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A talk on philanthropy innovation and security and privacy

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By Phil Keys

Of all the enjoyable things about working at Intertrust, one of the most beloved is our distinguished speaker series which brings speakers from both outside of the company and within Intertrust to provide interesting insights. Our most recent outside speaker was Ron Brachman, a leading researcher in artificial intelligence and computer science who was most recently chief scientist of Yahoo!, and previously had stints at DARPA and AT&T Labs. Brachman dropped by to present his recent work on an innovative technology platform for philanthropy in sub-Saharan Africa. His lecture also posed an interesting challenge to those of us working in the security and privacy technology fields to help out with this important work.

Brachman is working with Segovia, a small startup creating a software platform to help NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and other philanthropic organizations quickly organize effective bulk payment programs. Segovia’s work is guided by both direct experience and research experience that posits that the direct distribution of cash to underserved communities is the most effective way to help with economic development. “Research shows that giving cash has lead to major decreases in youth unemployment in Uganda and reduction in low birth weights in Uruguay, all with almost no abuse of funds,” said Brachman. In fact, cash payments have had such promising results that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for it to be “the preferred and default method of support.”

A Software Platform Anyone Can Use

Segovia is a spin-out from GiveDirectly, a team of philanthropists currently undertaking the disbursement of cash payments to low-income families in Kenya and Uganda. Noted Brachman, “They saw that if you go through major charities, maybe 50 cents on the dollar get to the recipient… By giving directly to people, their track record averages 91 cents to the dollar.”

Brachman said that the pervasive use of cellphones and the proliferation of locations that accept debit cards represent a great opportunity to make effective cash payments to the many people who still don’t have access to banking services. Yet, there are a number of challenges to implementing these programs. One is supporting staff in the field who oversees these programs. Brachman pointed out that “you need to send people you trust into the field to capture info, typically from mobile phones.” According to Brachman, not only do you need to get apps out to the agents in the field, you have to make sure the apps can work when there is no connectivity available, make sure the agents are trustworthy, double check the spelling of recipient names, confirm the right households are the ones receiving cash, ensure that the programs are auditable, deal with multiple payment systems and government agencies, and so on.

Dealing with all of these challenges led the GiveDirectly team to setup Segovia as a separate company whose objective would be to develop a software platform to handle these sorts of programs. The Segovia platform, however, is designed not just for GiveDirectly’s use, but to also support other organizations that may have different needs. “One aspiration is when a government puts out a call for emergency relief because of a tsunami or other natural disaster, providers can do a few interface plugins and be up and running quickly,” said Brachman.

A Call for Best Practices

As part of Brachman’s work, he said he is looking for “computer science driven best practices” around data security and privacy. One of the challenges, he noted, is that the economic development community for whom the software is meant usually has expertise in fields other than information technology. User experience is one of his major concerns. “Bad user experience can open up Pandora’s Box. If someone needs to get something done and the user interface doesn’t allow it, they’ll find a way to hack it or get around it.”

Privacy is one area which Brachman noted can be rather complex. While teams may be operating in Africa and other locations, data may be stored in the European Union or other locations, meaning the teams have to follow multiple jurisdictions’ laws. Disaster recovery is another concern. Development teams may be working in areas that are vulnerable to natural or political disasters. “Where do you store data and how do you reconstruct it fast so that you can get up and running?”

While the challenges are numerous, the importance of Brachman’s work is indisputable. It’s certainly a challenge many in the technology community should be happy to embrace.

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