men walking up hills

Putting the humans first in tech for good

What do charities and technology have in common? In many cases they’re each about search & discovery, signposting & helping. Are we thinking enough about the human in each context?

I set out on yesterday’s run with a bunch of things swimming around in my head. By the end of the run, they weren’t swimming any more but had turned into this blog. The running part might sound like a humblebrag, but running and tech are both central to what I want to say, so it is what it is.

One of the things bugging me was an outline I’d seen of a programme a bunch of charity leaders were involved in to delve into the possible applications of blockchain. Now I have nothing against blockchain per-se, but I don’t see the same events being put on for a range of other possibly useful technologies. Is this a clear case of tech for tech’s sake?

I can relate to this. I’ve grown up such a geek for computers that there have been times where I’ve been so excited to build a new PC that I’ve forgotten what I was doing it for. Or lost interest as soon as I had. Sad, I know, but true.

So my first point is that of course we want tech to serve us well, rather than the other way around. But for that to happen, we have to know how we want to live, and then we need technology to help us do that.

Charities, it turns out, can be really helpful in working with the people they exist to serve to identify what it is they’re trying to achieve, and what’s needed to get there. They’re a great set of helpers in working out what the right problems and opportunities are to focus on, if we want to make people’s lives better. Youth workers and young people together might tell us that what’s really needed is opportunities to develop skills and confidence, and support to put them into practice as they develop their careers. People with Parkinson’s Disease, their families, and Parkinson’s nurses might tell us that they want help with dealing with the complexity of their condition and the NHS’s response to it, but also practical help with simple things like phones, TV remotes and daily schedules to help them remember things.

None of that starts with technology. It starts with a view of what a good life is. What the best life is that someone can and should live, and ideas about how to get there.

So my second point is that what we really need to do if we want to build tech for good has little to do with anything digital. It’s about understanding lived experience and practitioner experience, and them driving any design process to develop technology

By the point I’d thought this through, I was ploughing through stinging nettles and brambles on a particularly overgrown path somewhere near Tonbridge, where I live. And that brings me back to running.

I discovered running a year ago. Yes I know others have noticed that humans can run, and even done some pretty good running themselves, but I’d never really thought it was something for me. But I was on a bit of a journey of getting healthy, replacing unhealthy addictions with healthier ones, and I found I could run a 5k.

I discovered running partly because I’d bought a smart watch (thanks Garmin) that was run- and ride-centric. And it suggested I should be able to run. It was right. And as I got into running, the data I had about my own improvement enticed me further into it. I worked at it, then I saw improvement in the data. Pretty addictive.

My running journey has lots of other chapters (that I won’t bore you with now, but may well another time). One about not listening enough to the experience of others, and learning that the data only gets you so far. One about not getting driven by the data and targets themselves, and ensuring they’re still serving my purpose and intent.

But what my run yesterday reminded me of was the delightful interaction between the physical, human world and the digital when it’s at its best.

I recently discovered trail running, when I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do some in Elba, beautiful Italian island and Napoleon’s place of exile (pretty good deal IMHO). Between that and running and mountain biking in Snowdonia, I’ve been getting more and more into maps. Again, I know I hardly discovered the utility of maps myself, but as my Twitter bio says I’m a slow learner.

So on my return to Kent, I started exploring local trails on the digital maps provided by Ordnance Survey. Maps that have existed for hundreds of years, initially developed in the military interest of protecting us from invasion, now provided in digital form. The OS app and digital platform allow some really lovely, really detailed route-planning. And that’s what I was running yesterday – a trail around my home on local paths.

The app helped me to discover a side of my home town I’d never seen. And I could then share the route for others to experience. And I could share where the particularly overgrown footpaths are, or the blocked up underpass below the dual carriageway, if there were the functionality to do that. For people who follow me on Strava, they can see more about the route, and how I ran it, and even connect to chat about it.

But part of the map wasn’t on my phone at all – it was in the world. The signage pointing out the next turn in the path. The trodden down paths through fields (desire lines as I’ve come to know them) that showed me where to go.

So technology has helped me discover things that bring me real joy, and been part of me expressing and sharing that joy. But importantly, for me, the actual thing there is nothing to do with technology itself: in fact it’s so joyful precisely because it’s what we evolved to do. To move. To cover the ground under our own steam. To  run.

And if all of this seems self-indulgent, hopefully you’ve stopped reading by now. But finding stuff in the real world–helping people navigate–turns out to be one of the primary functions of digital technology. A lot of what charities really need tech to do is about maps, and about both search and discovery. And a lot of what people need is a mix of the same–finding things when you’re looking for them, but also having stuff suggested that might turn out to be useful, because you don’t yet know what you’re looking for.

Got thoughts on this blog? Get in touch or tweet Tris.


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