Silicon Valley’s Other Heartbleed: How Tech Companies are Trying to Save the World

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Every tech company wants to make the world a better place. Why is this happening?

By Alicia Levine (Global Marketing & Partnerships Manager)

Heartbleed, the recently discovered security vulnerability bug, affected websites at the very center of our Internet lifeblood: Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and Netflix, to name a few. Fortunately, most of us just needed to change a few passwords. Crisis averted. But there is another Heartbleed emerging that may prove to have a more profound, widespread impact. It may impact billions globally. I’m talking about Silicon Valley’s very own Heartbleed or, more precisely, its Bleeding Heart.

I’m referring to tech companies’ growing desire to “make the world a better place through technology,” a phenomenon I would like to call “Techvelopment.” (Yes, it’s a made-up word, but stick with me here.)

“Techvelopment” occurs whenever technology companies use their existing approach to business (which is increasingly software-based) to help solve global “development” issues, such as hunger, poverty, disease, and environmental degradation. These are issues that have traditionally been addressed by aid organizations like USAID, the World Bank, and NGOs. But we’re seeing more and more examples of tech companies, from startups to tech giants, aiming to directly address global issues too rather than rely on the traditional model of corporate foundations or partnerships with NGOs.

Last year, Foreign Policy Magazine printed a cover article entitled “Can Silicon Valley Save the World?” The article pointed out that “the trendiest subject these days for TED talks is cracking the code on digital-era do-gooding, with 100 recent talks and counting just on the subjects of Africa and development.” Even HBO’s new comedy “Silicon Valley” picked up this trend, referencing the theme several times in the pilot episode.

Sometimes it seems like everyone in Silicon Valley wants to be the next Gandhi.

The problem is there’s a lack of determining criteria for which do-gooders are actually using their tech acumen for good and which are not. A commonly agreed upon term like Techvelopment and accompanying criteria help distinguish which initiatives are using tech’s core strengths to tackle global issues. This sets the stage for cross-sector collaboration between the tech industry with traditional development actors, which I believe is critical to a successful attack on complex global development issues.

Why is This Happening?

There are two main reasons for this focus on “social impact,” as many in business call it. The first is profit-related. The second is more altruistic. Both are equally important.

First, from a profit perspective, companies see huge potential in markets by expanding their user bases beyond developed markets, dubbed the “Next 5 Billion.” Efforts to expand Internet access to currently unconnected and underserved users in place like Nigeria and India, for example, are a necessary step to unlock future purchasing potential of this population. I’ve already written about the potential positive development impacts that could result from Facebook and Google’s race to capture the eyeballs of consumers in emerging markets if delivered in partnership with local NGO, community, and government players. And, right now, tech companies have a lot of cash on-hand to spend on whatever they think might ultimately make them more money (capturing new users in emerging markets) and keep employees, stakeholders, and customers happy.

Second, a perhaps less talked about element, is that employees want to feel as though their daily work makes the world a better place. There is an increasing desire by employees to “give back” in more direct ways than the standard Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) model allows. The tech community is no different. Aaron Hurst’s recent book “The Purpose Economy” points to a new economic era that is driven by the fact that people, and particularly employees and customers, want to benefit others and serve needs beyond their own. Many of the big tech companies in Silicon Valley like Apple, Google and Facebook have workforces full of Millennials, who even more so than previous generations, have demonstrated a desire for meaning in their work.

Distinguishing Substance from Fluff

There’s nothing inherently wrong with tech companies wanting to do well by doing good. The problem is that we in tech community don’t yet know how to distinguish substance (a.k.a technologies that improve livelihoods) from fluff. Which tech companies have the right to say they are doing this and which don’t?

What’s missing here is an agreed upon set of criteria and nomenclature within the tech community that can help us determine what tech-based activities are actually solving global development issues. The absence of these criteria has made it easy to discount many technology initiatives as just another mechanism to get more eyeballs on Internet ads, as the Silicon Valley parody does.

But I think to dismiss all “Techvelopment” initiatives as purely profit or PR-driven is wrong. Many initiatives do have the potential to make a great impact on lives. Google’s digital maps of African city streets, the first decent maps of their kind, have been a huge boon to citizens, governments, and development agencies. The digital maps enabled organizations and business to more efficiently deliver on basic needs like sanitation-related services or emergency response activity. Small tech companies like Inventure have used mobile and other web-based tools to provide financial and growth capital to small businesses.

These are clear examples of tech companies doing good, but what about when examples fall into a grey zone? What qualifies as world-saving or world-changing activity? Does a technology that conducts sentiment analysis on Twitter or Facebook feeds make the cut? Can a platform that helps small business build websites, no coding or web development experience needed say it’s making the world a better place?

Saving the World, the Traditional Development Way

The traditional world of international development has been around for decades and, therefore, has a huge head-start on establishing criteria that determine what’s widely considered as tackling global issues. USAID was founded in 1961 by the JFK administration and encouraged Americans to ask not only what they could do for their country but what America could do for the world. Since its inception, USAID has elicited a healthy debate about its mission and implementation. People question its efficacy, and their questions are not unfounded. The debate and sector’s evolution based on that debate should continue.

