Why I'm not talking about Tech for Good.
My usual rule is not to do Tech for Good events.
But when one’s 20 minutes from my flat, and I accept the invitation before realising the branding of the event, I can’t resist. And anyway the branding is mostly not about Tech for Good. I’m really looking forward to it.
I’ll be talking about the work we did with GMB Union on Employment Explorer; a tool to help union officials understand precarious work in their area and how that’s changed in recent years.
I’ll also be talking about Gavin Kelly’s recent piece in The FT on how data should be empowering workers to demand better conditions.
This idea is particularly interesting to me because through developing products like Leeds Bins, Teacher Tapp, and Leeds Social Housing Picker I’ve learned that digital tools built on very small budgets can reach huge numbers of people and significantly improve their lives.
I could easily build an app that,
- Tracks a worker’s hours at work to ensure that their conditions and pay are as agreed.
- Tracks a worker’s hours at work to see whether they are getting the hours that they want, and suggests nearby jobs offering more, or more regular, hours if they’re not.
- Knows a worker’s current salary, and nearby offered salaries, and suggests better jobs.
- Knows a worker’s skills profile, nearby training opportunities, and the salaries available with those higher skills, so that a worker can make better choices about training.
Most of the data needed to power such an app already exists and is published as open data by national government and job aggregation websites. Improvements are needed, but this shouldn’t be too hard.
The challenge will be attracting and keeping users.
Which is why I think that such an app would need to be sponsored and championed by a trade union, or a federation of trade unions like The TUC. The app may well improve union sign-up rates and pay for itself. A function to manage union membership fees, vote for leadership and industrial action, and be reminded of meetings should be easy to add.
Tech for Good
But back to Tech for Good. What is it? And why have I agreed to talk at an event labelled as such?
Well, I think it’s a pretty useless label. I find it divisive. Defining some tech as “good” implies that other tech is “bad”. I always ask people who use the phrase to tell me which companies and which people are doing tech for bad. And not people in America, people where they live and work.
“I’d never thought of it like that before, I suppose I just mean that we’re not motivated by shareholders or profit” is a typical response. But I don’t accept that being motivated by profit is inherently less good than not being motivated by profit.
To give one example, the BBC is not motivated by profit. Much of its technology work is fantastic, significant parts of it are released under open licenses for others to use. The BBC’s iPlayer is world-leading, its website is exceptional, and its position in UK media is dominant as a result. No other country has a single media organisation as dominant as the BBC is in the UK. It is not unrelated that few other countries have such imperilled regional media as the UK does.
So is the BBC Tech for Good? Or is it Tech for Bad?
What about SkyBet or Bet365? They are gambling companies, motivated in large part by profit, so that’s Tech for Bad right? But they employ and train tens of thousands of people in poorer-than-average places that government has struggled to help. They promote women in tech and culture in their cities just as much as Tech for Good and Diversity in Tech meetings. They pay good salaries that let people drink in pubs, eat in restaurants, and run football clubs and dance troupes for their kids. And they link our country together, protect local cultural institutions, create agglomeration benefits for our economy, keep us in a position as a world-leading nation for innovation, and pay the taxes that pay for our public services.
There’s a very good case to be made that Bet365 are Tech for Good, and that the BBC are Tech for Bad. And of course there’s a simpler, lazier, case to be made in the other direction.
So my suggestion is that we recognise the complexity of “good” and “bad” and how hard it is to define either. I would suggest that we judge others’ intentions less, because the easiest way to have good intentions is not to consider the impact of our actions. Instead, more of us should get on with building tech ourselves. Because the people I know actually building tech are almost all doing it for good, and if you ask them they’ll explain that. We should listen to them.