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It’s the ethics behind tech — not tech itself — that will make lasting social change

Luis Olivieri, Ashley Peña, Khai Tran and Dan Rhoton. May 3, 2017 Category: EventFeaturedMediumMethod


Philly Tech Week presented by Comcast is organized by Generocity's parent company, Technically Media.
There was surprisingly more discussion about the people who use and make tech than technology itself at a Philly Tech Week presented by Comcast panel discussion this past Monday.

SocialTech: The multi-layered social impact of technology” brought together members of Hopeworks ‘N Camden, an organization that trains Camden youth in technology skills, and Khai Tran, who’s been advocating for Camden to become the next hub for startups and tech companies as the CEO of nonprofit Waterfront Ventures and its brand-new coworking space, Waterfront Lab.

Both organizations are interested in bringing more tech into Camden. But the questions asked by Hopeworks ‘N Camden ED Dan Rhoton, who moderated the panel, had to do with how tech is being used for social impact — not necessarily what tech.

There can often be too much talk of the ways the “latest and greatest” in tech will change our lives, when Rhoton sees time and time again at Hopeworks that technology is just a “catalyst” to let that change happen, he said.

Ashley Peña, an intern at Hopeworks who joined its GIS program when she was a junior in high school, said she believes that tech can and should be interwoven into everything around us, including the solving of social problems. Working with location-based data, Peña was involved in the creation of an interactive food accessibility map that was made to visualize the fact that Camden remains a food desert to this day.

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Her map literally illustrated how tech can be used to explain that placing a supermarket just anywhere in Camden wouldn’t solve the issue alone, especially if it’s in a location that many wouldn’t be able to reach easily.

“You don’t become aware of the situation until somebody speaks up,” Peña said. “If you’re not aware of everything around you, it may be too late.”

And what if no one does speak up? What if no one does use tech responsibly in the future?

As someone who aims to bring 100 startups to Camden, Tran is also aware of the “double-edged sword”: Tech startups and companies could bring more jobs and encourage growth, but it can have a negative effect by creating issues such as higher living costs — and this is for a city living with a 42 percent poverty rate.

At this point in Camden, Tran said, “we’re not doing it right.”

But at the same time, Tran believes that the public can often be too afraid of the progress of technology. Think of the discussion around robots taking over our jobs (and consider checking out a #PTW17 event on the topic tomorrow, moderated by our very own Tony Abraham). Tran sees tech as “displacing things,” not replacing them.

“I think what’s gonna kill [innovation] is fear,” Tran added. “We need to educate ourselves properly.”

Luis Olivieri, the director of GIS at Hopeworks who trained Peña, rounded out the discussion by touching on how tech, while certainly having the potential to “take over the world,” can only be effective with ethical people behind it.

“GIS is just a tool to help us make better decisions,” Olivieri said.

As Rhoton pointed out, the panel was made up of people who at once aspired, or are currently aspiring, to work in fields not immediately related to tech: Tran was originally attending med school before he dropped out, Olivieri wanted to become a farmer until he found tech in Puerto Rico and Peña will be attending Rutgers College to study biology.

For someone like Tran, he realized that “tech lowered the barrier for entry to do what I wanted.”

Could the ideas discussed in the panel affect Philly’s own issues of housing, gentrification and poverty? We look forward to finding out.


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