For much of Silicon Valley, 2017 felt like a nonstop parade of scandal and sin.
There was the decline of Uber, which blew itself up with missteps that included reports of rampant sexual harassment and executive misbehavior. There were troubles at Facebook, which became a lightning rod for failing to keep its platform safe from Russian propagandists and global extremists, and at Twitter and YouTube, which spent much of the year fighting to cleanse themselves of neo-Nazis, child exploiters and other undesirables.
But tech wasn’t all bad this year. As many of Silicon Valley’s largest companies were wreaking havoc, numerous people and organizations used technology to advance important causes and address large-scale problems.
These projects do not always make headlines, but they show what’s possible when technologists use their powers for good. So I’m presenting the first-ever Actually Good Tech Awards, to highlight a handful of tech efforts that produced real societal benefits this year.
Let’s have more of these in 2018, and fewer behemoths behaving badly.
An estimated 10 million Americans are blind or visually impaired, and until recently, tech companies did not have much to offer them. But that’s changing, thanks to start-ups like eSight and Aira, two companies that are taking advantage of recent advances in mobile and imaging technology to help visually impaired people navigate the world.
Aira, a start-up in San Diego, provides “visual interpreters” through an on-demand subscription service. Users wear camera-equipped glasses that shares what they see over a built-in wireless connection with a sighted person who then describes the surroundings or guides them through complicated tasks in real time. The company raised $12 million in a funding round earlier this year, and recently struck a partnership with Lyft to improve the ride-hailing service’s accessibility.
ESight, a company in Toronto, is building technology for legally blind people, who have impaired sight but have not fully lost their vision. This year, the company released the eSight 3, the latest version of its vision-assistance headset, which uses digital cameras and image-processing algorithms, similar to those found in some virtual-reality systems, to capture and enhance what the user sees. The enhanced picture is then displayed on two screens near the user’s eyes, greatly improving their ability to see small or faraway details.
These technologies do not yet allow blind people to drive or perform other complicated tasks, but they can make everyday life much easier, and for many visually impaired people, they’re a godsend.
Three years ago, Tiffani Ashley Bell, a computer programmer and Code for America fellow, learned that thousands of low-income residents of Detroit were having their running water shut off because of unpaid bills. So she and another tech worker, Kristy Tillman, set up the Detroit Water Project, an online platform that matched willing donors with Detroit households with unpaid water bills.
The nonprofit organization, now known as the Human Utility, went through the prestigious Y Combinator program and has expanded to Baltimore. In 2017, the organization’s donors paid more than $120,000 toward water bills for nearly 300 families. It’s a simple but effective way to ensure that people have access to a basic human necessity.
It’s hard to argue that the Bitcoin boom of late 2017, which dominated the tech conversation and created riches for a handful of early adopters and lucky speculators, was beneficial for society at large. But two projects stood out for trying to turn the cryptocurrency craze into a positive force.
Bail Bloc, a project created by The New Inquiry, an online magazine, is an app that uses your computer’s spare processing power to produce a cryptocurrency called Monero, which is similar to Bitcoin. The Monero generated by the software is then converted into dollars and donated to the Bronx Freedom Fund, an organization that helps pay bail fees for low-income New Yorkers who have been charged with misdemeanors, so that they can get out of jail while they await trial. In its first month, the app has created and donated more than $3,000 worth of Monero.
On a larger scale, the Pineapple Fund created a more mysterious form of cryptocurrency philanthropy. The organization was started in December by an anonymous donor who goes by the nickname “Pine” and claims to be among the 250 largest holders of Bitcoin in the world. The fund aims to give away $86 million worth of Bitcoin, and has already given $20 million worth of the currency to 13 organizations, including million-dollar donations to the Water Project, which provides clean water to people in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights watchdog. (These donations can be verified thanks to Bitcoin’s digital ledger system, which records every transaction in a public database.) Whoever Pine is, he or she seems to have found a way to convert Bitcoin into something actually useful.
Artificial intelligence garnered lots of hype in 2017, but too little attention was paid to algorithmic bias — the tendency of algorithms to mirror the prejudices of the programmers who created them.
Pymetrics, a New York start-up, is one company using algorithms to neutralize bias rather than perpetuate it. It makes software to help companies evaluate job applicants, replacing flawed methods like campus recruiting and résumé screens with a series of neuroscience-based games that are intended to be nondiscriminatory.
The results of these games are analyzed with algorithms that compare an applicant’s skills with those of existing employees. The algorithm’s results are then analyzed and tweaked to make sure they are not giving an advantage to applicants of any gender, race or educational background. It’s a way to make the hiring process fairer, and to put applicants from nontraditional backgrounds on more equal footing.
Major corporations like Unilever and Accenture are already using Pymetrics to diversify their talent pools, and the company raised $8 million this year to expand into other markets.
With a controversial travel ban and new questions around immigration’s future under President Trump, 2017 made life harder for many immigrants and their families. Luckily, a handful of start-ups are trying to help.
Visabot, a company in San Francisco, created an automated tool to guide immigrants through the process of applying for visa extensions and transfers, filing for green cards and other common immigration tasks. The tool, a chatbot that runs on Facebook Messenger, helps immigrants collect the documents they need and suggests improvements to their applications. The company says that 100,000 people have used its services, and it recently released Chinese, Hindi and Spanish versions.
Boundless is a Seattle-based start-up that has simplified the process of applying for marriage-based green cards, an often-frustrating process for immigrants and their spouses. Instead of filling out complex applications, users are guided step by step through a series of questions, and their answers are reviewed by an immigration lawyer before being sent in. The service costs $500 per application, a deep discount from the fees typically paid to immigration lawyers.
The technology that Susan Fowler used to great effect this year — a straightforward and sober 2,900-word post on her personal blog last February, documenting the sexual harassment she said she had experienced as an engineer at Uber — was far from cutting edge.
But it was enough to shake the ground in Silicon Valley, where inappropriate behavior by rich and powerful men had gone virtually unchecked for decades. Ms. Fowler’s post stirred outrage at Uber, and set in motion a sequence of events that eventually forced out the company’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick.
Uber is now stabilizing, sort of, under new leadership. But Ms. Fowler’s words have continued to resonate, and she has become an early, important voice in the #MeToo movement, a tsunami of cultural reckoning that has forced entire industries, including Silicon Valley, to grapple with their legacies of discrimination and harassment against women.
Ms. Fowler, who is turning her experiences into a book and a movie, could not possibly have known what she was setting in motion when she sat down to write those 2,900 words. But with a single blog post, she forced an entire industry to look in the mirror.