There have been a lot of amazing attempts recently to help the people of Ukraine, who are obviously suffering on a horrific scale right now. And it makes sense that when people want to help they will draw on their skills and knowledge how best they can. As someone who likes to read into (and generally agrees with) the ideas of effective altruism, I do think this is a positive thing to explore. If you have very sought after commercial skills that often attract high salaries and general support and praise from the wider community, the desire to use those skills can be particularly strong.
Where we can run into an issue though, is when we want to help and the desire to help using your specific set of skills leads to you making the cardinal sin of thinking that helping is straightforward, easy and something you can do on your own. No surprise here, but I am particularly thinking about those working in technology, specifically software and its related disciplines.
I’m going to pick on this area not just because I know it best but also because I do think this area of expertise is particularly susceptible to what I’m talking about. If you are a software developer or a data scientist, then you have been told by countless media articles that you are working in the coolest areas of endeavour and the economy,you’ve been told constantly how your field is ‘eating the world’ and how your skills are in such high demand and low supply that companies will pay you very well to get you to do your thing for them. I do not want to say that none of this is true, technology is one of the most important and dynamic fields out there and the jobs do indeed pay well. The thing we need to do as technologists (and supporters of tech) though, especially when faced with a horrendous humanitarian crisis that asks challenging questions of ourselves like “how can I make a difference?” And “am I brave enough to help?” Is remain humble. What I mean by this is very explicitly we should recognize that while we may have an interesting and cool skill set, this does not make us uniquely positioned to help in super special ways all the time. It also does not give us a license to ignore true, deep subject matter expertise.
A brilliant, and slightly terrifying, example has been making waves recently. You may have seen it on the news as well, essentially a teenage Harvard student spun up a website to help match those wanting to offer their homes to Ukrainian refugees with refugees looking for shelter. On the face of it, this is a very noble and effective use of this person’s technical skill set. However, in the view of being humble, we need to dig a little deeper and check our assumptions about how technology can help without the guidance of subject matter expertise. The big problem here is that people with subject matter expertise and who had worked in this area before quickly picked up on the fact that this website was a security nightmare (see here, where one security expert called this site a potential 'Craigslist for paedophiles') . There was no validation of users, no real background checks in place for those offering accommodations and it was very evidently going to be a soft target for human traffickers and other bad actors. Is the person who built the site a bad guy for trying this? I think it’s very likely his intentions were utterly benevolent, but a bit of humility might have led him down a different path. For example, if he had contacted some effective charities working to help refugees (or even just looked into the topic a bit) it would have become pretty clear that actually a far better alternative would have been to signpost people to these charities on his site, or even help channel donations to them somehow. This is because these charities are effectively organizational embodiments of subject matter expertise, with very knowledgeable people, networks and processes that work together on the front lines to solve these problems. You can’t replicate that with a website, not with working in partnership with these people. A bit of humility would have gone a long way here.
In fact, our next episode of AI Right will cover this, where we discuss the amazing work that the Code Your Future team are doing right now to help refugees and disadvantaged people in a way that is safe and in line with the direction of charities and subject matter experts. This episode was really inspirational to record and will be humbling in a totally different sense.
Note: the developer in question has since tried to incorporate a lot of feedback on this issue into his solution.