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Diversity in technology: a new power tool for social justice

October 7, 2019
By: 
Joy Johnson
Vice-President, Research and Innovation
Simon Fraser University

Technical innovations are often described as making technologies more powerful, faster, or as disruptive change agents in industry. Who decides where these innovations are applied and what problems or challenges they address? To date, it has been a small, privileged, mostly male, technically trained segment of society. This lack of diversity may stifle innovative and creative thinking on the potential application of new technical innovations.

Educational programs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) include little exposure to social justice issues or curriculum focused on addressing global challenges, such as food security or the forced displacement and migration of persons. Frequently, funding for research is fuelled by industry needs and projects are designed specifically for commercial value.

We talk about diversity in STEM in terms of the number of people we need to build the talent pool and grow the sector. This lack of diversity has other consequences.

This homogenous group will influence the breadth of research topics we tackle. Research on diversity in STEM student populations, led by American professor Terrell Strayhorn, CEO of Do Good Work Educational Consulting, demonstrates that women and students from visible minorities want to give back to their communities. Educational curricula needs to be presented as tools to affect change and solve real-world problems. Without this element, these students tend to “check out” of the sector.

So when and where do we kick the tires on what the potential of big data, artificial intelligence and advanced computing can do to address social justice challenges and improve our communities?

We should start with education and training. At Simon Fraser University (SFU), we are looking at ways to promote diversity in this sector. SFU’s Big Data Initiative is a central resource for all faculties and disciplines. Across a number of disciplines with our undergraduate and graduate students, we are building a portfolio of projects that focus on the application of technology and how it can address pressing social challenges.

The Institute for Canadian Urban Research Studies (ICURS) focuses on crime reduction policy, crime analysis and computational criminology. The institute’s goal is to work thematically across the disciplines of criminology, computing science, geography, economics and applied mathematics to advance our understanding of our complex urban environment. These models will help us improve approaches to crime reduction and build safer and friendlier communities.

The Digital Democracies Group, led by Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media and SFU professor Wendy Hui Kyong Chun integrates humanities and data science to combat online echo chambers and discriminatory algorithms to better enhance civil society. Likewise, Canada 150 Research Chair for Infection Evolution and Public Health and SFU professor Caroline Colijn is exploring data science, mathematical modelling and public health to understand and improve how infectious bacteria and viruses are controlled.

More importantly, our graduates working on projects like these are inspired to think more broadly about the power and promise of technical innovation. This attracts a more diverse student population.

To broaden diversity in technology, SFU is actively reaching out to government departments, non-profits, advocacy groups and public health experts and inviting them to engage with our experts and explore the potential of big data and machine learning. This fall, together with the Honourable Kim Pate, Senator from Ontario, we hosted a Data for Good roundtable with SFU researchers on strategies that apply big data solutions to social justice challenges in Canada.

Technical innovations have untapped potential to build a safer and more just society. However, we need to make external partnerships and platforms for interdisciplinary engagement a core metric for higher education. We need to ensure that how we educate, how we assign projects and how we seek partnerships works to broaden our application of technology.

As Canada’s engaged university, we believe that building bridges between unlikely partners and unexpected technologies is central to promoting this interdisciplinary culture. What is the measurement of success? It is the outcome of how our innovations improve society.