We must build better

Nov. 8th 2016 – Nairobi, Kenya. I was done with the work for the day volunteering for Ushahidi US Election watch and had gone to bed… woke up to the news that Donald Trump was going to be the next president of the United States. In between messages with friends in the valley and reading through the many explanations of how and why this happened…. I had one exchange with Aza Raskin that has stayed with me since. As we talked of the filter bubbles, a broken attention economy and questionable incentives for valuing startups. Below are just a few questions that I think builders of platforms need to take a moment to contemplate.

1. What are the values that underpin your technology? Have a think through questions like how did your company come about? What non-techie words can be used to describe what your technology encourages? What are the unforeseen uses of your technology and how are you going to deal with that?  The design and architecture choices; how do they complement those values?

I had the privilege of sharing some of the thoughts around this at the Internet Dagarna conference in Stockholm.

Summary: I think Ushahidi encouraged the following things to happen. Collaboration, Cooperation, Community, These are values that encourage participation, inclusion and feedback. iHub encouraged community, innovation and serendipity, BRCK encourages connection and opportunity (read more about the year at BRCK)

2. How does your company culture complement those values? Pauline Shamola was doing her work and unbeknownst to her, pictures of her service to a disabled customer of Safaricom’s made the rounds in social media. It was a fantastic story and one that I think shows that the values that Safaricom stand for are not just tag lines but something that is internalized and in line with Bob Collymore’s leadership.

3. Prediction model vs manipulation model – Sean Gourley was rather prescient in this 2013 post “Prediction is a parlor trick, manipulation is much more interesting” 
What are the passive things that your company/org does? What are the levers you as a company are pushing on to reach your company goals? Are they just transactional? Transformational? What is the cycle? How are you listening to the pulse of what is going on on the ground? Do you have a mechanism for that? Bottom up flow of information… is it happening through certain filter bubbles? What is your filter bubble?

4. Who is your customer? Community? How closely do you understand them? How do they move you and how do you move them? How are you participating in the greater network? Could big data and analytics play a role?
Who do you serve?

These are just a few questions to think through as you build whatever you build. It is increasingly clear that we need to look at the consequences of our technologies and companies on society. We can do better, and indeed we must.

Resources: Look out for Stephane Eloise’ Gras’s paper on computational ethics… more on that conversation on a future blogpost.