Life-saving drones, gamified peace solutions and tech for homeless LGBT youth. Social good is the new buzzword in Austin – but should we believe the hype?
“Don’t Be Evil.” When the corporate motto was first brought up at a Google HQ meeting – sometime in 2000 or 2001, according to various accounts – it was surely spoken with a degree of arch irony. When the alternative would tell employees to “Be Evil(!)”, you’d think it ought to go without saying. But whether companies like Google and its fellow megacorps set out to be evil seems besides the point: right now, not being evil seems irrelevant in a world of industry heavyweights that, worse than making colossal amounts of money and buying killer robots, have simply lost the public’s trust. But as a younger generation of tech creatives eschew corporate pathways, a new trend is picking up speed – and it’s one where the pursuit of profit doesn’t even register.
At first, McDonalds-sponsored glance, SXSW Interactive wouldn’t be the first place to look for an underground commitment to social change. Kicking off tomorrow, the Austin festival’s digital culture arm is behind some of the industry’s biggest success stories to date. If it weren’t for SXSW, you probably wouldn’t have heard of Twitter – it stole the show in 2007, giving the festival its reputation for launching mega dollar-making public companies. But, as director Hugh Forrest has said, that little blue birdy is looking more and more like an “albatross”; turning the conference into a prize-winning pageant, not a platform for real change.
Sxgood is the branch of the festival that hopes to change all that. Uniting designers and entrepreneurs who are interested in tech-with-a-cause, the hub features an unprecedented number of do-gooding creatives: some of whom are launching radical new concepts for making change in the world. The long weekend will confront issues global and local: from big data’s potential for transforming poverty policy, to exploring how mobile technology could help keep LGBT homeless youth off the streets.
On Friday, NY-based interaction designer Navit Keren will present a concept for gamifying peace. Called Welcome to the West Bank, her location-based game confronts one of the world’s most impossible conflicts by putting Israelis and Palestinians in one another’s shoes. “Gamification is an effective way of solving problems,” says the designer, a Parsons grad, of her work-in-progress. “As an Israeli Jew and an interaction designer, I wanted to test this theory by applying gamification principles to the most intractable, hardest to solve problem of all.”
“Whether companies like Google and its fellow megacorps set out to be evil seems besides the point: right now, not being evil seems irrelevant in a world of industry heavyweights that, worse than making colossal amounts of money and buying killer robots, have simply lost the public’s trust”
For Keren, who has previously worked on a project to help people die well, solving conflicts through technology is less about humanitarian aid, and more about changing established attitudes, promoting empathy. In her game, players are exposed to visualised data and simulated experiences from the other side of the wall. The interaction design aggregates data from the dense PDF reports released monthly by NGOs, making previously unwieldy information visual and accessible for teens. In a way, using gameplay for a serious cause is a direct response to the darker side of a world lived on social media – where reality, often, isn’t taken seriously enough. “The last operation in Gaza surfaced unprecedented signs of hate,” she explains. “Maybe they were always there, but last summer they felt more visible thanks to the proliferation of online means of expression.”
To go by Keren and other featured speakers at SXSW, using tech to change the world in 2015 is about altering the public’s perceptions: towards conflicts, but also towards the tech industry itself. The positive potential of UAVs will be one concept enthused about over the weekend, as creatives try to combat the negative baggage of military drones by re-appropriating the technology. Patrick Meier, who will speak about using UAVs in humanitarian contexts on Saturday, thinks drones have huge potential to empower at-risk communities. Not only can they help with the distribution of goods, and assess damage on the ground using aerial imagery and 3D mapping, but any imagery captured is then made available online, for free. This enables local community leaders and charities to access the information and co-ordinate their efforts. “[It’s about] the facilitation of self-organised response,” says Patrick, speaking of the efforts of the Humanitarian UAV Network. “Mutual aid, and self-help.” Other projects using drones for good include one that attempts to locate Vietnam-Era bombs, using sensors to aid clearance of undetonated munitions that still affect the lives of inhabitants. Projects like this show the advantage of UAVs that can access places that are otherwise dangerous or difficult to reach – one reason why drones have been flying over Fukishima and Chernobyl in recent months.
But is social good in tech at risk of becoming just another buzzword? For many speakers at SXSW, such projects are indicative of a grassroots shift in the industry as a whole. Linking all the projects at SxGood is a shared sense of responding to real, ‘hard to reach’ problems – this might be literally, as in the case of disaster relief drones, or on the more personal level, such as responding to the shocking number of LGBT homeless youth with an online support network. More than not being evil, or even not doing evil, tech’s individualists are taking their idealism out of Texan buzzland and into the spaces where it’s needed the most. In other words: a serious game.