NGOs must become 21st century organizations (Part 2)

A Syrian refugee uses her mobile phone to access digital banking services in Jordan.

Learn more by reading part one.

Technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) have the potential to improve the lives of millions of people. However, they are coming at a time where we see a lack of trust in emerging technologies. Whether driven by fake news, doubt over how personal data is handled, bias in AI, or jobs being eliminated through automation — there is a growing trust issue.

According to Sanjay Nair at Edelman, only 64% of people surveyed believe that technology is contributing overall to social good. Perhaps most telling, people are even less confident in new technologies such as AI (56%) and Blockchain (50%).

Dictionary definitions of "trust" refer to the words reliability, truth, ability, faith, and confidence, and a “social, economic, and political binding agent” (Pewinternet.org). Yet trust is, in fact, a choice — a “behavioral decision to accept (and even appreciate) vulnerability”. This behavioral decision to ‘accept’ is a valuable currency and one that can be easily manipulated, while carelessly implemented technologies have severe and harmful unintended consequences.

Breaking down trust between the informed public versus the mass population, the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer shows the trust inequality has returned to record highs.

A graphic showing the difference in evaluated trust between the informed public and the mass population.

By 2025, GSMA is forecasting some 5.9 billion unique mobile phone subscribers, 77% smart phone penetration, and 5.0 billion mobile internet users globally. In 2017, some 300 million monthly active WhatsApp users were added (Statista 2018).

Are we doing enough to prepare the mass population, especially those in geographies that are relatively new to digital technology, for a world of safe and equal digital inclusion, with the rights and ability to participate in a global digital economy? Or, is technology spreading faster than our collective ability to prepare populations, leaving the door open to misuse and manipulation, such as the now prevalent weaponization of social media?

Operating in catch-up mode, some action is being taken. For example, Germany has passed a law that fines social media companies for failing to delete fake news, and Singapore has announced plans to introduce laws to fight fake news. Just this month, the Australian government introduced a new bill aimed at imposing criminal liability on executives of social media platforms if they fail to remove “abhorrent violent content.” However, this is being criticized by Digital Rights Watch Chair, Tim Singleton Norton, who says, “Poorly designed criminal intermediary liability rules are not the right approach here, which the government would know if it had taken the time to consult properly. It’s simply wrong to assume that an amendment to the criminal code is going to solve the wider issue of content moderation on the internet.”

Even the Pope has criticized the spread of fake news.

Either by manipulation or careless implementation, civil society and governments must do more to prepare vulnerable populations and communities who are relatively new to digital technologies with digital and media literacy guidelines and training.

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 9 (“Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation”) calls for more scientific research, an upgrade to technological capabilities of industries, and support for domestic technology development, research, and innovation in developing countries. SDG 4.4 discusses training in Internet Communications Technology (ICT) and digital skills for employment. Yet, while the SDG goals specifically call for significant increase in access to ICT, with an aim to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in the least developed countries by 2020, neither of these goals put any attention on individual or societal ‘digital readiness.’

We have seen social media platforms incite retaliatory violence and killings. We have seen community cohesion dismantled by bad actors sowing seeds of distrust. We are still debating how to mitigate risk of digital identities while moving quickly towards biometrics. Data hacks and security breaches continue to occur and this is all moving into communities with millions of vulnerable people.

While we have been very focused on the technology, there needs to be more focus on the ethical use of technology, the protection of individual rights, equal access, and preparedness. Trust is fragile, and to build and sustain trust requires a foundation of transparency, privacy by design, strong data protection protocols, involvement of users in the design, training and education.

Technology is spreading at a frenzied pace, maybe outpacing our readiness, leaving the door open to exploitation of vulnerable people. While we embrace the opportunities this creates, we need to better understand the sociological implications of our drive to digital.

I am a humanitarian technologist, with a career in the tech sector, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the NGO sector. I love technology, and the potential to transform lives is significant. But I would like to see more ‘digital readiness’ collaboration between technology companies, civil society, and governments. We would benefit too from better alignment on key issues among NGOs, who can bring on-the ground contextual understanding to help technology companies identify key priorities to protect the mass population, while enabling all people to enjoy the benefits of digital technologies.

Civil society is already naturally committed serving vulnerable communities and I believe that the majority of technology sector workers are too. Interestingly, people are looking to the private sector more to drive change. 76% of those surveyed in the 2019 Edelman Trust survey say, “CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it,” up 11 percentage points. In fact, for employers who wish to increase trust within their own organization, they may want to look at societal impact (the organization’s contributions to the betterment of society), as the survey suggests this as a top communication topic.

A graphic showing the top five communications topics that are most effective in increasing employer trust.

Can we entice the private sector to help civil society prepare people — especially vulnerable populations — for a digital world, without being mandated by a legislative process; or is that naïve? The corporations that claim a ‘customer obsession’ or something similar, now is the time to get behind all your future customers.

The question we need to be asking ourselves is: will digital technology help close the gaps in social, political and structural issues or simply reinforce existing inequalities?