Announcing the Good Technology Project
post by Richard_Batty
What will we do?
Where does the project fit in the effective altruism community?
We’d love your feedback
Today we’re pleased to announce the launch of the Good Technology Project. The aim is of the project is to influence talented people within technology to work on higher-impact projects. To achieve that, our main objectives are to work out in more detail how we can do a large amount of good with tech, publish this information publicly, and promote it to technologists.
We think this could be high impact for a few reasons:
- Technology has historically had a large impact on human welfare.
- There are a lot of effective altruists in technical careers - especially in software - who could find more high impact work through our advice.
- There isn’t much advice from the effective altruism community on how to have an impact with technology.
- There’s a lot of existing expert knowledge on doing good with technology that would be much easier to access and consume as an individual if it were made accessible, collated and analysed.
On a personal level, the project speaks to our own needs. Both of us are software developers who would like to have direct impact with our work, but who feel that we don’t know how to do that effectively. We believe that there are many others in a similar position.
What will we do?
Our plan is to provide online resources for individuals and organizations who are trying to evaluate the impact of technology projects. This will help altruistic founders to pick good projects and potential employees to pick good employers.
We are starting by interviewing experts both in cause areas and in technologies, and creating case studies of existing high-impact technology projects. In the long term we hope to provide a guide to assessing the impact of novel projects, a list of project suggestions, and strategies for coming up with good ideas.
There are problems with our approach. There’s clearly overlap with EA Ventures, GiveWell, OpenPhilanthropy Project, and 80,000 Hours. It’s also unclear whether we should expect to be able to find good, tractable opportunities. We’ll be writing more about our strategy and testing our assumptions in the future, but we’d appreciate any comments or suggestions.
80,000 Hours recently argued that the effective altruism community should concentrate more on filling talent gaps. We see our project as serving this need of shifting talent to more effective direct work.
We also plan to use existing work as much as possible. For example, when exploring causes we should be able to use the existing work from GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project. We also want to tap into the large pool of academic research around technical interventions, such as within the ICT for Development (ICT4D) field.
The organisation we are most likely to overlap with is 80,000 Hours, given that they aim to direct the work of talented people by giving advice. However, 80,000 Hours can’t do a detailed investigation of every career path, and within any career the bracket of “direct work” leaves a huge amount to be investigated. We could certainly see room for similar organizations in other areas like politics, health, or research, and we’d like to collaborate with them on finding important problems.
We’d love your feedback
This is a new project, and we’re very uncertain about all of it. We’d love to get your
feedback generally, and particularly on these topics:
- What would success look like?
- Are there any substantial downsides?
- What are the most likely ways the project could fail?
- What are the most likely ways the project could succeed?
- How can we most effectively research how to do good with technology?
- Anything else you think is important.
How can you get involved?
We’d love to talk to you if you’re interested in this project, and we’d particularly like to talk to the following sorts of people:
People who we’d like to help:
- (Potential) technology entrepreneurs who want to have an impact with your project, whether you’ve already started something or you’re thinking about it.
- Technology workers wondering how to have an impact with their work.
- People involved in communities of technologists who might benefit from our work.
People we’d like help from:
- Experts in cause areas who we can interview about how technology could be used in their cause area.
- Experts in promising-looking technologies who could suggest ways of using them for good.
- Researchers with knowledge of technology for good, the history of technology, economics of technology, impact evaluation, or any area you think would be helpful.
- People with research experience who can critique the quality of our research.
Email us at email@example.com (Richard Batty) or firstname.lastname@example.org (Michael Peyton Jones) if you’d like to find out more. You can also sign up for our monthly mailing list on the website, and we’ll be posting new material on the blog regularly.
Comments sorted by top scores.
comment by Benjamin_Todd ·
2016-01-14T19:56:33.949Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Just a note to say I'm not worried at all about harmful overlap between the projects.
- We don't have capacity to do this kind of research in the near future, so the extra research done by Richard and Michael is almost all additive i.e. significantly more total research gets done.
- It's easy for us to coordinate with them - we can just link people interested in technology to their resources. There's little potential for confusion.
- I know Richard well and we can just talk periodically to stay in sync.
- I also agree with all of the benefits of separation Richard lists below.
comment by RyanCarey ·
2016-01-17T00:48:14.995Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
EA software seems like a huge area, so I'm interested in what strategy has led you to start with these particular activities.
As I understand, your planned focus is to identify project ideas that use software impactfully. This includes
- cataloguing the needs of work in important causes, and
- exploring important technologies that use programming.'
But I could imagine alternate scenarios where an organisation like yours would instead start with:
- matching impactful organisations with new software developers
- running conferences to connect EA developers with employers, and with each other
- giving prizes for impactful software work
- lobbying politicians to regulate software differently (a la GiveWell's science/tech think tank request)
- running informal meetings of EA software developers
- running online meetings of people interested in specific high-impact tech
each of which would not be without its advantages
So why have you chosen the research problem as your starting point?
Replies from: Richard_Batty
↑ comment by Richard_Batty ·
2016-01-17T13:47:39.513Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Your suggestions are good and we can imagine doing them in the future, but I think we should prioritise the research problem for reasons I'll explain.
