Why your tech isn't 'revolutionary' unless it helps everyone

Photo: Joe Raedle/ Getty Images.

In what could be seen as a warning for the incoming Trump administration as much as for startups around the world, the White House’s top data scientist has warned no technology can claim it’s “revolutionary” unless it helps everyone in society.

DJ Patil was named in February 2015 as the first-ever chief data scientist for the Barack Obama administration. The appointment was aimed to “harness the power of technology and innovation to help government better serve the American people”, according to the White House.

At the Amazon Web Services re:Invent event in Las Vegas, Patil implored all those in the technology industry to follow the two major philosophies that guided his own team — responsibility and universal benefit.

“Just because we can doesn’t always mean we should. We have to think about how we do this, what is the manner in which we do it and all the other aspects that go with doing anything responsibly in technology,” he told the crowd.

DJ Patil, White House chief data scientist. (source: Twitter)

Patil went onto explain universal benefit.

“I would assert to you that way all of us should think as technologists is that technology is neither radical or revolutionary unless it benefits every single person. Every. Single. Person.”

Patil took the example of his own team’s work of combining and analysing data from the criminal justice and health systems to reduce the rate of imprisonment of those with mental illnesses — a program that he called a “data-driven justice initiative”.

“It’s data science that empowers everybody. The cities that do this get amazing benefit from savings but are able to close jails at scale.”

The chief data scientist reminded the audience that there are always people behind the data, and that people always matter more than numbers.

“People are always greater than data,” he said. “We, as technologists, are all used to building great ideas and we’d say there are ‘edge cases’. I want you to remember those edge cases have a name. Their name’s Pete, their name’s Jennifer. There’s Giselle, there’s Sam… every one of them has a name. Remember that — it’s the people that matter.”

He told the conference that data is a “force multiplier” and that every member of the tech industry has the ability to use their talents for the good of society.

“The time to engage is now… When you jump into a problem, you will change the world not just for all of us here, not just for the nation today, but for our kids and their kids.”

The journalist travelled to AWS re:Invent in Las Vegas as a guest of Amazon.

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