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Women in Tech: How They are Using Data and Tech for Social Good

Durva Trivedi — Former Senior Associate, Innovation, The Rockefeller Foundation
Sarah Sakha — Former Project 55 Fellow
Photo courtesy of Atlas AI.

The history of the expression “exploring the frontier,” is a history dominated by the stories of men. For most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, especially in the United States, those invoking the expression have conjured up the stories of explorers like Lewis and Clark, astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, and technologists like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.

Recently, however, The Rockefeller Foundation challenged the conventional telling of that history by focusing on challenges at the frontiers of present-day global development. Through a convening held at The Foundation’s Bellagio Center, leading thinkers were gathered to discuss the “Innovative Frontiers of Development.” The Foundation has also sought to collaborate with key partners to devise ways to use data science for social impact to advance the wellbeing of humanity everywhere. Through these efforts, The Rockefeller Foundation seeks to make clear the plain truth: Rather than a male-dominated enterprise, exploration and advancement at the frontiers of global development must be led by a diverse community of innovators, especially women.

Eradicating violence against women, ending extreme poverty, and achieving equality in educational access and employment are among the most urgent and salient challenges at the frontiers of global development. People who face these challenges are often women and girls of color living in fragile and failing states.

Exploration and advancement at the frontiers of global development must be led by a diverse community of innovators, especially women

We have high hopes that data, technology, and innovation can help bring about positive social impact for vulnerable communities, but we know the best solutions will be those that affected communities help design and drive, by using their valuable experiential knowledge and expertise to inform the critical data and research at the heart of these programs. In working toward solutions to overcome mammoth challenges like poverty and inequality, we have to recast the often white, male, American and thus exclusionary archetype of “the innovator,” and lift up the stories of the most extraordinary changemakers working today.

Bold risk-takers include women operating drones to transport aid or medical cargo in places like Nepal, Tanzania, and Peru, where our grantee, WeRobotics, hosts its flying labs. Innovators include female academics framing ethical guidelines for designing Blockchain-for-social-good solutions, like our grantee at the Georgetown Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation. Technologists include the many women data scientists at DataKind – the Foundation’s first investment as part of the Data Science for Social Impact collaborative – who dedicate their time to pursuing engineering solutions that harness the power of data for positive social outcomes. But there are so many more “frontierswomen” who are actively advancing data for impact in the field.

From left to right: Rediet Abebe, Co-Founder of Black in AI; Victoria Coleman, CEO of Atlas AI; and Sonal Shah, Executive Director of the Beeck Center of Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University.

For example, consider the story of Rediet Abebe, Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science at Cornell and a researcher at Cornell’s Center for Inequality. Abebe is an Ethiopian data scientist committed to increasing access to opportunity among minority communities and in developing countries. She helped establish Black in AI, a transcontinental group and platform dedicated to increasing the presence of Black persons in the field of AI and machine learning through mentorship, outreach, education, and annual academic conferences. Abebe’s research focuses on algorithms and AI for social good; she has helped create the Mechanism Design for Social Good, a singular research community and initiative that takes an interdisciplinary approach to reducing inequality, mitigating bias and unfairness in technologies across different fields, and tackling new frontiers in research on healthcare, housing, and labor. She talks regularly with universities and organizations on MD4SG.

Or consider the story of Victoria Coleman, the CEO of Atlas AI, a tech start-up conceived of by Stanford researchers to use cutting-edge satellite technology, AI, and field data to provide economic and agricultural analysis on primarily the developing world, such as smallholder crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa. Supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, the Atlas AI team hopes to offer invaluable insights into human development indicators and to make critical advances towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals – a mission shared by the Foundation. Researchers and businesses alike will be able to use their open datasets for a fee. Coleman herself is not new to the business or to the field. A lifelong advocate for social innovation and social impact in the public sector, Coleman has 20-plus years of experience in tech, software engineering, and leadership across companies including Wikimedia, Yahoo!, and Nokia.

Lastly, know and share the story of Sonal Shah, an economist, educator, and entrepreneur who leads Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, which is a grantee of The Rockefeller Foundation. She started a non-profit after beginning her career at the U.S. Department of Treasury, where she worked on issues like post-conflict development and poverty reduction and served in President Obama’s administration where she founded and directed the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. Shah brings many diverse and relevant experiences to her work now. With her team at the Beeck Center, she interrogates the ethical implications of new technologies, the role of data and technology in government and governance, and the networks and partnerships needed in order to effectively leverage data and technology for social good.

Abebe, Coleman, and Shah are women in tech – frontierswomen – who The Rockefeller Foundation’s Innovation team has been so fortunate to work with and learn from. As we go forward in our effort to shape the course and telling of history, we hope to partner with and tell the stories of many more women technologists, data scientists, and change makers like them.

This is the first installment on a 2-part series on gender equity in data & technology for 2019 International Women’s Day. Click here for the first piece of the series. Check out the other pieces below on our #data4good series leading up to SXSW 2019.

How Much Longer Can We Continue to Overlook the “Power of Local”?
How Do We Ensure “Data for Good” Means Data for All? Consider These Three Principles
The Gender Gap in Innovation and How to Break the Digital Ceiling
Fusion: Innovation through Integration

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