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1 – GOOD Thinking about People, Organizations, and Society

As a recap, I intend to develop an eight-part podcast entitled “GOOD IDEAS about OUR Future,”  which will focus on how current and emerging technologies can be used to build healthier, more prosperous communities. Episodes will explore the impact these technologies can be used to benefit individuals, organizations, and society as a whole. Let’s explore each of these levels in more depth — such folks include, but are not limited to economically people, people of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals, immigrants, and rural residents.

 

I: Individuals

While I intend to focus on how technologies can be leveraged to ensure everyone, I will focus on individuals who belong to groups who have been historically marginalized and continue to face systemic barriers. I think it will be important to state that improving the lives of these individuals is both a moral imperative and can improve quality of life and economic opportunity for everyone. Angela Glover Blackwell eloquently makes this point in her article “The Curb-Cut Effect” in Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2017. Glover Blackwell uses the example of how making sidewalks more accessible to wheelchair-bound individuals by adding ramps to curbs, everyone was able to benefit, ranging from parents pushing infants in strollers to making it easier for postal professionals to transport packages. From an economic perspective, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation invested in research and released the Business Case for Racial Equity, which uses data to show how when people of color receive additional educational and workforce development resources to help them overcome centuries of systemic barriers to financial health and security, the broader economy grows resulting in benefits experienced by all.

To apply this to technology and the future, I can discuss how providing equitable access to education, we can end racial and gender disparities in workplaces that are the engine for the information economy — increased diversity in the workplace results in a significant competitive advantage through broader perspectives. Other areas to be explored are increasing access to new technologies, developing features with broader groups of people in mind (which means there’s a larger consumer (base), and, of course, re-thinking the pursuit of innovation as a means of actually improving lives (as opposed to just selling more products).

 

II: Organizations

Although touched on a bit above (e.g., improving workplace diversity has a whole host of benefits), here I would like to focus on the importance of diversity in leadership, processes for engaging individuals in product design, and how public-private partnerships can be leveraged to reduce unnecessary competition and achieve greater results through collaboration. 

As we continue to read headlines about “firsts” for elected officials — our first woman of color holding the office of Vice President of the U.S. is a particularly salient example — broad diversity in in executive leadership in corporations remains extremely limited. I would like to dig into both the benefits of changing up the backgrounds and experiences of folks in leadership positions, especially in tech-related positions, as well as what strategies we can use to prepare these leaders, make their experiences as leaders less cringe-worth, and consider how such changes may have additional, unintended benefits

I would also like to explore how more inclusive processes could help companies build trust and sell more products and services to untapped markets. For example, market segmentation is still often done based on race, ethnicity, and gender (pink shaving razors come to mind, and I can’t help but wonder if this product was produced without being gendered and the same product was better because it serves both genders). A particular area of interest is how the Design Thinking process could be re-imagined and applied to the development of technologies so that diversity, inclusion, and equity are drive the selection process for who is engaged as the end-user.

And while we’re at it, why not re-think who develops technology and how. Code For America is just one example that comes to mind as it brings together governments, businesses, and highly skilled and equally engaged residents to solve big problems with a variety of technologies ranging from structured conversations with whiteboards to civic hack-a-thons sponsored by leading companies. Perhaps this could serve as a replicable model for solving major issues like the Prison Industrial Complex, homelessness, hunger, and many others.

 

III: Society

And then there’s how we come together as a species to keep things going while this big blue ball keeps rolling. In this area, I would like to specifically re-think how “big data” are collected, analyzed, and what stories we tell as a result. In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam uses data to tell a very compelling story. In short, we’ve lost the American Dream because as information about government programs has increased in accessibility, we’ve seen politicization about government programs American families rely on. While the data make growing disparities increasingly stark, the stories we tell have become increasingly combative, polarized, and further and further away from, well, the facts. Just as corporations continue to pioneer new ways to milk all possible value out of the seemingly endless data available to them to increase profit, how can we apply and expand on these practices to profit civically? In addition to leveraging big data to shift narratives, I believe elected officials at all levels can begin to use available data to equitably support individuals, form strategic public-private partnerships to improve communities, and ultimately be held accountable for progress.

However, no exploration of “big data” and society would be complete without a discussion about the risks related to access and management of personally identifiable information (PII). So I would need to make sure I discuss how governments, companies, and various other entities have an imperative to act as good stewards of PII to ensure information could be used to achieve the greatest good through aggregation, systems thinking, and continuous improvement while staying true to the adage “first do no harm.”

2 – Getting Started with “Weapons of Math Destruction”

So far, so good. Cathy O’Neill, like Malcom Gladwell, clearly has a deep knowledge of “big data,” but she has intentionally written this book to be accessible to any layperson interested in understanding the data collection processes, algorithms, and related decision-making that shape our lives every day. And I’d say she writes in a fairly compelling way:

Like gods, these mathematical models were opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, were beyond dispute or appeal. And they tended to punish the poor and the oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer. (p. 3)

 

I have to agree with critics who say she makes broad generalizations to support her thesis, but the examples she provides help her avoid the cardinal sin all authors must avoid if they wish to get on and stay on bestsellers list: Don’t go too deep to avoid losing the vast majority of readers.

And thanks to her extensive citations, rather than contradict or challenge her, I feel like I need to dig deeper to better understand what she means when she says things like, “Without feedback, however, a statistical engine can continue spinning out faulty and damaging analysis while never learning from its mistakes” (p. 7)

Furthermore, she avoids doing what so many “tell-all,” muckraking creative activists do all the time, which is to create a laundry list of issues, provide heart-wrenching examples, and tell you that something should be done. Again, she doesn’t go deep (e.g., describing 20 studies or walking you through creditors complex algorithms that disproportionately spit out declination letters to people of color). Instead, she states the problems, tells a story that serves as an example of what she’s talking about, and then offers a recommendation for how we should do things differently.

In short, I’m enjoying O’Neill’s writing style and approach. At no point have I felt like she’s too far off base, and any time I want to know more, I’ve enjoyed flipping to the back of the book and giving a cursory glance at the studies she’s provided. I’ve already started highlighting research she’s cited to dig deeper in certain areas once I’ve finished her book.