Nonprofits Must Fight Stereotypes When Using New Technologies to Save Lives

Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in November 2013, killing more than 6,000 people. The typhoon, which was the deadliest in the country’s history, left the area littered with rubble and in complete darkness.

The response to the disaster made history, too: It marked the first time that unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, were used to save lives and provide relief in the aftermath of a storm.

UAVs were sent into the disaster zone to provide 3D mapping of the devastated landscape and to locate survivors. The UAVs were even loaded with supplies such as water, medicine, and radios. All of this happened before boots ever hit the ground.

However, using sophisticated technology such as UAVs in the developing world is controversial. Because of this, nonprofits must educate governments, donors, and citizens about the life-saving benefits these technologies provide.

Overcoming the False Perceptions

At my organization, team members know they have an obligation to help craft policy pertaining to new technology when we introduce it. As a group, we also have to work against negative perceptions. Here are some ways to combat stereotypes about technologies such as UAVs:

1. Show the benefits. UAVs are controversial because they’re often associated with military operations and espionage. Local governments sometimes fear that UAVs will be used to document human rights abuses. That would be a good thing for local residents, but it would potentially be damaging to political or military factions. There are also concerns that the data collected by UAVs could end up in the hands of terrorist groups.

You can overcome these beliefs by showing the enormous benefits of using UAVs to assist in mapping disaster zones for better coordination of immediate relief efforts. The UAVs used after Typhoon Haiyan saved lives by reaching areas that were inaccessible to humans. Once you get people to see this technology working in a new and helpful way, you can start to push back against negative perceptions.

2. Educate the community. If you want new technology to gain acceptance, you need to educate the national or local community you want to help. People might be afraid of UAVs or thermal imaging cameras because they don’t know about them. For instance, some people think thermal imaging cameras can see into their homes. This is not true. They just detect heat that radiates from objects, and that makes them a powerful tool to help find survivors after a disaster.

You must show the people you’re trying to help how these technologies work, so they can see the benefits. Once you’ve transferred this knowledge, the technology is more likely to gain acceptance.

3. Communicate with your donors. Clearly communicate with your donors to ensure they are fully educated on the benefits of controversial technology. They, too, might only think of things such as UAVs in a military context. Provide positive examples of technology use, and keep them informed as you evaluate new tools.

In addition to leveraging UAVs after the fact, my company is working on utilizing UAVs for preventative measures, such as assessing infrastructure to pinpoint weak spots before a disaster strikes. We are also thinking of new ways to establish post-disaster communication channels.

Many people assume the technology needed to accomplish these things is too expensive, so let your donors know how their support can help.

4. Engage entrepreneurs. Young entrepreneurs who have an innate ability to understand our interconnected world are often the first to develop new technologies. Because corporate social responsibility is increasingly important to each new generation, you need to engage entrepreneurs in your endeavors.

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s Report on Social Entrepreneurship, people ages 25 to 34 are one of the groups most likely to be involved in social entrepreneurship. Try to engage young innovators in your network, and encourage them to think about the nonprofit space when they envision their careers.

A new technology might only be available to nonprofits years after its introduction, but forming relationships with startups can help get you in on the ground floor and even play an active role in shaping the way people view emerging technology.

5. Preserve your integrity. The decision to implement controversial technology in your organization is significant. Your reputation is the lifeblood of your organization, so be sure to engage your entire organization in gathering the information and advice you need to make an informed decision.

It’s also important to address each element of the situation, including profitability, resources, sustainability, and scalability as well as how your use of the technology might affect domestic and international policy.

By fostering acceptance, understanding, and trust around technology, you can help it become part of the solution. And as long as you’ve done your due diligence, you can go forward into the future with confidence.

Mina Chang