Is the tech industry ‘responsible’?

Laura Robinson

12 Feb 2019






On my way into work the other day, I saw this:

This made me laugh. I’m 23, and I still live at home with my mum, so responsibility is something I hear a lot about.

Plus, I quite enjoy inventive spellang mistooks.

It was a strangely prescient thing to see that morning, since I was on my way to ‘Responsible Tech 2019: The New Normal’.

This event gathered people from different sectors to share ideas on how to use and build technology in an ethical way. It was organised by Doteveryone, a think tank exploring how tech is shaping society.

In this blog post, I’d like to touch on some of the big ideas that really made me think – hopefully you’ll find them interesting too.

Data: principle and practice

I was really interested to hear Francesca Bria, CTO and Digital Innovator at Barcelona City Council, speak on the panel: ‘What needs to change to get that new world of Responsible Tech?’.

Francesca explained how Barcelona is working to make its data available to everyone as a public resource. All the data on collective behaviour in the city – for example, how many passengers use the metro on Wednesdays – is being made open-source, so that anyone can access and hopefully use it to build better businesses or find new ways of doing things.

She pointed out that it’s the citizens who create the data. Consequently, the data should belong to them.

This is an important way of ensuring we empower everyone in society to participate, instead of allowing the value of data to be seized and used exclusively by technocrats.

The points made by Francesca were echoed by Baroness Martha Lane Fox, Founder and Executive Chair of Doteveryone, in her closing address. She spoke about the significance of GDPR, reminding us that although it can feel frustrating to have to click to accept cookies every two minutes, it has had a historic impact on big businesses, forcing them to re-consider the way they look at data.

And, crucially, she argued that Europe is leading the way in developing data policies that reflect the values of democracy, transparency and privacy.

There were some other exciting announcements about practical uses of data for the public good. Jeremy Wright, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, unveiled new plans for the Office for AI to work with the Open Data Institute on two data trust pilots.

One data trust will aim to tackle the trade of illegal wildlife, and the other will help track and reduce food waste.

It was really nice to hear so many conversations that addressed both the principle and practice of data use, showing that ideals are nothing without real actions to support them.

The role of the media

The impact of the media came up again and again, in debates, panels and audience questions.
It was generally agreed that the media has a vital role in educating the consumer.

This will enable consumers to make an informed choice – which won’t necessarily be the ethical one. The important thing is providing people with all the information so they can make the decision that they think is right.

Another question that was asked of the media revolved around enforcing responsibility. Do we need to shame organisations into adopting ethical practices, or do we encourage them – and how will the media facilitate that?

Should the press be calling out those who behave irresponsibly, or should they focus on highlighting role models for everyone else to follow?

Interesting questions – and ones we probably won’t be able to answer for a while.

Tech for the many, not the few

Diversity and inclusion was the key theme to emerge across the whole day. It’s clear that people (or at least, the event attendees) are really concerned about some of the worrying trends in the industry.

Check Warner, Co-founder and CEO at Diversity VC, highlighted the fact that 90% of European start-up funding was given to all-male teams in 2018.

She spoke really eloquently about the things that VCs (venture capitalists) can do to ensure they are making fair choices about who they support – choices which go on to shape the whole tech ecosystem.

Hearing this made me think about some of the conversations we’ve been having at Harvard about the same issues. My colleague Shanil wrote a brilliant blog post where he explained it perfectly.

Then there was the incredible keynote speaker Anne-Marie Imafidon, Co-founder of STEMettes, a social enterprise which inspires young women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers.

Anne-Marie revealed the extent of the gender bias when she asked the audience to name the four women on the screen – all of whom had made a significant contribution to STEM.

In a room full of technologists, nobody could name the four women. Few people could even name one of them.

For this reason, it was really exciting to see the work the STEMettes are doing to support the next generation of women innovators.

And as a side note, it was also hugely inspiring to see how many women attended the event. Unlike most tech conferences I’ve been to, it looked as though the gender mix was roughly even.

Growing up

It was an exciting day, and I left feeling challenged, concerned, but ultimately hopeful.

More than anything, it helped me think about what responsibility – or ‘responsabillity’ – means. I think it’s easy to get stuck in lots of complex intellectual arguments, which won’t help us make practical, positive decisions.

We can argue about collective responsibility, individual obligations, consumer purchasing power and corporate purpose. We can try and iron out the finer points of ethics in AI or social networks.

But I think on a basic level we all know what responsibility is. We all know, perhaps intrinsically, that taking responsibility is doing the right thing for everyone – not just your shareholders, or your organisation, or the people who live in your part of the world.

In this sense it doesn’t matter how you define it. It doesn’t even matter how you spell it. It’s a universal truth either way.

And as we get older, we have to start living up to it. As an industry, tech is still pretty young – but it’s at the stage when it needs to start taking responsibility for itself. As Baroness Lane Fox said in her closing address: “when we look back at 2018-2020, we want these to be the years that tech grew up”.

We all think tech is pretty great. But as train station wisdom tells us: ‘greatness is only possible when we take responsibility’.

It’s an idea that I think we can all get behind.

At the very least, it’s something my mum would approve of.