Using Software and Data to Change the World

I had the honor to be the opening keynoter for the first-ever Good Tech Fest, which was held in Detroit on May 22, 2018.  It was a blast to be with an entire conference full of social good software and data people from around the world.

Using Software and Data to Change the World

We are in an amazing time. Society is a buzz about new technology: artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, autonomous cars, the surveillance state, and more.

And then we take a time machine and journey into the past – no wait! It’s just the present day social good sector. It just seems like Y2K!

 Probably like many of you, I feel like a time traveler when I’m asked constantly about what machine learning and blockchain can do for the communities we want to help, and the social enterprises that serve them. Of course we know that the questioner has no data to speak of and today’s answer is probably “nothing.” With a pronounced shrug.

But wait, there’s a silver lining here. We have to realize that our questioner is asking us a question they don’t realize they are asking; they are asking how a database can help their community! A database! That’s a breakthrough of epic proportions. We have to use this opening to help advance our goal; using software and data to change the world for the better!

Collectively, we are getting ambitious about social change. Donors and communities are announcing big hairy audacious goals – end modern slavery, get to zero chronic and veteran homelessness, increase job opportunities for certain communities by a factor of two – or ten! The common thread of all of these big hairy audacious goals is that they are measurable – and they involve ecosystems of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of organizations businesses and government agencies. Complicated – but it’s good news for us geeks. Can you imagine getting any of these goals without better software and data? No way! In this day and age, it’s inconceivable to reach these social goals without data.

 Tech alone will not be enough.
Adding tech to a broken human system gets you to broken faster and cheaper. 
But tech supporting a reform movement – that’s the ticket, our new motto should be:
Behind every positive social revolution, there be geeks! 
Are you with me?!!

Now this vision is not just about more data. This is data in service to communities. And data is voice.

Social change is not done to communities – it’s a partnership. We need to see data as an expression of the voices. And will of these communities. If we truly care, we need to listen to these voices. It’s the best path to lasting change.

Solving a major problem involving information is beyond the capability of any one enterprise – no matter how terrific. Even in the tech industry, with its intense turf battle, companies have come to rely on open standards for data, for APIs, for technological plumbing. While striving to establish their compelling value propositions, their secret sauce, they let go of controlling dozens, or hundreds, of technical elements. And so many people forget that these key elements at the heart of Silicon Valley, of the tech industry, are controlled by nonprofits created open standards, open interfaces and open source code – almost all developed collaboratively to solve a common problem.

This is exactly the kind of approach I expect to see more and more in areas of social good. Competing nonprofits, competing for-profits and sort of competing donors will need to come together, build trust, and create open solutions. We together should share the overarching big hairy audacious goal, and recognize that we can both cooperate while keeping our secret sauce – the thing that makes each organization important and valuable. And a very few organizations, organizations that actually aren’t advancing the interests of the community will need to change or become irrelevant.

So far – sounds great. But, can it be done? Let me tell you two stories – one 30 years in the making, and one that’s brand new.

Our largest social enterprise is Bookshare, designed to solve the reading needs of people who have a disability that interferes with reading. Disabilities like dyslexia, vision loss, or a brain injury or physical disability that gets in the way of using a printed book. We started our first social enterprise in the Wild West of dozens of proprietary word processor formats.

Before we started, blind people were read to, or had tapes of people reading the book sent to them in the mail – they physical snail mail. After we introduced PC-based reading machines, blind people could scan their own books.

After we sold that social enterprise – we used the money to start Bookshare, which used ebooks and crowdsourcing to build a lending library created by the community itself – blind people scanning books for themselves – and then sharing that scanned book with tens of thousands of other people with disabilities. It quickly became the largest library for the disabled in the world – and our books worked with a dozen devices because all of the libraries for the blind had built a common standard for ebooks, ad audiobooks, so that for-profit vendors could support the books for all of these nonprofit libraries.

Then a brilliant techie, who happens to be blind, decided that the features that were required for people with disabilities would be great for everybody. He took on leading the EPUB commercial ebook standard body – and now there’s no need for a separate standard for people with disabilities. Furthermore, instead of having to scan many books at $100 to $5000 apiece, our library now gets five to 10 thousand books each month for free, in a standard format that costs us pennies per book added to our collection. But wait, there’s more!

We have started a campaign to put ourselves out of business. Invented by Benetech’s president, Betsy Beaumon, she called it the “Born Accessible” campaign, where we are helping publishers add the accessibility features we have been retrofitting into their standard ebooks – and then certifying that publishers as an accessible publisher and encouraging buyers of books to buy accessible. We’re hoping to see the peak usage hit inside of five years in the U.S., as the commercial industry increasingly sells the books we used to give away!

My second example is just a year old. But it shares much of the same playbook. Our goal is to work together with funders, nonprofits, for-profits, government agencies, and communities themselves, to create an open data ecosystem for social services data. In short, we dream of a day not too far off where the social safety net is as accessible and as rich as information is in the retail business net – when it’s as easy to get the help you need as it is to get a great sandwich or a new toaster.

And we are not alone, or the first, to have this dream. A community organizer named Greg Bloom has been working on this for over five years. After doing a stint as a Code for America fellow, he helped create the Open Referral Initiative, to make it easier to share data about social services – data at the heart of the referral process.

Our part is knowing how to bring together the community of organizations that need this data and build the software glue for that community. The field today is firmly stuck in the yellow pages era of data management – where many organizations over the country are spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars each to capture what is essentially commodity, public metadata about social services agencies and the services they provide.

Just in the San Francisco Bay Area, we convinced eleven organizations that collectively spend seven figures developing their own databases of this information. We promised not to criticize anybody’s database publicly, but we did tell them how their database compared to the other ten in aggregate. You won’t be surprised what we found out. Twenty percent of social service sites only appeared in one database, and for the seventy percent of sites that appeared in more than one database – each of the different entries contained multiple unique nuggets of valuable information – data that everybody would like to have but only showed up in one database entry.

The way forward is exciting – and you can bet better open data is at the core of this social enterprise. This enterprise should look like the same kind of invisible plumbing provided by the nonprofits doing standards and open source middle-ware for companies in the internet/web space. But, cost savings, opportunity for innovation and impact that will create (for social good, not industrial profit alone) should be mind-blowing.

We can now promise every kid with a print-related disability in the country that if they need an accessible book for their education, we will get it for them. Not because of our organization alone, but because of a rich ecosystem of for-profits, nonprofits and government agencies working together with open standards that make what was formerly impossible, possible – and for less money than before.

In the future, I believe a different, but similar ecosystem will make the social safety net as visible and rich as the retail business information net is today. And I believe that similar opportunity lurks at the heart of every social problem humanity is facing. That people, and animals, and the planet are facing.

I believe it will create a new opportunity for software and data geeks to give back collectively for massive impact. And it will demand a new class of talent, skilled in helping strategize the software and data ecosystem for entire fields – not just a single organization.

I personally cannot imagine a more exciting journey ahead. I want to help make that motto I mentioned earlier true in dozens of domains, that behind every positive social revolution, there will be geeks.

Not geeks for our own sakes, but geeks because we will be an indispensable part of making the world a better and more just place for all for all of humanity, not just the richest 1%!!

Let’s go!


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