Amani has had the privilege of engaging with speakers and thought leaders from various industries to share their viewpoints on different aspects of life. Grace Kwak Danciu, was the latest esteemed guest to join us and discuss Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.
Grace has been a Product Manager at Google for the past 18 years. She currently works on a team at Google called “Jigsaw,” a unit that explores technology-related threats to open societies. Originally from California, Grace now lives with her family in Zurich. Having a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Harvard University was not enough for Grace and she is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Social Innovation at Cambridge University. In our conversation, Grace went into detail on a practical example of a project where Machine Learning was used to assist in addressing human rights issues and the positive impacts thereof.
This project was implemented in collaboration with UPR Info (an NGO focused on promoting human rights), HURIDOCS (an NGO focused on Machine Learning) & Google. The project used machine learning technology to assist in streamlining and providing relevant recommendations made by UN member states on areas where other member states can improve human rights in their countries. This was done through a database called Uwazi where information is carefully sorted. It is also presented in a manner that provides easier access to meaningful insights.
Initially, this work was done manually by a Team that would sift through each recommendation and categorize it in the database. Understandably, this was a time-intensive exercise and with a small team working on it, this resulted in a backlog of uncategorized recommendations. Through this collaboration, they were able to harness the power of machine learning through automation to categorize the recommendations by taking human rights-related text and automatically assigning relevant topics to them. This resulted in a more effective execution of unaddressed recommendations in its backlog, cutting down the amount of time it took to update the database with recommendations. It also turned a three-step verification process into a one step verification process, freeing up time exponentially for the staff of UPR as a whole.
This brings new possibilities to the use of innovation in the public sector and for civil society organizations. Working in the civil society space, specifically in the African context, work has traditionally been based on very time intensive, bureaucratic, and manual processes. This includes combing through a myriad of government documents, taking surveys and manually sorting out responses (just to mention a few examples). This is not dissimilar in some spheres of government, for those of us in South Africa we can all identify at least one government process that is time consuming, with a high degree of manual input and rather inefficient! To some, automation and machine learning is not immediately apparent when thinking of advocacy or public sector work. For most, machine learning has often been considered as a concept only applicable and relevant to technical teams in large corporates. This initiative, however, has been able to definitively demonstrate that this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, in an age where access to the right information can mean life or death, it is now more important than ever to start exploring how harnessing such technology can improve how we address issues that fundamentally help people deal with the social problems they face.
A definite learning point from this project is that technological innovation should not only be looked at as some grand concept that is concerned with big topics like self-driving cars, 3D printing food or drone parcel delivery. At its core, innovation should address a problem that not only makes life easier for the people who need it but also be able to alleviate poverty and drive the economic growth of a nation. Simple changes can make a big difference and in the African context, it is precisely these types of changes that are needed. It is also imperative that African governments grasp and direct technological innovation towards addressing the most pressing needs of African people. The celebrated tech hubs of Cape Town, Nairobi and Lagos should not be following Silicon Valley trajectories when millions of Africans live in poverty, go to bed hungry and our government departments still struggle to provide efficient civic services. There’s an opportunity to direct these tech hubs to deliver solutions for African people.
This partnership (which to some may look like an unlikely partnership) was brought about as a result of a genuine need to address a specific challenge. Meaningful collaboration and trust led to a successful project that was underpinned by a willingness to draw from each partner’s strength and work across organizational boundaries.
Conversely, it is important to consider the risks of unintended consequences. On the one hand, automation helps eliminate the human element from certain mundane repetitive manual processes thus allowing humans to focus on other tasks, perhaps more creative and crucial. Nonetheless, this is only true for individuals that have the skills to perform such tasks. In the African context, many of these manual tasks are performed by individuals that are not always qualified and adequately skilled to perform more technically demanding tasks. If a plan is not made for what will happen should these individuals be displaced, we run the risk of adding to the socio-economic hardships that are faced by many Africans. It is important not to assume that technological advancements will lead to the intended consequences. There's much to be explored about the best approach, considering different nuances.
It is also important to consider other aspects such as privacy protection, which, if left unchecked could be potentially invasive and negatively impact the lives of people all over the world. This could very well impede on the human rights that we in civil society fight so hard to uphold.
Indeed, Grace did indicate that there is no magic solution. She challenged the Amani Team and herself to continue to learn and find ways to always improve our ways of doing things. Being flexible to change your ways and learn from others was a great takeaway point from our conversation with Grace.
Finally, aside from the insightful views on AI that Grace provided, she left the Team with some food for thought and arguably one of the more inspirational points from our conversation with her. This is a point that each of us can use in our day to day lives which is to live in the moment and be true to your life stage. Life is unpredictable, and we cannot address all aspects of our daily life at once.