Who is your tech for social good project helping?

Obviously, things have been….not so great over the past few months. Between COVID forcing essential workers to risk their health and the rest of us working and learning in isolation, to acts of police brutality against Black Americans and protesters, there has certainly been a lot to worry about. Obviously, Black Lives Matter and you should take coronavirus seriously - stay home, get tested, and wear a mask at all times. I’m not the first or only person to say these things.

Like some people in tech, I was lucky to spend the first months of the COVID lockdown in a relatively comfortable position, taking online classes from the basement of my parents’ suburban home. I was more worried about feeding my sourdough starter than paying rent or putting food on the table, which was a privilege.

With more time on our hands, I noticed a lot of people in the tech ecosystem wanting to help, and with it, a proliferation of COVID hackathons, coronavirus trackers, and later, Black Lives Matter resource websites. I am not here to fault anyone for trying to help in their own small way — it is obviously better to be engaged than to be apathetic — but I believe these well-meaning actions can be problematic.

At best, these kinds of bandaid solutions will be ineffective. No one needs 5,000 different coronavirus trackers, especially ones that may not have accurate data (do you have time to update COVID case numbers, especially with byzantine and ever-changing reporting rules that vary county-to-county, every day? I certainly do not). At a certain point, it’s much easier and more reliable for me to check the case numbers on the CDC or the New York Times websites. Further, if you are simply copying the data from another source that has centralized it, there is little innovation, and it seems to me that the resource you are building is a waste of time if it isn’t used by many people. I myself worked on one BLM resources website where information on local protests was copied from a centralized Instagram page — if anyone was interested in attending a protest, they could have just gotten their data from that Instagram. Eventually, I stopped contributing because I was not interested in pointlessly replicating someone else’s work.

At worst, however, these kinds of projects can be harmful — if you are truly wasting your time, you’re putting time and effort into a project that could otherwise be spent on more effective ways to help in this crisis. Your attitude may even be trivializing the suffering of others, by treating this like a fun technical challenge rather than the crisis that it is, and mistakenly believing you are contributing something valuable to The Cause.

I’m somewhat torn: on one hand, I firmly believe that a broad range of approaches is needed to attack any complex problem; on the other hand, if we all pooled our resources and worked together, we would be able to work more efficiently. The way I’ve been thinking, the way to surpass this contradiction is to recognize that more COVID-trackers aren’t actually solving problems. Although I believe that such information should be available to the public, news and government organizations are already filling this need. (I know there are some citizen groups that have been instrumental in ensuring deaths are properly counted — I consider they are filling a need (accurate coronavirus data) and not simply creating another dashboard).

I find the rhetoric that “tech has the power to change the world” interesting. While I believe this is true and that we are able to transform our world with technology, that does not mean technology is always a net positive, or that we should let it run unfettered. This phenomenon (of building a duplicate platform that serves little purpose) has shown me that tech does not always rise to the challenge, and that in this crisis, tech workers are not fully understanding the challenges we face. To be fair, there are a number of companies that have made strides supporting racial justice and fighting COVID-19 in the past few months: Netflix’s plan to move $100 million into Black-owned banks comes to mind, for example, as does NVIDIA’s response to COVID-19, donating computing power and working with researchers to better understand the virus and speed up a vaccine (full disclosure: I was an intern at NVIDIA in summer 2020). For the purposes of this argument, I am more interested in what tech workers, the grass roots, see as worthy causes into which they will invest precious time and energy.

To some extent, I believe the shallowness of this response is emblematic of the tech industry. It’s very individualistic (I can do this better than everyone else), and it shirks the hard work of engaging with systemic inequity. The problem with the idea of “tech can change the world” is that although the world is certainly changing under the influence of technology, many tech workers don’t necessarily feel that they are responsible for that change. We fail to criticize how we wield our power to “change the world” and how our work may fit into larger systems of oppression. What’s more, it’s not only tech companies’ product that’s changing the world — simply by existing, tech companies have impacted the communities in which they exist (thinking in particular of the Bay Area housing crisis and the very complex dynamics at play there that I am not an expert on — it’s hard to argue that Facebook, for example, isn’t at least partially responsible for gentrification in the Bay Area by hiring large numbers of very well-paid engineers).

So what would be better? I think that as people with specialized, in-demand skills, we have to help in some way, if we have the bandwidth for it. There are a lot of great ways to help, but the best way to ensure they will be effective is to ask the people affected what they need from you. Support the folks who have the expertise to do what needs to be done — it is more effective to join or support an existing organization than to create your own, and helps avoid being a white saviour.

Obviously, a proliferation of COVID trackers will not actually solve COVID, but the coronavirus has exacerbated problems in our society and created new ones: the logistics of getting tests and eventually vaccines to people; the state unemployment databases written in ancient COBOL that can’t support a massive wave of requests; millions of people out of work, struggling with food and housing insecurity; education, socialization, and work moving online; rates of depression and anxiety rising; entrenched racism; the climate crisis. We are facing so many complex problems, and there are people out there working to solve each one.

Here are some things that may be more helpful (but of course, ask before you start giving help):

  • Helping mutual aid networks develop centralized databases or input forms for people who need help to connect them to resources. Because mutual aid networks are dealing with a large amount of people with a variety of needs, this can help streamline the intake process so the case workers can better understand peoples’ needs from the get-go, saving everyone time.
  • A lot of small businesses are suffering because of lack of foot traffic and capacity restrictions. You could help small businesses develop a website, online store, and integrate other software they may need (like accounting or marketing) pro bono to streamline their business operations and promote their services.
  • Because so many schools are doing distance learning, children need WiFi and devices like laptops and tablets, and may not have access to those things. You could crowdsource old hardware from your network (pun intended?) and help your school district set up and deliver the hardware to students.
  • We know that Black Lives Matter activists have been threatened by police and far-right actors — if you’re security savvy, you could help BLM organizations stay safe online.

There are also organizations that are centralizing technical volunteer power for COVID, like U.S. Digital Response, Help With COVID, and New York State’s COVID-19 Technology SWAT team.

However, I recognize that the best way to help may not always be volunteering your technical skills — for example, food pantries need hands to bag groceries and hand them off with a smile (under a mask), and often ask for money so they can negotiate bulk discounts and buy produce or meat, which cannot be donated. Giving money directly to people who are struggling is also a good way to help, even though it’s not available for matching and can’t be deducted on taxes, because it eliminates the overhead and delays of a nonprofit, and funnels cash directly into peoples’ pockets.

Deeper than that, though — changes do not last if we are one-time contributors. I hate seeing tech workers and students focusing on others’ racism and enabling oppressive systems of power, while ignoring our own. Ask yourself how can you lift up BIPOC in your workplace, today and every day. Do you use outdated language? There’s an industry push to re-lingo to avoid terms like master/slave, blacklist/whitelist, etc. — find out how you can do that in your work. Many tech orgs have abysmally small percentages of Black employees — what are you doing to refer and source candidates of colour? How are you supporting your coworkers once they get hired? Diversity and inclusion is an active pursuit, and examining yourself as you work towards equity can get uncomfortable. I don’t mean to be moralizing, and I have struggled with these same questions. But if you actually want to make a difference, using the systems in which you already exist makes a bigger difference than gaining access to a new space — you have influence by virtue of being included in that organization (a workplace, school, social organization, etc). It is your job to democratize that power.