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Tech for Social Impact

By Heidi Hackford | January 27, 2021

New Year, New Perspective

In the waning days of 2020, a remarkable panel came together for a virtual CHM Live event to share something that felt rare last year: optimism. Steve Davis, an advisor with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke with Keller Rinaudo, CEO and cofounder of Zipline, and Vin Gupta MD, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, about how new technology can improve the lives of millions. With stories from their personal experience and insights from Davis’ new book, Undercurrents: Channeling Outrage to Spark Practical Activism, the panelists explored how the digital revolution is accelerating notable advances, particularly in healthcare, a timely topic considering the current global pandemic.

Steve Davis says that the inspiration for his book came from recognizing the disconnect between the high level of outrage at the state of the world that accompanies people’s feelings of paralysis in addressing daunting global challenges and the reality that trend lines show things are actually getting better. He wanted to correct that picture, encourage optimism, and assure us all that you don’t have to be a celebrity or a billionaire to make a difference. Focusing on transformative trends in the digital and data revolution and the need to scale effective tech innovations, Rinaudo and Gupta showed how it works in practice.

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Health Equity and Access . . . By Drone

Zipline is an instant delivery system for medicine. Drones quickly deliver basic medical products directly from a warehouse to the patient’s home, saving millions for hospitals that don’t have to store them or throw them out when they expire, and extending the reach of healthcare provision. Now working with 2,500 hospitals, cofounder and CEO Keller Rinaudo has been focused on scaling the startup from its early days when his vision was to build the first logistics system that serves people equally. He believes that to solve global problems, for-profit business models are essential to ensure sustainability. Zipline demonstrates that tech startups can focus on building and scaling solutions to massive challenges without forgoing profits. He shares lessons learned and describes how Zipline’s model of starting fast and relying on local teams in Rwanda turns on its head the idea that tech innovation spreads outward from Silicon Valley to the rest of the world.

Zipline’s Keller Rinaudo describes how empowering teams in Africa seeded success.

Zipline is now scaling by moving into the US market, which is very complex from a regulatory perspective. Rinaudo believes that without the data from smaller countries who wanted to move quickly, it wouldn’t have been possible. But, even though the bureaucracy at the intersection of aviation and healthcare is very challenging, regulators respond to real-world use cases that make it impossible to say ‘no.’ Every flight can potentially save a life. And every country can benefit from making access to health care easier and more equitable for its citizens.

Davis featured Zipline in his book partly because he wanted to show how focusing on the needs of other countries works better than assuming you know what technology solution is best for them. He also wanted to show how working for a successful, for-profit company with an ambitious mission to serve humanity can be a rewarding career opportunity for the best engineering talent.

Transparent Data With Digital Tools

Like Zipline’s Rinaudo, public health educator Vin Gupta, MD, focuses on equity and access in healthcare, in his case on communicating accurate information and democratizing data. At the Institute for Health Metrics (IHMe), he is committed to translating often complicated health data through easy to understand data visualizations (ie. infographics) for regular people rather than just other epidemiologists. He also wants to make it easier for anyone to access macro and micro health trends, not just policymakers. And if that isn’t enough, he maintains an active social media presence to counter misinformation, particularly around COVID-19, with facts grounded in science.

Vin Gupta, MD, describes how he uses digital tools for public health advocacy.

Gupta and Davis both recognize that there are ongoing issues around healthcare inequities and access limitations as well as skepticism among healthcare providers and policymakers that affect the reception of new innovations in digital health. They’ll need data to be convinced that digital tools can provide effective patient care and bend the cost curve. But that data is coming and early signs are that it can make the case.

Practical Activism: Beyond “Like”

Steve Davis believes you don’t have to cofound a company like Zipline or become a public health physician like Gupta to make the world better, but he cautions that clicking the “Like” button on Facebook is not the right kind of activism if you really want to make a difference. Instead, he offers practical, effective ways to get involved.

Steve Davis offers ideas for using digital tools to make the world better.

Inevitably in discussions about digital tools and social media, there will be concerns around privacy and security and misuse. But Davis takes the long-range, reminding us that although we haven’t yet figured out how to mitigate negative side-effects of disruptive new technologies, they are here to stay and we will figure out how to use them well. Indeed, he notes that tech often has the ability to solve many of the problems it creates.

Tech or no tech, what’s clear is that the world needs more “practical activists,” people working in every field, everywhere, who are committed to creating solutions that improve daily life for communities all over the world. You may just want to join them.

Watch the Full Conversation

CHM Live | Digital Transformation for Social Impact: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Steve Davis with Zipline's Keller Rinaudo, and University of Washington's Vin Gupta, December 17, 2020.

About The Author

Heidi Hackford is the content and curriculum director for the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum. She is responsible for leading the development of educational materials focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Heidi previously worked at Monticello, where she edited Thomas Jefferson’s family letters. At the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, she established a digital archive and conducted teacher workshops on incorporating digital history resources in the classroom. After moving to Silicon Valley, Heidi directed the start-up of a new foundation promoting wilderness conservation through art.

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