May 21, 2024

A call to action for tech

This is What Democracy Looks Like

Tech is uniting against President Trump.

Indeed, a host of companies have come out in opposition to the new administration. From 127 tech firms teaming up against Trump’s immigration ban, to Google employees’ massive walkout in response to the immigration ban, to Lyft’s $1 million donation to the ACLU, tech has taken up the language of protest and spoken loud and clear.

This is a historic moment. A movement of this matter and magnitude in tech is unprecedented. As a founder of Bayes Impact, a nonprofit at the intersection of tech and social services, I’m energized by the prospect of uniting with technologists across the industry to fight for the rights and well-being of Americans.

However, as the tech community’s voice grows louder, it must be strategic in how it directs its actions — otherwise, tech runs a very real risk of strengthening a polarizing elitist message that will further divide us from our fellow citizens.

The tech industry was born out of a commitment — a promise — to “make the world a better place.” However, there’s a common perception that tech has not made good on that promise. Rather, tech is viewed as elitist, exclusive, self-interested and out of touch, as manifested by the Google bus protests and the inflammatory open letter a tech entrepreneur addressed to San Francisco city officials condemning the city’s homeless.

As tech takes a political stand, we must be wary of furthering the conception that we are profiteers, not world changers; that we are calling for equality while outearning and displacing those who need it most; that we are building tools to benefit the privileged, not the underserved.

That’s why we can’t stop at protest. Tech can’t simply stand with Americans — it needs to work for them. We have to start building things with the average American in mind. We need to empathize with and uplift our nation’s disenfranchised. We must use our privilege — our power, our knowledge and our community — to fulfill our original pledge.

And we need to act now. In just a few short weeks, Americans’ essential rights have come under attack and the new administration has put millions of people at risk of losing critical social services. It has become clear that Americans cannot rely on government for adequate healthcare, stable employment, reliable housing or quality education.

In a time when such rights and services are becoming more uncertain by the day, tech needs to take action. By leveraging the power and scale of our industry to build a new paradigm of social services — one that exists outside of government and eludes the whims of politicians — we can transform the social sphere to reach more people in a more impactful way than ever before.

Tech can’t simply stand with Americans — it needs to work for them.

Technologists are already heeding the call. So how can you get involved? Here are a few suggestions to get you started: 

  • Technology nonprofits. Join a class of nonprofits that use tech to create change. The nonprofit I co-founded, Bayes Impact, uses software and data science to build the social services of the future. Our recent work includes an open-source software platform that fills the gap in police use-of-force data and a digital public service that addresses unemployment in France. Some other organizations to check out are Khan Academy, CareMessage, and Watsi. If you’re looking for more options, Fast Forward has a great list of tech nonprofits to explore.
  • Social impact incubators. For tech entrepreneurs, these incubators will give you access to users, knowledge, resources and an excuse to quit your jobs. Blue Ridge Labs, a social impact incubator based in Brooklyn, enables technologists to build products and services aimed at low-income communities. It has given rise to impactful companies such as Propel, which improves the accessibility and user-friendliness of the welfare system, and UpSolve, which gives financially struggling Americans a fresh start. Other incubators include Fast Forward, Y Combinator’s nonprofit program, and Future Cities Accelerator, to name just a few.
  • For-profit companies with a real social mission. While most tech companies claim they are “saving the world,” there are a number that are making a real impact. Nava, for example, improves government services to make them more efficient and reliable. They were responsible for fixing in 2013 and, since then, have partnered with other government agencies to transform vital services to Americans. Binti and Nuna are two other companies that are doing amazing work.
  • Local government roles. Using your technical skills to help your city or state can familiarize you with the real problems and enable you to partner with communities and policy makers to solve them. Code for America’s job board provides a list of public sector tech jobs that address the nation’s greatest challenges.
  • Step out of your comfort zone. Spend time in your local communities with people who are not like you — that’s how you figure out which problems to solve and how technology can help. Email nonprofits, community organizations and neighborhood councils in your city and ask how you can help. Websites like VolunteerMatch and Catchafire can link you to opportunities in your area where your technical skills can be put to humanitarian use or where you can simply meet and aid underserved members of your community.

The path to real change begins with individuals who are committed for the long haul, even after the impetus of protest subsides. For tech, that means building more than flashy prototypes or feel-good MVPs. It’s time for the real heroes in tech to emerge, those who dedicate their everyday work to understanding and uplifting the lives of Americans in need.

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