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More than just killer bots: How technologists can change people’s lives for the better

When the internet was first ushered into existence in the 1990s, it immediately began revolutionising the way people live, learn, communicate and do business.

This technology has since weaved its way into almost every profession and has created a booming creative sector, with brand-new products and websites being built at an exponential pace.

But the perception of big tech has undergone a shift in the last year or two.

Many are now eyeing the Facebooks and Googles of the world as “Sinister new centres of unaccountable power”, arguing that regulation needs to be introduced to the sector.  

Founder and CEO of digital agency Springload, Bron Thomson is well versed in creating digital products. She believes that technology should be developed with the goal of improving people’s lives for the better.  

“There are a lot of young people in this industry who are excellent coders and technologists. They’re talented, but they’re building new technologies without considering the bigger picture,” Thomson says.

“Because the field itself has developed so quickly, it hasn’t quite had time to think about the ethics and civics side of development. I think it’s really important that we think about the why of what we do.”

Thompson believes that technology-related ethical dilemmas that people grapple with, such as driverless cars or killer robots, aren’t as important as managing the intersection between technology and humanity.

“We’re faced with these problems every day with the products we build,” Thomson says. “It’s very easy to go, ‘We need a form, let’s make a form.’ It’s a lot harder and critically important to go, ‘What are we trying to achieve here?’”

Capturing the human side of tech

Despite the issues that the tech sector faces daily, Thomson says there is so much opportunity to do good with technology, and influence emotional decisions. For her, the point where a human seamlessly engages with a piece of technology is the best part of the business.

“This is the sweet spot. The positive feelings that come from experiencing something beautiful, that solves a problem, floods your brain with oxytocin. People feel good about tech that makes life easier.”

An example of this is Springload’s revamp of the Red Cross website. Thomson says the company wanted to increase donations by triggering an emotional response.

The site design was changed so visitors could donate from any page on the site, rather than one single donation page. Default amounts for donations were also listed so people don’t have to enter an amount, further streamlining the process and increasing the amount donated.

By showing examples of real-world events and indicating where the money was going, the average amount donated increased by an impressive 90 percent.  

“We reduced every barrier as much as we could to help people give,” Thomson says. “There was a massive increase in terms of donations. It’s important for us to see that our work can make a tangible difference.”

Another example of technology with purpose is On the Fence, a site Springload built in collaboration with the Massey Design and the Democracy team.

An online quiz was created to increase the number of young people to vote in the general elections and inspire them to become more interested in politics.

The game-inspired questionnaire helped guide them towards finding a party that matches their values while educating them on the role the government has in society. The questions were created in collaboration with Generation Zero, RNZ and Platform Charitable Trust.

It was also endorsed by the Electoral Commission and featured on their website.

During the 2017 national election, the site had 133,000 unique visitors, with 17.5 percent (more than 29,000) of them aged between 18 and 24.  

“It was so exciting that we got a massive number of young people really engaging with the tool and using it as a way to have conversations about politics,” Thomson says.

“It was designed by young people for young people. You’d end up with an avatar that represented the policies that you believed in, and you could share that avatar. That shareability was a good tool to get it out to a wide audience. It made users aware of a whole bunch of policies, and got them engaging in conversation about them.”

Overall, Thomson says the key takeaway for those in the tech industry is that just because there’s an opportunity to create something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

“We have a responsibility as technologists to really focus on the human side of technology – The more technology grows, it’s going to continually open up a whole world of questions that we need to think hard about before rushing in.”

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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