Civil Society Speaks for the Unborn: An Algorithm for Equity

To ensure the communities we care about aren’t left behind, philanthropy needs to engage in delivering digital infrastructure. Don’t worry, it isn’t as boring as it sounds.

by Chris Worman, TechSoup

Digitalisation is happening. As it does, there is an almost palpable excitement about ‘frontier technologies’ enabling insight (artificial intelligence and machine learning), increasing efficiencies through automation (robotic process automation), improving communications (bots), etc. And an almost equally palpable fear about the same technologies increasing surveillance, automating authoritarianism and scaling misinformation.

Digitalisation is happening, and philanthropy can’t walk away

It is important for each of us to gain some understanding about the nature and potential impact of frontier technology on our work and in the communities we support. But few of us have the organisational opportunity to support the regulatory and legal battles that will determine the borders of digital ethics, governance and security ensuring frontier technologies don’t do more harm than good.

It is important for each of us to gain some understanding about the nature and potential impact of frontier technology on our work and in the communities we support. But few of us have the organisational opportunity to support the regulatory and legal battles that will determine the borders of digital ethics, governance and security ensuring frontier technologies don’t do more harm than good. Most of us will never read an algorithm. Many of us probably won’t live to see generalised artificial intelligence.

This doesn’t mean we can walk away. Because digitalisation is happening. Over the last year, I worked with two parallel groups of digital civil society leaders to facilitate a much larger conversation with dozens of leading foundations to develop practical guides for philanthropy focused on what foundations can do to manage their own digital transformation, integrate digital into their grantmaking, and invest in the shared digital needs of our sector.  

Digital equity: why is it important?

Why is digital equity important? Because it helps us have a shared understanding of what it means to have broken out of digital poverty and ensure that the communities, we serve have their own capability to deal with the inevitable changes and challenges posed by digitalisation on their own terms.

Perhaps the most important point emerging from that work was a rallying cry around the idea of digital equity. Digital equity is a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacities and capabilities needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy. Digital equity is increasingly fundamental to civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.

Why is digital equity important? Because it helps us have a shared understanding of what it means to have broken out of digital poverty and ensure that the communities, we serve have their own capability to deal with the inevitable changes and challenges posed by digitalisation on their own terms. Because it means communities would be able to produce and have a voice in governing the data upon which sit the frontier technologies we fret about.

We can guess but we cannot predict how tech and culture will evolve the space for civil society over the coming years, we can, perhaps, agree that communities should be able to fight those fights for themselves when the time comes. For that to happen, we must ensure their digital equity. 

Investing in shared digital infrastructures

This begins with investing in ourselves and our grantees as important stakeholders in digitalisation, and in the shared digital infrastructures upon which digital equity is delivered. Yet less than 1% of philanthropy has been invested in infrastructure; simply not enough to build our capacity to negotiate for the web we want. 

To that end, exactly one year ago I launched an initiative at the World Economic Forum around the concept of minimum viable digital infrastructure for communities to participate in digitalisation based on:

  • Access to the Internet: half of humanity cannot read this because they are not online. Meanwhile, philanthropy has supported projects demonstrating the policy, tools and skills necessary to connect the most remote parts of the world. We know how to do it, the free markets will not, and many governments do not know-how. This realisation led to Connect Humanity, a new philanthropic partnership platform for digital equity.
  • Access to Tools: as demonstrated during the pandemic when millions of families found themselves unable to access or afford basic tablets or laptops necessary for their children to join online classrooms, access remains a barrier. Governments, corporations and civil society must work together to develop the business models, supply chains, hardware resilience standards and e-waste recycling programs to sustainably increase access to first devices.
  • Learning Communities: access to the internet and tools to use it is meaningless – and potentially dangerous – without digital and media literacy training. Governments, civil society, and business must collaborate to ensure on-device and in-classroom education and curricular approaches at scale to ensure digital adoption enables people to flourish as digital citizens while minimizing risks of exposure to predation online. Civil society has an extensive track record of developing and implementing digital education programs and standards as technology has evolved that can be mainstreamed in cooperation with education ministries.
  • Policy: without appropriate digital policies that reinforce standing commitments to human rights, digitalisation will deliver diminishing returns as increased usage leads to increased surveillance and data-mining of digital citizens. Governments, civil society and business must re-commit to human rights conventions in the digital era and work together to implement and monitor the impact of digital policies needed to increase access to the internet and ensure progressive, rights-first usage.

Access, tools, learning communities and policy. There is a role for philanthropy’s patient and risk capital in each area. Each area together, universally accessible, adds up to digital equity. Digital equity ensures communities can break out of digital poverty and are able to self-determine, to the greatest extent possible, their own path through digitalization. 

Our collective digital future

The decisions we in philanthropy make about digital today have an impact on our collective digital future. It is easy to get distracted by how exactly that digital future will manifest but we cannot predict it and, for the most part, it won’t be up to us. 

What we can do is, like a good parent, focus on the often less sexy work of ensuring future generations have the capabilities and means to negotiate a digital world on their terms when their time comes. We have a responsibility to work on digital today to ensure those we serve have the digital infrastructures they need to achieve digital equity and keep learning as the relationship between technology and society evolves. 

Learn more about the steps foundations can take at www.tagtaskforce.org; check out tools and training for you and your grantees at www.techsoup.org; connect with www.connecthumanity.fund to join a growing donor community dedicated to digital equity, or feel free to contact Chris (cworman@techsoup.org) anytime. 

Chris Worman, Vice President, Alliances and Program Development at TechSoup

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