchain.

But increasingly, leaders in the development community are also worried about the consequences emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics are likely to have on developing country workforces.

On Wednesday, the World Bank launched a “Disruptive Technologies for Development Fund,” with plans to align a network of technology leaders, philanthropists, and development experts to identify and pilot the use of technologies for tech-enabled growth in developing countries.

“A number of jobs will be automated out of existence,” said Varun Gauri, who leads the World Bank’s Mind, Behavior, and Development Unit.

“What does that mean for people out of work? Do we need a [universal basic income]? Just being out of work is a sort of social malaise, so what does that mean for a person’s identity?” he asked.

The Gates Foundation is among the funders looking at this question of how emerging technologies will affect the world’s poorest, with a new initiative called “Pathways for Prosperity: Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development.”

“Nuclear power can be used to light up a city or destroy it, steel can be used to build hospitals or machetes, these technologies are neutral, but we’re not,” Tillemann, of New America, said. “We have an opportunity both in small-scale pilots and in big-scale, system-level thinking to put our values to work.”

Update, May 8: This story was updated to clarify one of the statements from the panel.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.

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