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Sure, there's an app for that, but does it work in Michigan?

Jun 29, 2015

The Next Idea

Silicon Valley churns out apps to “change the world,” but whose world are they really changing? How do we know if these new technologies are going to work in a city like Detroit, for example?

All across America, digital innovations have proliferated in the last four decades, but poverty rates haven’t budged, and inequality has skyrocketed.     

It wasn't until Toyama began running a research lab in India that he started to understand why technological progress isn't making us more equal. He now hopes to take these lessons and apply them in Detroit.
Credit flickr/jmarty / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Massive open online courses were supposed to provide affordable education for all, but in fact they’re completed mostly by college-educated professionals, not high-school drop-outs. In Detroit, there is better access to mobile phones than stable jobs.

As it turns out, all that Twitters is not gold.

I’m a computer scientist by training, but it took me many years – and a journey to the other side of the world – to understand why great expectations for new technologies often fall short.

In 2004, I moved to Bangalore, India, to help start a research lab for Microsoft. My group was focused on finding digital solutions for low-income communities.

One of our early projects involved designing a “text-free user interface” for people who couldn’t read. Through conversations with women in slum neighborhoods, we heard that they wanted a way to find work as domestic help. We imagined that by setting up a text-free computer kiosk in a local non-profit office, they could browse and find jobs themselves.

Our research showed that the women could navigate a well-designed interface without text, but the end goal – of increasing employment – didn’t work out. The problem was that while job-finding was relatively easy, job-getting required much, much more than a good technological solution.

Potential employers wanted a professional service, one where workers would show up on time, call in advance if they had to cancel, provide trustworthy substitutes, be proficient at a range of tasks, and follow household rules. Employees for their part complained about low pay, the need for training, and humiliating rules (such as not being allowed to use the toilet in the homes they worked in).

We worked for a year with a local non-profit to provide training for workers, develop formal agreements, lobby for a de-facto minimum wage, and so on. As we got more into the thicket of what it really meant to help the women find employment, our technological concerns faded into irrelevance.

That experience and many others like it have caused me to conclude that technology follows a Law of Amplification: Its primary effect is to amplify underlying human forces.

For example, job-search websites work best where skilled professionals are seeking jobs, employers have open positions to fill, and social norms or formal regulations uphold trust even between strangers – i.e., in places like Silicon Valley. But where skills, jobs, or a trusting environment is wanting, technology has little foundation to build on.

Another way to say this is that wherever technology has positive impact, it occurs on a foundation of people with good intentions and some baseline capability.

All across America, digital innovations have proliferated in the last four decades, but poverty rates haven't budged, and inequality has skyrocketed.

One of the projects that came out of my lab in India is called Digital Green. It uses locally produced video to help farmers learn better agriculture practices, and it’s been shown to improve learning by a factor of seven, even at a lower cost. Of course, video cameras, pico-projectors, a video database, and other gadgets are involved. But, the video project only works if it is run by agricultural organizations focused on farmer welfare. They’re the ones who establish rapport with farmers. They help find loans for buying seeds. They open channels to markets. In other words, they do all the things that can’t be delivered digitally. There is no Digital Green without its committed human partners.

So what’s the Next Idea?

Together with colleagues at the University of Michigan, I’m exploring the question: What would it take for job-seeking Detroit residents to take advantage of digital tools intended to help earn income?

For example, companies like AirBnb and TaskRabbit allow people to rent a room or perform informal tasks for money. But, the people who could benefit most from these “sharing economy” platforms are often unaware, unable, or unqualified to use them. Some don’t have bank accounts. Others need help writing content. Still others may not have the soft skills needed to interact with customers.

These are obstacles that go far beyond the technology. What would it take to clear them? By accompanying people through the process, we’re hoping to find out.

One type of expertise that we could build on, for example, is Detroit residents’ knowledge of their own city. Enterprising individuals could give walking tours to visitors, and they could do it from their unique perspective. 

This is a project we can’t do without Detroit-area organizations that have established rapport with job-seekers. In collaboration, we will need to explain the opportunity, offer training, help design itineraries, and where necessary, provide technical support.

For new technology to produce meaningful change in Michigan, we must do much more than supply apps and websites billed as digital “opportunities.” We need to help build the capacity for everyone to take advantage of them.

Kentaro Toyama is an associate professor at U of M’s School of Information. His new book is “Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.” 

Interested Detroit-area non-profits and government offices focused on livelihood development can reach the author at toyama@umich.edu.

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