Last year at SXSW I was happy to hear a lot discussion around ethics in technology – this year that theme continued in Austin from multiple panels about bias in AI to the spread of fake news and the effects of social media on our mental health. It can be easy to be overwhelmed and depressed by the dystopian views around the latest technology, so I intentionally focused my own panel and others I attended on how technology – and data are being used for good.
One organization leading the effort is DataKind – their mission is to “harnesses the power of data science to help humanity.” I attended a session lead by Jake Porway, DataKind’s executive director. He highlighted inspiring projects like Peru Flying Labs’ use of drones and data to stop illegal logging and mining in the Amazon Forest as well as to coordinate disaster recovery efforts. I was inspired by how Microsoft and Wild Me are using AI to scan videos and images posted by anyone on social networks or YouTube to individually tag, identify and track animals that are endangered and then leave comments on posts to fill in missing details such as location.
Diversity, or the lack of diversity in tech, was also a big topic this year. It was refreshing to learn about Ultra – a company that hires individuals on the autism spectrum to do quality assurance on websites and other digital products. I was impressed with Ultra’s screening process which requires applicants to take a series of digital skills assessment tests and includes a week of simulated work where the candidates are evaluated on their ability to receive feedback. Instead of relying on interviews and resumes only, which often have no correlation with how the applicant actually performs at work, Ultra has pioneered a way to use technology to employ a population where 85 percent are unemployed or underemployed.
Similarly, Google used their empathy lab to work with veterans returning to the workforce. They learned that this population had a hard time translating the work they did in the military into applicable job skills in civilian life. The result was a way for veterans to enter their military job codes into Google Cloud’s Talent Solution to find jobs where their skills would be a potential fit.
While there’s a lot of deservedly critical coverage of big tech, it’s important to also focus on how we can find different use cases for new technology that can be applied to some of our biggest challenges and contribute to the greater good.