Bruce-Rothberg

Bruce Rothberg

Senior Campaigns and Public Affairs Officer

Charities Aid Foundation

DIGITAL MAZE: TRENDS IN PHILANTHROPY, DIGITAL INTERFACES AND DATA PRIVACY

Ahead of London Tech Week, I’m delving into key trends revealed by our research.

6 June 2019

As part of our mission to motivate society to give ever more effectively, we've been researching the impact of emerging technologies on the work of charities and the ways in which people are able to support them. Over a series of blogs I will be exploring some of these challenges and opportunities in more detail - starting with a spotlight on immersive or conversational interfaces and data privacy challenges.

Throughout the panels, roundtables and presentations at the upcoming London Tech Week (10 to 14 June), these innovations are going to be analysed and solutions debating from a variety of perspectives. But what do they mean for the civil society sector?

Step forward and enter an oncoming digital maze that charities urgently need to find their way through..

Maze



TRANSFORMING OUR ENVIRONMENT

While the internet represents access to unlimited knowledge, technology platforms can limit people’s experience by trapping them in echo chambers where their existing views are reinforced. There is a danger that our experience will be limited even further if, in the future, a growing proportion of our online activity comes from immersive or non-visual conversational interfaces. The former utilises Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality technology while examples of the latter including Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa or Microsoft’s Cortana.

These interfaces rely on algorithms designed to provide us with choices that maximise our engagement, so will inevitably encourage users to increasingly interact with others that are similar which can push them to extreme opinions or increase hostility to other users.

Charities may have an important role to play in overcoming the consequences of social echo chambers. Our Brexit research found that 46% of people believe that charities can help to improve community cohesion and 63% agreed that charities can provide support to marginalised groups. So it is clear that our sector has an essential role in tackling social isolation through campaigning and advocacy work.

At the same time, it should not be forgotten that AR and VR technology can also benefit generosity and also that conversational interfaces represent a convenient way to support good causes. Simply saying your intention out loud can begin the same voice-activated process as instant consumer purchasing, reducing the time and practical steps required to donate.

46% of people believe that charities can help to improve community cohesion


TACKLING THE DATA PRIVACY CHALLENGE

Many new technologies represent an enormous privacy challenge because they collect so much personal data about users. Charities have to be aware not only who is gathering and using data on their beneficiaries, but also how they themselves are managing data. After all, increased regulation has placed great pressure on charity resources and several organisations have been censured for breaching of the rules, in the wake of media scrutiny of fundraisers.

In recent years, we have learnt how social media platforms collect and share data on users, enabling advertisers to take advantage of academic research which shows how different ways of presenting information affects people’s actions. For example, platforms often allow ‘behavioural microtargeting’ – where advertisers deliver thousands of variants of adverts, based on the lessons learnt from applying machine learning software to data about online behaviour.

But it should not be forgotten that this activity is not inherently malicious, despite its obvious potential to cause harm. The collection of social media data allows for charity campaigns to better identify potential supporters and understand their giving behaviour in more detail. Furthermore, applying machine learning software to user habits can help charities identify which beneficiaries are most in need of particular services at specific times.

RISK AND REWARD

It is clear that emerging technology is likely to have a disorientating effect on charities by altering the nature of social and environmental needs or creating entirely new ones. This strategic labyrinth could pose major challenges for charities which may have stretched resources already but still need to develop the technical knowledge required to understand these new problems and find solutions to them as well. Equally, as London Tech Week will prove, technological advancement also offers exciting opportunities – including many that we are yet to fully comprehend while innovation reaches its true potential.

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