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Weaving a good web

The growth of the internet over the past decade has thrown up questions around everything from ethics, to ownership, and the possibility of exploitation. Luckily, there are growing numbers of tech experts making sure that tech is used for good. Jack Atkins finds out more…
Published —
03.11.19
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We’ve all been there. Lying in bed, trying to switch off and drift away to sleep when an impulse urges you to grab your phone and find the answers to life’s questions. Before you know it, it’s 3:45am and you’re neck deep in a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories about Paul McCartney, to essays about why Ernest Goes to Jail is the most significant motion picture ever captured to celluloid, and seemingly everything in between. Skip ahead ten minutes and you’re filling in a ‘humorous’ ‘what vegetable are you?’ quiz, unaware of the info you’re making publicly available as you chuckle to yourself “of course I’m broccoli!”

Did Tim Berners Lee envision this when he invented the World Wide Web in the late 1980s? I doubt it.

As the recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown, even the biggest websites on the planet are not the shining internet standard bearers that they should be, their platforms being manipulated and morphed into global propaganda platforms and a breeding ground for simmering political contempt, never mind the clickbait, scams, and general spam.

“The internet is an incredibly dangerous thing for the powers that be. Some of the expectations around the internet are quite radical so people will expect it to be somewhat reasonable, or don’t expect it to be owned by a few people, and that was never the expectation before.” says Harry Robbins, founder of tech co-op Outlandish. “The fact that a few billionaires have tried to influence the votes around Brexit or the election of Donald Trump is a scandal on the internet, whereas in terms of newspaper editing that’s what’s expected. Nobody says: ‘oh my god this guy Rupert Murdoch owns all these papers and he says: ‘vote Brexit’ and people did?’ We have higher standards about the web, and not surprisingly there’s been an effort to try and undermine these high standards because the people who’ve got the money would like to turn their money into power quite easily.”

Robbins and Outlandish believe in the power of the internet and tech to genuinely do good, rather than just an opportunistic platform to try and convert knowledge and information into billion-dollar empires. They operate as a non-profit organisation, creating websites and campaigns for charities and important political topics. These kinds of tech companies are on the rise, getting away from the clichéd notions of internet pirates and sunglass bedecked hackers, using their powers under the umbrella of ‘tech for good’.

“Basically, it’s a load of bollocks,” says Robbins. “The issue around ‘tech for good’ is that a lot of very high-profit, rather expensive agencies that serve the charity sector make-out that they’re somehow non-profit. Some of these companies talk about #nonprofit a lot when they are in fact private profit-making companies, and it seems unethical to specifically target a bunch of not-for-profit organisations to try and take the money from them. I think a lot of ‘tech for good’ is just that; saying ‘we’re trying to make as much profit as we can out of other people who are trying to not do that’.”

 

Zarino Zappia of mySociety, a not-for-profit social enterprise that exists to invent and popularise websites and apps to enable citizens to exert power over institutions and decision makers, sees it slightly differently: “It depends on your point of view. Facebook would say they are ‘tech for good’ because they are bringing people together and enabling people to share special moments with each other. They do to an extent. But equally some people would say there is no way that Facebook or Google are doing ‘tech for good’ at all.”

That is the problem when any kind of cause or buzzword becomes the ‘in-thing’, as many companies and start-ups as possible try and latch onto it for either instant credibility or to try and disguise what they’ve always done as something new.

“The whole point of the ‘tech for good’ moniker is about realising that tech could be used to improve people’s lives, and it does, it definitely does. It’s about focusing on the good things it does, but it’s tricky actually making stuff and finding enough time and the money to make them. There’ve been many small groups start-up and we’ve tried to help them at mySociety, just because we’ve been doing it for years and funders trust us. It’s often hard for a new start-up to start and get anywhere with it, which is quite depressing,” says Zappia.

“They have to try and get funding which is incredibly difficult, especially in the UK,” says Zappia. “Before Trump it was fairly easy to get funding from America for pro-democratic projects. After Trump they realised they had problems closer to home and went ‘shit, what just happened?’ and decided to fund pro-democratic things in the USA instead.”

