Emerging Insights 2019: Science and Technology

Fighting censorship & misinformation
Insight 05 - Science & Technology

GLOBAL ISSUES

Technology is meant to make our lives better, easier, and more efficient. It is heralded as the great equalizer because it enables more direct communication, globalized networks, and transparency.

It has led to great advances in health and improved quality of life for many. But some argue that instead of creating a global world where more people access opportunity and advantage, it has done the opposite. In-country income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is higher than at any time since WWII[10]. Robotics, automated processes, machine learning, big data and artificial intelligence are major culprits of this increase in inequality.

There is clearly no true picture of the advantages or consequences of technology, only that there is great urgency to improve our understandings of scientific discovery and technological use.

NEW IDEAS

In 2018, Ashoka signaled a rise in scipreneurship – where scientists have begun to employ entrepreneurial strategies to combat fake news and promote the understanding and influence of science on the general public. This year’s Fellows continue to devise solutions that help us to understand the complexity of the world we live in.

They are battling censorship and fighting for control of the internet, helping to collect less biased and more nuanced big data, and developing technological solutions to advance agricultural industries around the world.

Censorship and internet freedom

As of October 2019, 58% of individuals around the world are active internet users, making it now impossible to imagine a world without rapid access to communication and information[11]. In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council declared internet access a basic human right which is integral to enabling freedom of expression. And yet, countries around the world regularly slow down or shut off internet access to their citizenry as a form of social and political control.

Alp Toker

Ashoka Fellow since Mayo 2019

 Alp Toker’s NetBlocks systematically tracks and reports on worldwide internet blockages, slowdowns and censorship. Beyond public reporting, they use the information to help civil society organizations in affected countries work for greater freedoms – such as in the case of Chad in 2018 where a court ruling declared that NetBlocks’ technical evidence proved that the government had shut down the internet on purpose and had affected election results. They have also created a “cost of shutdown tool” to help start nonpolitical conversations with decision makers in countries which are engaging in harmful shutdowns.

Where the internet is available, the battle against censorship and misinformation rages. In France, Emmanuel Vincent recruits scientists to tackle false data on issues of scientific importance.

Emmanuel Vincent

Ashoka Fellow since Jul 2019

Journalists and media organizations have begun to address incidences of “fake news,” but these are mostly connected to current events or politics and not the proliferation of false information about scientific issues that can have real world consequences. Scientists on their own cannot address the issue, so Emmanuel developed Science Feedback which provides a platform for academics to score and annotate the credibility of scientific information as it is reported in the news. Already two platforms – Climate Feedback and Health Feedback – have been launched for a network of over 350 scientists. Science Feedback is working with Google, Facebook and YouTube to integrate community fact-checking as part of its efforts to curb the spread of misinformation.

Data collection is no longer an innocuous task, especially since revelations surfaced about how personal data could be weaponized for political gain. In the United States, Yeshimabeit Milner believes that data science needs to be used for good – specifically to shine a light on and amplify the disenfranchised.

Her movement, Data for Black Lives, is doing just that. She raises awareness in black communities about the mechanics of big data, like credit scores, and show them how algorithms can impact their daily lives. She also works to collect better and more useful data that can address issues of importance to the black community. Better data, for example, was used to improve maternal health care at the largest public hospital in Florida, an issue which disproportionately affected black women.

 

Data for agricultural transformation

Several Fellows have found that technology and data can transform one of the world’s oldest industries – agriculture. 49 million Indonesians, representing 41% of the country’s labor force, work in smallholder agriculture. Agriculture makes up 14% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Perhaps unsurprisingly, despite their numbers and importance, farmers are some of the lowest paid and least connected citizens.

Regi Wahyu

Ashoka Fellow since Oct 2018

 Regi Wahyu thinks the problem is data. Changing weather patterns have made agriculture even more risky, making it harder for farmers to secure loans to advance their farming techniques. Regi is working on a blockchain model, HARA, that enables farmers to more actively participate in the whole agricultural ecosystem by helping to gather and put value on the data they collect. HARA involves four participants – the data providers (farmers and others), data buyers, data enrichers (who add value), and data qualifiers. HARA pays data collectors for their contributions and sells the data to banks and other lenders who are better able to assess risk and develop financial products to serve this population. A transparent system because of its distribution on the blockchain, the platform has given 6,000 farmers better access to financing and increased their yields by 15% so far.

Mexico’s 17 million subsistence farmers face many of the same challenges as those in Indonesia, particularly fragmentation in the supply chain. Knowledge on the origin of much of the food consumed and produced by small holder farmers is lost, leading to the production of alternatives which undercut the prices of legitimate producers – for example, corn syrup is sold as honey – hurting the industry at large.

Vincent Lagacé

Ashoka Fellow since Abr 2019

 Vincent Lagacé’s Nuup creates dialogues between the various agricultural stakeholders to define sector issues and propose solutions, impacting over 10,000 farmers, 18 companies, 17 civil society organizations, and 6 financial institutions to improve honey, coffee and fruit and vegetable value chains. From a technology perspective, Nuup is testing data tools like a web platform, mobile applications, and bots for WhatsApp and SMS that enable farmers to quickly share and discuss their needs and recommendations for production improvement, and develop greater understandings of market needs, conditions, technical product requirements, and financing options. A partnership with Technoserve and Walmart uses technology to capture and visualize the data of 8,000 small-scale fruit and vegetable farmers to monitor their development, advances in training and market readiness.

SPOTLIGHT ON:

Technology and animal health in West Africa

Two Fellows in West Africa are devoted to disrupting the subsistence livestock industry. In Ghana, livestock plays a key economic role in families and is an important form of social security, but keeping livestock healthy is a challenge. Despite governmental interventions to promote vaccinations, rural farmers still fail to access and afford veterinary services for their animals. Nigeria loses 29.2 billion Naira to livestock diseases annually as there is no system for identifying and tracking disease epidemics. Many precautions that could be put in place before a disease spreads fail because of a lack of a centralized system.

Peter Awin

Ashoka Fellow since Dic 2018

 Peter Awin’s CowTribe tackles the problem in Ghana with the creation of an on-demand mobile subscription service that connects livestock farmers with veterinarians and delivers animal vaccines and other livestock healthcare services to farmers in Ghana.

Femi Kayode’s Vetsark developed the Alpha Prime Disease Surveillance Technology that is predicting, preventing, and controlling pests and disease outbreaks in Nigeria to protect crops and livestock.

Both are using the power of technology to solve the challenges of livestock production and industry in regions of West Africa that have not been prioritized or seen the potential of a streamlined, efficient, and more healthy value chain in livestock.

THE OPPORTUNITY

Social innovation and technology go hand and hand. Ashoka has been at the forefront of iterating new ways to use technology to share ideas, spread movements, and find and support new innovators. Partnerships with companies who have supported online changemaker challenges like T-Mobile - a national mobile network in the US, the credit card company American Express, HSBC Bank, the Purina pet food company, among others have helped to source, highlight and support emerging innovators around the world. Our partners are helping to spread changemaking around the world and creating a pipeline for future Ashoka Fellows.


[10] UN University. “Is Technological Innovation Making Society More Unequal?” United Nations University, 21 Dec. 2016.

[11] Clement, J. “Global Digital Population 2019.” Statista, 20 Nov. 2019.

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