For your matching developers with projects scenarios (e.g. conference or prizes), they would make sense if:
- We already knew what the most effective software projects were
- There was an undersupply of software developers taking them up, perhaps because they didn't know about them
We think that there is some truth in this - it's hard to find lists of tech orgs of any type, and there aren't many lists of tech orgs that plausibly have a high positive impact. However, I don't think we're anywhere close to knowing what the most high impact software projects or organisations are. We are planning to publish a list of altruistic tech organisations, although we'll be unable to prioritise them until we have made more progress on research.
There's an analogy with early 80,000 Hours or GiveWell here. Early 80,000 Hours could have put all its effort into promoting what it thought at the time was the best way to have impact - earning to give. As we've found out, this would have been a mistake. By focussing on research they've developed much better advice than 'everyone should do earning to give'.
Similarly GiveWell or Giving What We Can could have just picked a few charities that on the face of it seemed high impact and then worked on finding donors for them. If they'd done this and then stopped researching, they probably wouldn't have found the options that they have now, nor would they be as credible for donors.
On running informal meetings:
This could have a couple of purposes:
- Matching people with orgs or other people so they can work on important projects
- Getting people talking about high impact tech so that we can make progress on working out what tech is high impact
I've addressed point 1 already. On point 2, I don't think meetups or conferences are the best way to make progress. The questions we are trying to answer are very difficult and I don't think people informally talking will cause much progress to happen.
Imagine if EA had started with some people asking 'How can we have the most impact?' and then instead of setting up organisations like GiveWell and 80,000 Hours, they had immediately concentrated on community, running conferences and meetups. I think we might have ended up like the conventional ethical sector - lots of people doing things and lots of ideas, but not much progress on prioritisation.
A stronger version of this option would be a more formal structure. There could be a forum (in person or online) for dedicated people to try to make progress on these questions. I think this could be a good option although we'd need to think about how to keep quality high.
I read Givewell's 'Science policy and infrastructure' proposal but I don't see how it relates to our project. What kinds of software regulation might we lobby politicians to change?
Replies from: RyanCarey
comment by William_S ·
2016-01-16T18:59:52.005Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
It might be useful to suggest Technology for Good as, ie, a place where companies with that focus could send job postings, and have them seen by people who are interested in working on such projects.
comment by William_S ·
2016-01-16T18:58:12.217Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
This is probably not answerable until you've made some significant progress in your current focus, but it would be nice to get a sense of how well the pool of people available to work on technology for good projects lines up with the skills required for those problems (for example, are there a lot of machine learning experts who are willing to work on these problems, but not many projects where that is the right solution? Is there a shortage of, say, front-end web developers who are willing to work on these kinds of projects?).
Replies from: Michael_PJ
↑ comment by Michael_PJ ·
2016-01-17T13:05:32.900Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Working out what skills are needed for the problems is absolutely something we want to find out. I don't know whether we can really effectively survey the pool of available talent, but we will hopefully be able to help individuals make decisions by telling them that, e.g. machine learning skills are particularly likely to be applicable to high-impact solutions
comment by matcarey ·
2016-01-13T21:46:28.181Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I'm a London based Software Developer & Consultant, largely my day job is helping companies to build software (usually web applications & web sites) in long-term-viable ways. Anyone can make a start on a project but to have a successful project that can grow as it needs to requires more craftsmanship.
I've been toying with running a project with the goal of training people up and giving people experience - it would be a charity, open source project but the focus would be on the learning experience. I've met amateurs who could be helped into roles like Marketing, Design, User Experience, Software Development, Server Maintenance, Project Manager, Business Analyst with the right guidance.
I have one specific idea which I'm happy to share if it's relevant but the biggest focus would be the experience of building it. I have interviewed many people for junior roles in different companies who just need a project like this to see how things can fit together, without it they're struggling to get their first break.
Would you see the Social Mobility & Free Education benefits of that sort of project? Would you be more interested in people who are already experienced solving a problem directly?
Replies from: Richard_Batty
comment by Michael_PJ ·
2016-01-12T23:59:14.120Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
To be clear, our current objective is to find problems that can be addressed with technology, along with at least some ideas about how to go about doing it. That might be something like "build an insurance product on top of mobile money", or "build electricity distribution algorithms to allocate energy from renewable power sources" (disclaimer, these may not be good ideas!).
We then hope to actually be able to help get talented people actually doing some of these things!
comment by Gleb_T ·
2016-01-12T21:00:01.508Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
This sounds like a good project, but I'm curious why start an independent venture and not simply approach 80000 hours and suggest to them this area as a subproject of their work? Is there any specific importance to building a separate brand/organization?
Replies from: number42, Richard_Batty, Ilya
↑ comment by number42 ·
2016-01-13T16:45:18.105Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
To explain why I downvoted, I don't like this general kind of response (i.e. "shouldn't this be part of large organisation X?"):
Replies from: Richard_Batty, Gleb_T
- It discourages people from actually doing things, for several reasons.
- Dealing with a large organisation before starting the work takes time and is offputting, and many ideas will peter out or run into the ground if people are pressured to always do this.
