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Could Tech Save the Bay?

By Julissa James

From spiraling income inequality and homelessness to monster earthquakes, wildfires and rising seas, the Bay Area has a lot to deal with. Here’s how some tech companies are stepping up.

Nicole Hu, co-founder and chief technology officer of One Concern, says new technologies could create “planetary-scale resilience.”

If the Bay Area were a work of art, critics’ comments about its dichotomies and juxtapositions would be endless. The growth of the tech industry has created extravagant wealth while exacerbating extreme poverty, dividing a region with one foot cemented in history and the other light-years into the future.

Combine the area’s social issues with its proclivity to natural disasters — the region has more than a 70 percent chance of experiencing a deadly earthquake in the next 30 years, and wildfire smoke now routinely chokes the area — and you have a recipe for borderline chaos.

But there is a silver lining. Precarious though our circumstances may be, our tech neighbors are smart, and many of them are willing to help. Could their ingenuity, brilliance and creativity ultimately save us?

Marc Benioff, Mark Zuckerberg and other tech titans routinely make headlines by leveraging their status and deep pockets to achieve positive change, but there are a handful of companies in the region that have deployed their actual tech-savvy to address some of the troubles plaguing our corner of the world.

While studying at Stanford, earthquake engineers Ahmad Wani and Tim Frank partnered with artificial intelligence expert Nicole Hu to develop One Concern, a Palo Alto-based company that uses “benevolent artificial intelligence” (a pledge to use the powerful technology for the good of humankind) to assess the impact of natural disasters on a hyper-local level.

“We have a vision of planetary-scale resilience where everyone lives in a safe, sustainable and equitable world,” says Hu, who serves as the company’s chief technology officer. “‘Everyone’ is the key word in that statement. We believe it is critically important to make an extra effort to harness these tools to help vulnerable populations, who often bear the brunt of disaster impact. We’re on a mission to save lives and livelihoods, and this is why we are so focused on ensuring that our AI is used for good.”

One Concern’s software is based on data derived from man-made and natural environments in combination with live data. This allows One Concern to provide an invaluable resource to their clients (including the cities of San Francisco, Woodside and Cupertino, among others) that gives them a headstart before and after disaster strikes.

“Natural disasters can’t be stopped, but their impact can be mitigated, and this progress can be measured in terms of lives saved and livelihoods preserved. In this sense they actually are a solvable problem,” Hu says.

Hu’s “no problem is unsolvable” philosophy is in line with the mission of Concrn (not to be confused with One Concern), a social service app that responds to nonemergency crises in the Tenderloin. CEO Neil Shah says he and his team are working to alleviate a problem that at times can seem more powerful than Mother Nature herself: San Francisco’s mental illness epidemic in the homeless community.

The Concrn app allows people to report any emotional or mental health crisis they witness while walking the streets of the Tenderloin by documenting it with a photo, providing notes and rating the situation’s level of urgency. After being notified through the app, Concrn’s team responders arrive at the scene. Both Shah and his staff are not only trained in crisis intervention, they have experience with homelessness, recovery and mental health, making them theoretically well-suited for deescalation and trauma healing.

“It’s not the app that’s necessary. It’s the model of reducing the burden on emergency services like police and ambulance for a mental health crisis in the streets,” says Shah.

The melding of tech culture and on-the-ground volunteering doesn’t stop with Concrn. Glide, one of the Tenderloin’s best-known organizations trying to tackle the city’s socioeconomic issues, has seen a swell of support from different tech groups based in San Francis-co. Companies such as Dropbox, Facebook, eBay, Uber, Dolby, Salesforce, Twitter and Zendesk have funded and worked on some of Glide’s most crucial programs.

“We’ve been impressed with the way the tech industry has stepped up in recent years in support of Glide’s work and mission,” says John Carpentier, a corporate engagement associate at Glide. “We are partnering with startups as well as more established tech companies interested in building cultures of philanthropy and volunteerism.”

These groups have done everything from serving more than 2,000 daily meals to individuals and families experiencing extreme poverty or homelessness to sponsoring bulk orders of goods and assembling them into hygiene kits for the Glide Goods program — a free pop-up store for people to get key essentials they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

Companies like eBay have participated in designated days of service, during which all 85 volunteer slots are filled with the company’s employees. They match their physical volunteer work with a donation that covers food costs and staff time for an entire day of serving meals.

Lisa Peckler, Glide’s director of institutional giving, highlights eBay and Zendesk as standout supporters in terms of frequency and enthusiasm. Fifteen Zendesk employees volunteer twice monthly by assembling harm-reduction kits that lessen the risk of HIV and hepatitis C transmission among substance users. They hand the kits out directly during street outreach and build re-lationships with the individuals they’re trying to help. Glide says Zendesk’s harm-reduction work has been instrumental. Carpentier speaks fondly of one of Twitter’s data scientists, who dedicates three to four hours a week to Glide’s staff, helping to pilot a skills based volunteering model.

“We’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm and a strong commitment among our volunteers from tech,” says Robert Avila, Glide’s director of communications. “What’s more, we’ve seen an eagerness to learn about the complex set of challenges faced by the homeless and extremely low-income and marginalized people we serve. Many of the generally young people working in tech and coming in to volunteer are relatively new to the Bay Area. Their acts of community service are a way of putting down roots, meeting their neighbors, and intervening in the suffering they see in the streets around them.”

The tech industry shows no signs of slowing down in the Bay Area, which leaves an important question for all the burgeoning companies putting down roots here: If we share our cities with you, will you help us save them?

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