Technology is helping to solve global social challenges

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From collecting data on community health in remote locations to creating algorithms that weed out institutional economic discrimination, development projects around the world are using tech to improve social outcomes.

Whether these entrepreneurs are involved in agriculture, climate change or human rights, tech is likely to have a role in the work that they do. But despite the transformative power of technology for so many people around the world, there are still anxieties and challenges around its potential role in our lives. Individuals and governments in the developed world are concerned about increased automation and artificial intelligence, and the potential subsequent job losses – but could technology present opportunities for the poorest people on the planet?

In April, the annual Skoll World Forum brought together social entrepreneurs from around the world to discuss topics such as routes out of poverty, the role of technology in improving health outcomes, and social media’s potential for useful contributions to – or detrimental effects on – democracy.

One session in particular that explored the connection between tech and poverty was “Emerging Technologies: Shifting the Path from Poverty to Prosperity”. Speakers included Maryana Iskander, chief executive of South Africa’s Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, which is developing a tech platform to help excluded young people to find jobs. Iskander says that South Africa has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, at 67% for the under 25s, which is compounded by a combination of poor education, restrictive labour laws, the legacy of apartheid, and automation. To date, Harambee has used technology such as free mobile phone data to help 40,000 youngsters find their first jobs.

“We have never had enough jobs, so we have been thinking about it for a long time,” Iskander said at the session. She explained how employers were anxious as to what automation was likely to mean, so she wanted to learn what others at the session thought about the potential impact of AI and machine learning. “The good news is everybody is trying to figure it out.”

Iskander believes low-income youths are often discriminated against by job match algorithms that rely on “quick and dirty signals”, such as how long someone has been working, where they went to school and their degree. These exclude young people who have left school early, have little work experience and have yet to develop skills.

Harambee is developing an alternative “pathwaying platform”, using an algorithm that has “rules to include, not exclude”. The platform will analyse young people’s skills and suggest routes into employment (rather than specific jobs), which could include short-term contract work. “Young people here are used to zigzagging. They don’t have the comfort of finishing high school, going to university, getting a degree and taking that straight line from education to employment. The gig economy represents more of that kind of disruption,” she said.

Another project discussed at this session was Living Goods, which supports networks of “health entrepreneurs”, providing health education, selling medical products and simple treatments door-to-door to improve community health. The project works in Uganda, Kenya and Myanmar, with each entrepreneur carrying a kit including a smartphone with diagnosis and pregnancy support apps.

Director of technology and innovation Caroline Mbindyo says there are many hurdles to overcome in using mobile technology to provide health advice and support. In many communities, women have significantly less access to the technology than men, while people on low incomes struggle to pay for calls and data. It is essential that services are designed to take these factors into account and find ways around these obstacles, she says.

The organisation is looking at how technological innovations can improve health outcomes. Blockchain technology – computer files that act as ledgers where updates cannot be changed – could be used to provide medical records for citizens in Africa, where there are few permanent records. They are also looking at how automated bots could provide healthcare information.

Gargee Ghosh, director of development policy and finance at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also spoke at this session. Ghosh was particularly excited about what she called “bundles of technology”. “It’s a mistake to believe that any one technology, or any single intervention, will solve everything in a system,” she said. Using the example of agriculture in Africa, she discussed: new developments in drought- and flood-resistant seeds; a soil-map of Africa to enable a better understanding of growing conditions; and improved resources and information via mobile phones for farmers. “When you put [all these] together, you start to see the potential for a real transformation,” she said.

However, alongside the many beneficial aspects and innovative developments new technology brings, several speakers touched upon the possible less advantageous effects. Jim Fruchterman, chief executive of Benetech, a Silicon Valley social enterprise that uses software to meet the needs of users in the social sector, who also spoke at the forum, says that innovation in technology often results in the loss of jobs. “I get the fact that few people set out to do something bad in a technology project, but the impact is so great that even if a tenth of 1% is bad, that is huge,” he said. “My message to tech entrepreneurs is to do good on purpose, as opposed to thinking it will be the natural byproduct of any new tool you create.”

A rather different aspect of technology – social media – was covered in a session at the forum entitled “Social Media Platforms: Influence and Ethics”. This session took the form of a wide-ranging discussion, covering issues ranging from the role of social media in news dissemination, to what can be done to counteract false and malicious news, along with the ethics of journalism, and how advertising and propaganda differ from news. Challenges touched upon included: the sheer volume of information and the decline in trust in media organisations; how social media has “democratised” news production; and what responsibility social media platforms themselves have in all of this.

“Context matters enormously,” said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “With the right informational cues, users really can make some kind of evaluation. But some governments are using these low-cost mechanisms, and I think that presents a whole different set of challenges,” she added.

Speaker Kelly Born, program officer at the Madison Initiative, which is part of grant-making body The Hewlett Foundation, highlighted its $10m, two-year research study into the spread of misinformation through social media. The study will examine why this is prevalent and suggest ways to avoid the worst effects. “Right now, we are talking at a very abstract level about fake news or disinformation, when in my view it is a combination of a dozen or so smaller problems,” she said. She pointed to mass data collection that enables low-cost psychological micro-targeting, bots that artificially amplify conversations, and political campaign ads that reach tiny groups of the population, thereby escaping national discussion and focus. “Once you break it down, it becomes more solvable,” she said.

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