- It's quite a negative response to give to someone trying to start something.
- It can involve unhealthy deference to or hero worship of large organisations.
- There are rarely strong reasons for a large organization to take over the projects that people suggest they do, and cross-linking often allows all the same benefits.
- It encourages a 'turf' mentality.
- Having many people experiment with many approaches is valuable, and lets us see which work.
↑ comment by Richard_Batty ·
2016-01-13T20:34:51.094Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I agree that this can be a problem. I've previously found myself demoralised after suggesting ideas for projects only to be immediately met with questions like 'Why you, not someone else?', 'Wouldn't x group do this better?' I think having a cofounder helps greatly with handling this. It's also something that founders just have to learn to deal with.
In this case though, I think Gleb_T's question was good. We explicitly asked for feedback and we wanted to get questions like this so that we were forced to think through things we may not have properly considered. On a post like this, I'd rather have lots of feedback and criticism so that we know where the potential weaknesses of the project are.
I'd suggest the heuristic: If you're friend is enthusiastically telling you about a new idea, hold off on criticism for a while whilst you help them develop it. If someone asks for feedback, or if you've been discussing the project for a bit longer, give the most useful feedback you can, even if it's negative.
Thanks for your comments about the benefits of staying independent.
↑ comment by Gleb_T ·
2016-01-13T22:26:47.490Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thanks for explaining why you downvoted in such a full manner. Let me then explain the meta-reasons for why I asked the question.
As a nonprofit entrepreneur myself who followed the call for new EA charities and started his own EA-themed meta-charity, I'm quite aware of the benefits of starting a new project :-) My goal in asking this question was to provide the Good Technology founders with an opportunity to explain their reasoning about a question that I am sure exists in many people's heads, but many choose not to ask.
As you can see, my question is phrased in a quite friendly manner. I express approval of the project, and then expressed curiosity about a specific issue I thought was insufficiently addressed in the original write-up. This is the sort of constructive critical feedback I would have loved to get when I started my own nonprofit venture :-)
Hope this explains my reasoning. We're all in this together, and figuring out the best way to help the world. We may have different methods and paths, but share the same goal. Let's try to assume that we all have the best intentions in helping each other out.
↑ comment by Richard_Batty ·
2016-01-13T13:27:43.334Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thanks for asking this as it's made me think more carefully about it.
Partly it's separate just because of how we got started. It's a project that Michael and I thought up because we needed it ourselves, and so we just got going with it. Given that we don't work for 80,000 Hours, it wasn't part of it.
But the more important question is 'Should it become part of 80,000 Hours in the future?' We talked to Ben Todd from 80,000 Hours and asked him what he thought of the potential for overlap. He thought it wasn't an issue as 80,000 Hours doesn't have time to go in depth into technology for good. I think if we became a subproject of 80,000 Hours, it would harm them because they'd have to spend management time on it and they should focus instead on their core priorities. It's costly to build our own brand, but I think it's better than disrupting an existing organization with an experimental project outside their own priorities. We can also find other ways of cooperating short of merging. I imagine 80,000 Hours will want to use our research if it becomes good enough, and we will want to talk to advisees of theirs who are interested in tech for good. We'll also be looking for ways to collaborate with other EA orgs like .impact and the London Good Code meetup.
There are also advantages to being independent of an existing project. We can target our brand more precisely at technologists and prioritize building relationships with people and orgs in the tech community. There's also value in thinking and researching independently of existing EA orgs because we might be able to come up with different ideas and ways of doing things.
I think there's a good chance that we'll look less and less like 80,000 Hours as we go on. I used to work for them, which means I'm prone to copy their way of doing things. As we go on, we might find that it's better to have a strategy less like 80,000 Hours than it is now.
Do you think it would be better if we were part of 80,000 Hours? What would that look like?
Replies from: number42, Gleb_T
↑ comment by number42 ·
2016-01-13T16:37:34.862Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
No, all your thoughts seems very sensible. The benefits of different organisations sticking to their own distinct, clear focuses are often overlooked, to their cost.
↑ comment by Gleb_T ·
2016-01-13T22:33:09.934Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thanks for your explanation, it makes a lot of sense. Glad my question helped you think this through more deeply. I'd suggest the idea of a collaborative partnership with 80,000 Hours of some sort, for example where they can send potential technologists to you for additional consults.
On the meta-issue of starting a new organization, I'm an EA nonprofit entrepreneur myself who started his own EA-themed meta-charity, and I'd be glad to share my experience. I can connect you with .impact, etc. EA Action might be another good organization to get together with. You can email me at email@example.com to chat.
Replies from: Tom_Ash
↑ comment by Ilya ·
2016-02-17T22:21:02.477Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
80000 is overloaded with its own burdens and does not have optimal resourcefulness to effectively develop a new practical large-scale initiative. Announcing the Good Technology Project has to grow as a new grassroot movement and organization.
Replies from: Gleb_T
comment by Ilya ·
2016-02-17T22:12:35.817Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I am very happy to see Announcing the Good Technology Project exploring its mission. This is very unique what you are trying to advance. I am 100% supporting.