Cairo. Seoul. Moscow. Silicon Valley? Yes, the U.S. State Department has recently opened an office in the foreign land of tech giants.
‘Technology has an incredible ability to move the needle and move things forward,’ said Zvika Krieger, a senior advisor for the Department who will oversee the new office.
The State Department hopes to leverage that ability to address some of the world’s most pressing issues – from the Syrian refugee crisis to climate change and to counter violent extremism, he said. Krieger spoke of the Department’s plans and the growing desire of tech companies to engage in projects for the social good on Wednesday at one of the Global Philanthropy Forum’s final seminars, Engaging the Tech Sector on Syrian Refugee Challenges.
In January the department gathered together 120 tech companies, NGOs, philanthropists and activists to address the refugee crisis, particularly the area of education. Together, Krieger said, they looked at the challenges, what was currently happening, what the gaps were, and how to address them. ‘We wanted to empower people in the room to move forward with their ideas,’ he said. One of the results of that gathering was refugeeedtechsolutions.org, a portal to connect tech talent with other entities working in the humanitarian/development field on various projects.
The State Department’s decision to move into the valley was a timely one as a growing number of tech companies and tech-minded individuals have been exploring ways to use their skills and products for social change.
Twilio is one such company. The cloud-based telecom platform allows communications like video, messaging and voice, to be incorporated into other applications. More simply put, the technology that allows Uber users to be kept up-to-date on the status of their driver request? Twilio’s technology.
Erika Balbuena, Senior Manager for Twilio, said the company thrives on partnerships and expanded its reach to help non-profit organizations. One recent project involved collaboration with a non-profit on a distance learning English comprehension program where students call into an automated system, listen to a story in English, then answer questions to assess their understanding.
More recently, Twilio has also turned its attention to assisting the Syrian refugees as well. Working with the non-profit, Urban Refugees, Twilio is helping to address the communications issue among refugees. ‘The communications in the camps are complicated,’ she said. And as a result, rumours can quickly spread. The collaboration has resulted in a mass text messaging system to keep refugees up to date with the latest, accurate information. In Berlin, Twilio is working with Refugees on Rails on a program to help refugees build and expand their skills as developers.
Balbuena stressed, however, that the company is not the one coming up with social solutions, merely assisting in the non-profits by developing platforms to further their work. ‘We look to the charitable community to give us those answers,’ she said. ‘We are not the experts.’
Maryam Ghofraniha, Head of Global Partnerships for LinkedIn for Good, agreed and added that it was also critical for tech companies to understand what they’re good at and stick to it, rather than trying to constantly reinvent itself to fit a project. At LinkedIn for Good, their strength has been providing a networking space for members as well as providing the ability of job seekers and job providers to connect.
Ghofaniha said the company’s foray into the social good arena by connecting people with volunteer opportunities within the community; that eventually evolved into the desire to make an impact on youth employment, which it began focusing on late last year. Both projects were internally developed. The opportunity to work in the Syrian refugee crisis, however, came from elsewhere.
‘Our partners came to us and said we want to work with you on an issue,’ she said.
That partner was the Swedish Migration Board, which wanted to connect skilled refugees with jobs and looked to LinkedIn to help. The result – Welcome Talent – a space to not only help refugees make these connections, but help them understand the importance of networking and building a profile. Ghofaniha said they are also allowing employers in Sweden to post job opportunities for free – something the company generally charges for.
But such collaborations between the tech industry and non-profits are not always this easy. Krieger said he has found that a lot of social impact work happens from the bottom up – with employees self-organizing to bring attention to or work on a cause. Money for the projects ultimately has to come from the top and buy-in is not always easy.
Balbuena positive feedback to companies willing to take the risk is important and key to keeping those at the top engaged. ‘We fundamentally believe this is work we should be doing,’ she said.
Alecia Foster is grants programs manager at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.