The success of the technology sector—the online platforms and services that have rapidly proliferated in recent years, distinct from material technology such as hardware and physical devices—is becoming increasingly conspicuous. The industry faces mounting calls to make greater societal contributions beyond those of profit. The technology field is uniquely positioned to give back to society in ways that distinguish it from other industries.
Concerns about the technology sector’s social contract are particularly acute in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, home to the majority of the country’s technology companies and the hotbed of growing discontent toward the industry’s success. Throughout the region, the technology field is blamed for gentrification and a cost of living that now ranks among the nation’s highest. Resentment against the industry has bubbled over in such dramatic manifestations as the now well-known blockades of Google buses transporting San Francisco residents to their work in Mountain View, and union protestors surrounding Twitter’s headquarters to decry tax breaks given to the company. At the heart of these debates lie concerns about how the technology industry interacts with the surrounding cities and communities in which it works. The sector’s success contributes to divisions between the technology industry and all things non-tech. Protestors criticize the inequalities that accompany this separation and advocate for the industry to make greater returns to society.
Importantly, calls for the technology sector to give back do not exclusively come from those working in other, non-technology related, industries. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff offers a prime example. He pioneered Salesforce’s 1-1-1 community service model and championed the SF Gives campaign, an effort to get leading technology companies to donate $500,000 each to Tipping Point, a San Francisco foundation dedicated to poverty alleviation.
Benioff’s contributions are unquestionably important—both in terms of generating greater resources for the social sector and of shifting the cultural norms of the technology industry to embrace the notion of giving back more readily. However, for a field that prides itself on innovation, the prevailing manner in which the technology sector is giving back looks a lot like every other industry: corporate philanthropy and volunteer campaigns. This begs the question: Are there unique ways that the information technology sector can give back, and if so, what are they? The answer lies in invigorating how the sector pursues corporate responsibility (CSR) strategies.
CSR strategy has evolved considerably from where it was just a few years ago. It is now commonplace for major companies to have in-house CSR divisions and strategies that they can feature prominently in annual reports. However, this evolution has been uneven. Some sectors, especially those grounded in traditional manufacturing (such as the production of material goods), have made considerable advances in defining and implementing responsible business practices. Traditional manufacturing’s means of production lends itself to the development of responsibility strategies. From T-shirts to coffee, CSR frameworks protect the wellbeing of labor and the environment. The production process outlines a roadmap around which companies can develop responsibility measures. Businesses attempting to strengthen their responsibility position can examine the human and environmental externalities that exist at each step in the sequence of creating a material good to arrive at responsibility strategies.
However, this degree of clarity does not exist for the technology sector. Analyzing the industry’s production process does not illuminate responsibility strategies as it does for traditional manufacturing. On the human side, labor protections take a very different form than they do for other fields. The notion of a vulnerable line worker is replaced with that of a well-compensated programmer. Environmental concerns center on and are largely confined to reducing carbon emissions by increasing the computing efficiency of data equipment. What has become a conventional approach to developing responsibility strategies simply does not suit the technology sector very well, nor does it address the main criticisms the industry faces.
Technology professionals and their critics are wrestling with what it means to give back and what it looks like. Although we do not have full and clear answers to these questions, promising practices are emerging, and they deserve greater attention.
Hackathons—events that bring together computer programmers to intensively work on a new product or challenge for a concentrated amount of time—are a common technique to spur innovation in the technology field. Some are applying this approach to address social concerns. For instance, earlier this year, Cloudera, a leading developer of big-data solutions, hosted a hackathon to support AtrocityWatch, a nonprofit working to prevent crimes against humanity through crowd sourcing and data analysis.
The San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation (sf.citi) offers another example. Sf.citi, a membership organization comprised of Bay Area technology companies, strives to foster partnerships between its members and government offices to tackle city problems through the power of technology. Thus far, sf.citi has supported pilot projects, consulting efforts, and software development to improve how city departments working on transportation and public safety collect and analyze data, thereby improving their operational efficiency.
Although criticized by protestors, larger, more established technology companies are also supporting social sector efforts. Google’s Person Finder web application, for example, allows individuals to post and search for friends and relatives following emergencies (such as the Boston Marathon bombing). The application is configured to permit nonprofits and government agencies to contribute and receive data. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Google shared mapping data with the United Nations and other relief agencies.
These examples represent what the technology sector excels at: capturing, analyzing, and sharing data. They also exemplify the greatest value-add that the technology industry can offer the social sector: data analytics. The ability of social sector organizations to obtain, handle, and act on information remains somewhat underdeveloped, especially in comparison to their for-profit counterparts. Rudimentary means of collecting, analyzing, and communicating information undermine the efficiency and impact of the social sector. A stronger information capacity can help social sector organizations understand the needs of beneficiaries and communities, target resources effectively, evaluate the impact of programs and services, and leverage big-data to anticipate and respond to challenges.
In short, we can use the technology sector’s greatest asset to address a common weakness of social sector organizations. Strategies that make innovative contributions to how the social sector collects, interprets, and responds to data can also serve as vehicles for earning trust and building public support. These approaches hold enormous potential for the advancement of CSR; they also begin to answer important questions about how the technology sector can best give back to society.