At the OpenAir 2015 conference, the panel discussion “How Tech Can Reach Underserved Communities” explored how technology can create positive social change—and how engineers in particular can make a difference.

The panelists:

Alanna Scott, engineer, Airbnb
Grace Garey, co-founder, Watsi
Raquel Romano, software engineer,
Moderator: Mario Lugay, impact advisor, Kapor Center for Social Impact

Some highlights (edited for brevity or clarity):

Examples of projects to reach underserved communities (3:11 in the video)

Romano said she had been working with a group focused on crisis response and reaching people before, during, and after a natural disaster. For example, the team developed data feeds that would provide warnings about impending local floods or hurricanes in relevant search results for Google users.

Scott said Airbnb started a Disaster Response Tool three years ago in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. “We were inspired by a host (in the area where the storm hit) who started opening up her home to people who had been displaced. We wanted to build something to support what she was doing and enable the rest of our host community to participate as well.”

Scott: “The Disaster Response Tool was built as a side project. But now we can activate the tool within minutes for a specific location or area that has been hit by a natural disaster. Hosts can list their space for free and we wave all of our fees and create a way for displaced people in that area to find a place to stay.”

Garey: “Watsi is entirely a social impact organization. We let people directly fund healthcare for people all around the world, and 100 percent of donations go to the patient. Technology seemed to be the answer we needed to focus on. We saw people using technology like Airbnb to bust open narrow channels to allow person-to-person interaction and create new ways to solve a problem. So we decided to do the same thing to tackle healthcare in a new way.”

How technology can make a difference (16:13)

Scott: “In the case of a natural disaster, people don’t always have reliable Internet access, or they might not have much battery left on their phone. So we’ve been thinking about how those people can use Airbnb when they are facing technical limitations.”

Helping people in disaster-hit areas may require “using old technology” rather than the latest tech, Scott continued. For example, SMS messaging often continues to work after a disaster when phone calls, email and online access can be difficult, so Airbnb has been exploring ways for users to book or accept reservations through SMS.

Romano: “We’re working on an initiative at to see how technology can help people with disabilities live more independently. What if we could recognize and translate sign language? What if we could analyze content in video and provide natural language descriptions of it?” Another area of investigation is mobility, in which “eye trackers connect to a communication device, so you can communicate with the world by typing with your eyes.”

How engineers can contribute to social change (20:46)

Scott: “We have a woman user in Florence who donates 50 percent of her Airbnb earnings to a community art project. Another user donates 10 percent of his earnings, and he and his guest decide together which local organization to contribute to. So my advice is to look at how your users are already helping other people with your product, then figure out how to scale it and open it up to your whole community.”

Romano recommended marrying your passion for technology with social issues you care about, because the two are “an amazing combination.” Find others with shared passions by asking around. “Talk to people about what they’re working on and tell them what you’re interested in.”

Romano added that “it’s really hard when you’re trying to prioritize and focus to create space and resources to work on (social impact projects). What works is when people just start doing things (for social impact) without asking for permission. You get other passionate people together and come up with a proof of concept and you can start seeing how it could be better if you had a product manager, user experience person, and multiple engineers working on it.”

Garey added that in 10 to 15 years, the areas of engineering and social change will blur. “So don’t feel like you have to make a choice between working at a company with a product that’s creating value and making a lot of money vs. doing something that’s good for the world. You can do well and do good at the same time.”

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