New Stanford lab will create technologies that help alleviate poverty in America

The invention of the internet and other technologies is arguably a double-edged sword. Although new technologies have solved many problems, they also have the potential to eliminate jobs and increase inequality in the United States.

The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality intends to reverse some of the negative effects of technology through a new initiative, the Stanford Poverty and Technology Lab. The lab will bring together Stanford students and faculty, Silicon Valley leaders, and experts in the government and nonprofit sectors to incubate technology-based solutions to poverty and inequality.

The center’s new initiative was announced during a Summit on Technology and Opportunity, which was hosted last week by the center, the White House, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

“Poverty and economic immobility is clearly a huge problem in the U.S.,” said Elisabeth Mason, a co-creator of the initiative at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. “It’s time that we get serious about designing 21st-century solutions. We can take the best lessons from the dot-com world and apply them to the dot-gov and dot-org worlds.”

A new partnership

The Stanford Poverty and Technology Lab will focus on harnessing the data and technology revolutions to create lasting, low-cost, technology-based solutions to poverty in the United States. It aims to combine Stanford’s expertise in poverty with Silicon Valley’s culture of innovation to provide low-income people with new ways to learn about and access opportunities for education, training and work.

For example, those partnerships could result in online interventions that allow first-generation college students to learn about and secure mentoring or financial aid, thus increasing college completion rates. Another example would be creating a website to search, rate and compare critical services that low-income residents need, such as child care, a short-term job or a micro loan.

“We are the richest and most advanced nation in history,” said Jim Shelton, who is leading the education efforts at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “We ought to be doing all we can to ensure that every American shares in the nation’s progress and to use innovation and evidence to overcome the paralysis and missteps of ideology and deal at scale with problems that have dogged us for decades.”

The lab is a unique collaboration bringing together Stanford students and faculty, the government and nonprofit sector, and Silicon Valley-based technology companies.

“With the advent of the big data and technology revolutions, we are now in an unprecedented position to transform how we bring both private and public resources to bear on the persistent problems of poverty and inequality,” said David Wilkinson, director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. “I’m happy that, working side-by-side with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Stanford Poverty & Technology Lab, we have been able to bring together leaders in various fields to discuss how best we achieve this and move the field forward.”

The class sequence

The creation of the lab will be tied to a new sequence of classes for Stanford students. The first class, called Ending Poverty with Technology, is set to start in the winter quarter and will lay out what experts know about poverty in the U.S., how it has been addressed to date, and how potentially to build on the existing array of technology-based approaches. The ambitious objective is to develop a new 21st-century approach to poverty that exploits big data and new technologies.

In the spring quarter, a follow-up class will identify the most promising opportunities and work with the lab’s partners, which will include companies and agencies from the government and the private sector, to begin the process of building new products and solutions. An internship program in the summer, via the Haas Center for Public Service, will continue this process of developing solutions.

“We want to be part of the solution by helping Silicon Valley develop technology-based solutions to problems that are, in part, technology-driven,” said sociology Professor David Grusky, who directs the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, the home of the new lab.

In the fall of 2017, Grusky said the lab hopes to partner with another Stanford class, called Using Tech for Good, with the objective of building some of the concepts into full-fledged products. The new products will be subjected to continuous testing and retesting and set against the highest standards of evidence.

“At the end of the day, the product has to do the job, and if we’ve failed we’re going right back to the lab and figure out what went wrong,” Grusky said.

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