Poverty and Technology
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 courseEnding Poverty with Technologyas 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.”

Forming Projects

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
Photo: Flickr

The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality (CPI), a nonpartisan research center, is monitoring trends in poverty and inequality, developing policy and explaining the root causes of poverty. This education begins in the classroom and finishes in the field, such as rural villages in Africa. The Center supports research students and established scholars in the field. All research is published in CPI’s magazine Pathways, which will likely become the new fact-based journal on poverty, inequality, income, discrimination and more.

Since CPI’s beginning in 2006, the Center has received support from the US Department of Health and Human Services, Stanford University, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Pew Charitable Trusts and others. This type of intellectual approach and curiosity might be the next step needed for a meaningful change in poverty reduction.

Ending Poverty with Technology is just one of many courses within the Center. Stanford students have the opportunity to pick an issue and use the semester to determine how they would better the situation. Sarukkai, a Stanford student majoring in symbolic systems stated, “In the land of opportunity it only makes sense that every human being has access to the same resources and pathways to success—an ideal we are far from achieving.”

As an undergraduate capstone project, one CPI team proposed a web platform and mobile app called “CareSwap.” This app is designed to help low-income families trade childcare within their respected network of friends and family. Although the course has ended, the “CareSwap” team plans to continue to develop and execute its website and app. The ending of a course does not mean the work ends.

The course is simply a place where the inspiration begins—the work ethic and dreams of the Center’s students cannot be diminished by the end of a semester. Poverty reduction begins in the classroom but is carried out during the long hours of the student’s personal time.

“Our idea evolved so much in the last few months after our interviews and conversations with parents and childcare experts,” the students said. “We are excited to develop it further next year. This project has become far more than a class assignment for each of us.” An idea that began in the classroom later developed into an app and website, making thousands of children’s lives easier and safer.

Some of the proposed projects may even be adopted for further development by the Stanford Poverty & Technology Lab, an initiative dedicated to developing technology-based solutions to rising inequality in the United States. Currently, the lab is developing an app, under Bill Behrman, director of the Stanford Data Lab, for “mapping” poverty in California. The app has the potential to help government agencies and nonprofits better target certain demographics by delivering estimates of poverty, unemployment, income and other indicators for very small geographic areas of the state.

Innovative and creative thinking are both necessary to tackle any complex topic, particularly poverty. In the classroom, both attributes are present, as well as the ability to look at the situation from various perspectives. The communal feel and global mindset of Stanford are felt in every classroom of the Center on Poverty and Inequality. “It’s not about a professor teaching and the students learning,” one student said. “We’re all just part of the same team trying to build products that work to reduce poverty.”

Reducing poverty encompasses so many different aspects of society. However, like anything truly successful it should begin in the classroom. Poverty reduction can better the quality and longevity for millions of people worldwide, as academics and students studying to better the world—it only makes sense to tackle poverty from inside the classroom through innovation and creative thinking.

Danielle Preskitt
Photo: Flickr