[NEW YORK] Two years ago, I started what has become one of my favourite annual traditions. Instead of a year-end column rounding up all the dubious and objectionable things technology companies did over the last year — a true fish-in-a-barrel assignment — I highlighted some examples of "good tech". I wanted to give kudos to the kinds of tech projects that don't always make headlines but that improve people's lives in tangible ways.
I'll admit, handing out awards for good technology in 2019 feels a little like congratulating Godzilla for not destroying all of Tokyo. There was plenty of bad tech news to write about this year: Facebook's foibles, Amazon's aggression, SoftBank's stumbles. But to me, the tech industry's very public shortfalls make celebrating its quieter successes even more important. The tech industry, after all, is not a monolith, and many engineers and entrepreneurs work on projects that help society. So here, with no further ado, are this year's winners.
To OpenAQ, for educating us about the air we breathe.
Air pollution is a vastly underestimated problem. Polluted air is linked to one in eight deaths worldwide, and studies have shown that bad air quality can cause cognitive impairment in young people and increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease in the elderly. But until recently, there was no good source of air quality data that researchers and activists could rely on.
Christa Hasenkopf, an atmospheric scientist, decided to fix that. She and a software developer started OpenAQ, an open-source platform that collects air quality data from governments and international organisations in a single place and makes it free and accessible. Want to know how the nitrogen dioxide levels in Hyderabad, India, compare with those in Kampala, Uganda? OpenAQ can tell you. Want to build an app that alerts people in your city when air quality dips below a healthy threshold? You can do that, too.
The company says it has processed 188 million air quality measurements this year, making it a powerful weapon for policymakers, environmental groups and concerned citizens trying to clean up the air.
To DynamiCare Health, Biobot Analytics and Pear Therapeutics, for using tech to address the opioid crisis.
Few public health problems in the United States have proved as intractable as the opioid epidemic. But in 2019, three Massachusetts startups used technology to chip away at it.
DynamiCare Health, based in Boston, has built a mobile app meant to help keep recovering users of opioids and other drugs on the wagon. The app — already in use in eight addiction treatment systems across the country — allows users to test their breath and saliva remotely, check into group meetings and therapy sessions, and earn money on an electronic debit card by meeting their sobriety goals.
Biobot, a company started by two graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, analyses sewage samples to determine the opioid use levels in a given neighbourhood. (Opioid use leaves telltale byproducts called metabolites, which can be chemically detected in urine.) Once this data is collected, public health officials can use it to set priorities for treatment programmes, detect spikes in use in a neighbourhood and monitor the effectiveness of prevention programmes over time.
Pear Therapeutics, another Boston outfit, makes "digital therapeutics" — essentially apps that use cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to help recovering addicts stick with their treatment programmes. Its anti-opioid programme, Reset-O, was cleared by the Food and Drug Administration late last year and can now be prescribed by doctors in conjunction with other treatments.
To Lemontree, Goodr and Propel, for helping feed the hungry.
Lemontree, a non-profit food-delivery app based in New York, was started by Alex Godin, an entrepreneur who sold a workplace collaboration startup to Meetup several years ago. The company sells Blue Apron-style meal kits to low-income families for US$3 apiece. Meal kits are packed by volunteers, and they can be bought with food stamps.
Goodr, described by its founder, Jasmine Crowe, as a "food delivery app in reverse", is a platform based in Atlanta that helps save some of the 72 billion pounds (32.6 billion kilogrammes) of food wasted in the United States every year and give it to people in need. Restaurants sign up on the site to have their excess food picked up and donated to local non-profits and homeless shelters. Goodr operates in six cities, including Chicago, Miami and Philadelphia, and says it has diverted 2.1 million pounds of food and provided 1.8 million meals since 2017.
Propel, a Brooklyn startup, is the creator of Fresh EBT, a popular app that helps low-income users manage their food stamps and other benefits. After doing battle with a larger government contractor last year, Propel recovered this year and says more than two million households use it every month.
To Pinterest, for taking a stand against social media toxicity.
When you think of Pinterest, you probably picture mood boards, DIY hacks and mommy-bloggers. But the social network spent much of 2019 doing the kinds of tough, principled work that its bigger rivals often neglected.
In August, the company announced that users searching for vaccine-related information would be shown results from authoritative sources like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rather than being led down rabbit holes filled with misinformation. The company also introduced a "compassionate search" experience, which offers mental health advice and exercises to users whose behaviour indicates they might be feeling anxious or depressed, such as people who search for things like "sad quotes" or who look up terms relating to self-harm. And in December, Pinterest joined other wedding websites in announcing that it would limit the promotion of wedding venues that were once slave plantations.
Pinterest hasn't always operated flawlessly. But while its competitors were giving grandiose speeches and supplicating at the White House, the company's content-moderation choices stood out as an example of a social network with a moral compass.
To Big Tech's climate activists, for pressuring executives to walk the walk.
In a year when climate change was the subject of mass global demonstrations, Silicon Valley's silence could have been deafening. Tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google count fossil fuel companies and anti-environmental groups among their customers — a fact that doesn't sit well with some employees. Those employees made their dissatisfaction known this year, joining climate strikes and walkouts and publicly calling on their own executives to do more to fight climate change.
In April, more than 4,200 Amazon employees sent an open letter to Jeff Bezos, the company's chief executive, urging him to end the company's contracts with oil and gas companies and commit to ambitious carbon-reduction goals. Amazon later announced a plan to become carbon neutral by 2040.
To Gypsy Guide, for enlightening my summer road trip.
If I'm being honest, the best app I used in 2019 wasn't TikTok or some new AI-powered (artificial intelligence-powered) facial recognition app. It was Gypsy Guide, a simple, understated app that gives guided audio tours of national parks and other tourist destinations. The app uses your phone's GPS to track your route through a park, and it narrates relevant facts as you drive past them. My wife and I drove through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons this summer, and Gypsy Guide (which could really use a new name) quickly became our car soundtrack.
Gypsy Guide is not the slickest app in the world, and it's not making anyone a billionaire. But it kept us entertained for hours, and it taught me things I wouldn't have known. (Did you know that a concave depression in a mountain caused by a glacier's erosion is called a "cirque"? Me neither.) It was a good reminder that not every tech startup has to address some deep, existential need to be worthwhile. There are simpler pleasures, too.