Two generations later, I too heard the call and set out to make the world a better place. Traditional development was the only way I knew how to. An international development organization sent me to interview small potato farmers in the Peruvian highland to assess the efficacy of pest-resistant potato seeds. Potato yields were higher, but I discovered that farmers desperately needed something else too: Real-time information on market prices to maximize the selling price of their crops.

While the organization I worked for could provide better seeds, developing a mechanism for direct or real-time access to market prices was not in our R&D budget. There are things that traditional aid organizations are good at, like agricultural research, and there are things they are not.

Fortunately, thousands of miles away in Silicon Valley, that direct line to market data was at the top of the R&D list. In fact, it had already been developed. It was just getting cheaper, faster, and more robust  --  the mobile phone. Today the mobile phone is a critical tool for development agencies.

Fast-forward to now. Mobile penetration is nearly ubiquitous in even hard to reach places. That information comes to farmers via SMS, on demand. Were the tech companies trying to solve global hunger by developing the mobile phone? Probably not, then. But did they play an important role in improving these farmers’ livelihoods? Absolutely.

Tech companies developed the mobile phone and along with it SMS, voice, and, now, data-enabled applications. They knew that mobile communications would create a revolution, but they probably weren’t intending to create a technology that specifically helped rural farmers. The recent shift is that tech companies want to move downstream, get closer to the real world application of their technologies in global development and play a more active role in the real-world, altruistic uses of their products and solutions.

Saving the World, the “Tech” Way

Today, it’s not breaking news that international development agencies look to technology, particularly IT, to help achieve their mission. The development community has adopted a broadly-used term for this: ICT4D. ICT stands for “Information Communications Technology.” It’s an extended synonym for IT that emphasizes the role of unified communications and especially utilizes telecom and software to enable all sorts of integrated communications activity. The “D” stands for “international or global development,” specifically the development of greater quality of life for humans.

You see many examples of ICT4D, particularly involving mobile solutions. In recent years, mobile-based initiatives and use cases like mHealth and Mobile Money have increased exponentially. Compelling project successes include SMS-enabled small payments for solar energy and reminder texts to patients on HIV medication, resulting in improved AIDS treatment. But these are examples of development organizations using technology tools for impact. I believe the unique value the tech industry brings to solving global issues is developing those tools, like the mobile phone, in the first place.

Whereas the World Bank’s decades of hands-on experience in the field positions it to find the right applications and implementation models for technology-based tools, tech companies are good at building those technologies in the first place. Techvelopment recognizes these inherent differences and encourages tech companies to deploy their existing business strengths and proven approaches to business for social impact both from a product development stage to the application phase. These tech strengths include qualities like:

  • Scalability: Build products and business models that can rapidly scale. Easier for SaaS-based solutions, but this mentality is important.
  • Market-based testing: Test and iterate in market. Build a minimum viable product or solution to test. Use feedback to adapt to market needs.
  • User experience: Emphasize quality of and/or ease of user experience.
  • Product or platform openness: Ensure ability to integrate with existing or future products or services (ie open platforms), instead of building independent, stand-alone products.
  • Brand: Focus on establishing strong brand recognition or brand trust with target communities.
  • Metrics: Concentrate on metrics to determine success.

When technology companies uses these practices to solve global development issues, that’s Techvelopment. Techvelopment is the term that Silicon Valley can CREDIBLY use to describe its world saving efforts, without mockery as a shameless manipulator or criticism as a “Bleeding-Heart,” so long as these criteria are met. The term forces a set of criteria that help us to distinguish technology initiatives that make a real impact from those trying to take advantage of the industry’s bleeding heart.

Shared Language Enables Conversation

Tech companies and the traditional development world are quite different, but there is still plenty of benefit from collaboration. Agreed upon language and criteria that outlines how the value the tech sector brings to solving development issues can help better facilitate this collaboration. Tech companies who bring Techvelopment elements to solve global issues should not elicit eye-rolling. Rather, tech companies who want to partake in this work should work with traditional development agencies and leverage their unique and vital knowledge bases when trying to “do good” in the developing world.

This can be especially critical when working with previously underserved populations in the field or when the goal is to establish basic infrastructure that impacts large populations, such as broadband network infrastructure. After all, the traditional development sector’s extensive knowledge base is built upon decades of political and field experience, which can infuse great efficiencies into tech companies’ well-intentioned initiatives.

After all, potato farmers need pest-resistant seeds AND real-time market pricing updates sent via SMS. Those two pieces will come together to create real, life-changing solutions only if both the tech sector and development agencies move forward in their own ways while they look to each other for guidance, expertise, and partnership. A shared language enables this conversation to happen.

Silicon Valley’s Heartbleed should not be stopped. It should be thoughtfully triaged. The first step in this process is the establishment of agreed upon criteria and language for this trend which will allow for more effective collaboration been the tech community and traditional development organizations.

Do not be still, my bleeding (Techvelopment) heart.

This piece originally appeared on Medium on April 29, 2014. Photo taken by Alicia Levine in Lima, Peru.

What’s your take on “Techvelopment”?


About the guest blogger: Alicia Levine believes that we've only just scratched the surface of using information and communications technology to drive positive social change. Alicia specializes in identifying business and partnership opportunities in emerging markets and building programs across continents, cultures, and sectors. Alicia calls San Francisco home, but she's always seeking her next, preferably off the beaten path, adventure. To connect visit www.alicialev.com or follow @alicialev.