Stanford University launched its Poverty and Technology Lab in 2016, promoting the collaboration of students and Silicon Valley experts to use their knowledge of the technology world in order to provide practical solutions to poverty.
Reversing the Roles of Technology
Stanford initiated its Poverty and Technology Lab as a project within the university’s Center for Technology and Inequality (CPI). Its goal with this initiative is to redefine the various uses of technology. Experts and students at the university recognize the possible dangers of technology, as it has the potential to decrease employment opportunities and perpetuate global inequalities. This Lab aims to switch this role by applying technology to benefit low-income people, rather than prioritizing the improvement of middle-class lives.
The Technology and Poverty Lab fostered collaboration among students, professors and Silicon Valley technology experts. In addition, the Lab incorporates the voices and opinions of people living in low-income communities into these conversations. This inclusion ensures that the tools being innovated are truly geared toward issues that the impoverished are enduring.
A Unique Approach in the Classroom
Stanford also launched a course series that parallels the goals of this lab. Professor David Grusky, Director of Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, teaches the first course—Ending Poverty with Technology—as well as the remaining courses.
Grusky explained the unique approach of both his classes and the lab in an interview, stating that “[Stanford’s Poverty and Technology Lab] is an opportunity to not take on problems at their root sources, which is our instinct. … Sometimes the best way forward is to not take on problems at their causes, at their sources, but rather to approach them less directly and instead opt for approaches that proceed in a different way. It’s kind of a more pragmatic approach.”
Grusky said his classes are largely geared toward teaching students to think in a manner that enables them to create solutions using this unique method: “One of the outputs [of my class] is just training students in how you would think through problems in this way. So it’s not that they actually make headway on the problems themselves, but they learned how to approach problems of this type, and hopefully, in the future, we’ll make headway.”
Many of the projects that have formed through Stanford’s Poverty and Technology Lab are information-oriented. Examples include services that aid employment, boost access to educational opportunities and enable low-income communities to rate preexisting assistance programs. These projects primarily focus on the process of linking data to evaluate current programs related to these processes.
“We have a lot of work underway in which we negotiate data-sharing agreements and use them to put together linked administrative data sets that then allow us to carry out evaluations,” Grusky reported.
From the United States to Abroad
Stanford created the Poverty and Technology Lab to find poverty solutions in the Bay Area and the United States. However, much of the work by this lab is applicable to impoverished communities across the globe. Acknowledging this global relevance, some students have even begun the process of testing their innovations abroad.
“Although we used the U.S. as a kind of a testbed in trying to understand the problems, some of [the students] actually went on and worked on their projects in other areas,” Grusky revealed.
Experimentation with one such project occurred in Peru, where a female student devised an entrepreneurship app. She proposed this application to include a convenient toolkit for those struggling to secure employment opportunities. This app would help these impoverished individuals to avoid this challenge by learning to start their own business.
At the surface, this project engages students at Stanford University. But it also urges technology experts across the country to examine the impact of their products more broadly. Students and scholars nationwide are collaborating with community members to find practical technological solutions to poverty.
– Hannah Carroll