The work of Zappia and mySociety was born out of a desire to make democracy more accessible to all. “MySociety is a bit weird in that started as a bunch of geeks who thought that government and councils could be better, so they made these tools, not ever thinking that they should ever pay for themselves,” he says.

“I think most of it was born out of civic duty, to the point that most of our products were not designed to make money. It all comes back to the mission of mySociety as a charity; ‘to empower citizens to hold their decision-makers to account’.”

Robbins concurs: “One of the campaigns we started last year was the ‘School Cuts Campaign’ which according to data, changed 870,000 votes in the last election. People didn’t realise how serious the issue of school cuts was, so we created a visualisation where they could see it and then realise what a big issue it really was.”

 

Zarino Zappia (chequered shirt) and the MySociety team

 

The governmental and charity sectors have been somewhat slow on the uptake when it comes to effectively harnessing the internet and new technologies.

“It’s the power of advertising and the power of playing it safe. The thing is there’s such a lack of knowledge about what people are actually trying to commission and do, and that seems to be making these ‘safe choices’. It’s definitely down to a serious lack of education,” says Robbins.

“For a lot of companies, say if the NHS gave them a million pounds the first thing they’d do is take £300,000 and give it to some people who aren’t going to do any of the work – that doesn’t seem right. They wouldn’t run a hospital like that, so why do they run their IT like that? A lot of these tech companies are making 20/30% profit, and that is a very significant amount of money that would make a great deal of difference to the projects they run.”

So much of what the general public knows and understands about the internet is tied up in a handful of massive multi-billion dollar companies, so much so that it is just assumed that you have to stump up big cash to get good products. The crux of ‘tech for good’ is basically to be fair and to not abuse trust or take advantage of people.

It’s worth bearing in mind that we’re still in the early days of the internet, we’re surrounded by the cowboys and rustlers of the proverbial digital Wild West. As such, we’re still developing the rules of what we can and can’t do, and until there is some semblance of structure then certain individuals, bodies and companies will push the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable through the internet.

“It’s really very easy to make a website that tens-of-thousands of people use every month that costs you practically nothing. The expensive thing is the time it takes to develop it. If you’ve got a bunch of do-good geeks who are happy to give up their time because it is interesting to them or makes them happy or helps them develop their skills, then you can get a lot done basically for free,” says Zappia. “Maybe eventually you work out that somebody will pay for it, well, hopefully they will anyway,” he laughs.

“I’ve seen websites built for £2,500, £25,000 and £250,000 and there is no strong correlation that says whether you get a particularly better service at the higher price or not,” Robbins adds. “That’s just outrageous, that information needs to be shared. If an organisation is spending £250,000 on a website it needs to say: ‘here’s our website – we’ spent £250,000 on it, what do you think about that?’ When people say: ‘I think that seems like a rip-off and you should have £200,000 left over,’ then that should be made public. People should assess websites and say whether they are good value,” says Robbins.

The news will come as a shock to many and will even anger some, especially if they’re seeing it as a dangerous mis-spending of vital public funds. A lot of is just down to a lack of education and information about what is available, with organisations such as the Centre for Accelerated Social Technology aiming to better inform the charity sector.

“The charities are starting to do it better. Some charities do it quite well, certainly the bigger charities are getting pretty professional at it; they’re getting people to go and work with them for a little while and learn their skills, these professionals then leave and work with smaller charities for a while and bring their new skills there,” says Robbins.

There is still work to be done though, despite the growth of the digital co-op movement. “It’s still a cottage industry on the whole, even with the companies who work on government projects,” says Zappia. “We’re having a go of making things sustainable, but no-one’s got the right-answer on how to make it all work.”

“There probably are some sort of sector-wide changes that need to be implemented and really, they need to be started by the government, but the government are not really in the mood to do anything very bold,” says Robbins.

So, while it’s always going to be a realm ran by the super-rich fat cats, for the most part, the tech industry should be viewed the same as any other industry. Yes, there may be some manipulative people pulling the strings around the top, but there are many individuals using their skills and know-how for good, and as long as these organisations and individuals gather in numbers as the world gets increasingly more digital, then we may just be alright.