Tech heroes, take a bow

The words “2018,” “good” and “tech” probably don’t seem like they belong in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence. But stay with me here.

It’s true that this was a horrible year for many of the tech industry’s biggest companies. Amazon held a nationwide beauty pageant for its new headquarters, raising hopes that the company would help transform a struggling city, then picked the two places that needed it the least. Executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter got hauled before Congress to apologize for gestures wildly in all directions. One of Uber’s self-driving cars killed someone. And then there was Elon Musk.

But the tech sector is more than its giants.

Last year, I handed out “good tech” awards to a handful of companies, nonprofit organizations and people who used technology to help others in real, tangible ways. The goal was to shine a spotlight on a few less-heralded projects that may not get front-page headlines or billions of dollars in funding, but are actually trying to fulfill the tech industry’s stated goal of improving the world.

I’m continuing that tradition this year, in the spirit of reminding us that although scandals and wrongdoing in tech rightly get a lot of attention, there’s good happening elsewhere.

To Zipline and Swoop Aero, for using drones to heal the sick.

For years, consumer drones were hyped as a new technology that would soon fill the skies over America’s cities, delivering packages and surveilling the populace. Luckily, that hasn’t happened yet, but elsewhere, drone companies are doing real work.

One of these efforts is Zipline, a startup that uses drones to deliver blood and medicine to medical facilities in remote areas that can’t be easily reached by traditional vehicles. The company began operating in Rwanda, where it says it has made more than 8,000 deliveries, and this year expanded to Ghana.

Another is Swoop Aero, an Australian drone-delivery company that teamed up with UNICEF this year to deliver vaccines to the remote South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, where roughly 20 percent of children do not get properly vaccinated. One nurse in the country told The New York Times that the drone deliveries “will change my life.”

To Upsolve, for helping people go bankrupt.

For many low-income Americans, declaring personal bankruptcy can be a painful but necessary way to get rid of exorbitant medical bills or predatory lenders. But it’s often expensive to hire a bankruptcy lawyer and hard to navigate the maze of paperwork.

Upsolve, a nonprofit organization founded by a Harvard graduate and a lawyer, built a tool that has been referred to as the “TurboTax of bankruptcy.” The software collects financial information from users, automatically fills out their forms and passes them to a lawyer who reviews them before the user submits a bankruptcy claim. In 2018, it helped users in 47 states discharge a total of more than $13 million in debt, according to Rohan Pavuluri, the company’s chief executive.

To Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru and Anima Anandkumar, for calling out AI bias.

Artificial intelligence will be one of the most important areas of computer science in the coming years. It’s also one of the least diverse. Just 12% of AI researchers are women, and the number of black and Latino executives in the field is vanishingly small. Three leading AI researchers are trying to change that.

Buolamwini, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, is the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, an organization trying to fight what it calls the “coded gaze” of biased algorithms. This year, she and Gebru — a Google researcher and co-founder of a group called Black in AI — released a study that showed that three leading facial recognition algorithms were substantially worse at classifying darker faces than lighter faces, and worse at classifying women’s faces than men’s faces. The study set off alarm bells at leading tech companies, and was widely cited as evidence of the need for more diversity in the field.

Separately, Anandkumar, Nvidia’s director of machine learning research and a professor at Caltech, saw that the name of the AI field’s marquee annual event — the Neural Information Processing Systems conference, or NIPS — had been used as fodder for sexist jokes. So she started a #ProtestNIPS campaign to change the name and drew up a petition that gathered more than 2,000 signatures. Eventually, the conference’s board relented, and the event is now abbreviated as “NeurIPS.” It was a small gesture of inclusion that could go a long way toward making women feel more welcome in the field for years to come.

To promise, uptrust and Clear My Record, for helping solve our prison woes.

Ending mass incarceration has long been seen as a political challenge. But these three companies are trying to show that technology can help.

Promise is an app built to keep people out of jail. Aimed at pretrial defendants who cannot afford to post cash bail, it creates customized care plans for each user, sends them reminders of court dates and other critical appointments and allows courts to monitor their progress. The company, which participated in the YCombinator startup program, recently raised $3 million from investors including Jay-Z’s Roc Nation fund and First Round Capital.

Another startup, Uptrust, offers a similar text message-based system that sends personalized appointment reminders to low-income clients, and can connect them to services that make getting to court easier, such as rides or child care. The service is already up and running in a handful of states, including Baltimore County, Maryland, and Palm Beach County, Florida.

Code for America, a nonprofit organization modeled after Teach for America, built Clear My Record, a tool that helps people with old criminal convictions get them reduced or expunged, which makes it easier for them to find housing and get jobs. This year, the team formed a partnership with George Gascón, the San Francisco district attorney, to work on a new program that automates the process of expunging marijuana-related convictions under the state’s legalization laws. The group aims to remove 250,000 convictions by the end of 2019.

To workers of big tech companies, for holding giants accountable.

The most heartening trend to come out of large tech companies in 2018 was a surge in employee-led activism. Protests by regulators, shareholders and users have thus far failed to stop the worst excesses of the industry, leaving these companies’ own employees — who are expensive and hard to replace, and therefore have lots of leverage — to agitate for change from within.

At Google, a group of employees went public with concerns about Project Dragonfly, a secret Google project to create a censored version of its search engine for China. Their activism resulted in a petition, which was signed by hundreds of Google employees, to demand that the company cease work on the project.

Another group of employees spoke up after The Times reported on the $90 million payout made to the former Google executive Andy Rubin, who was accused of sexual misconduct. Their efforts culminated in a 20,000-employee protest walkout.

Workers at Amazon and Microsoft have also spoken up for change within their companies, on issues ranging from climate change to surveillance, AI ethics and the decision to work with federal immigration agencies.

These workers didn’t solve every problem in tech overnight, but they have created a playbook for other employee activists to follow. More important, they have finally given their executives a measure of accountability — something they proved they will badly need in 2019.

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Tech heroes, take a bow

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