Five tech solutions to global problems

Technology is helping to address deep social issues worldwide, benefiting some of the most vulnerable in society 

01 Child abuse

Technological advances have made the spread of information far easier than ever before, but they have also enabled child sexual abuse material to be widely shared online. The US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has seen a major increase how many child sexual abuse files they review, with the number reaching 25 million in 2015, compared with 450,000 in 2004.

Founded by actors Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher in 2009, Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children is a non-governmental organisation committed to ending child sex exploitation and trafficking through innovative technological tools. By creating solutions based on deep-learning and artificial intelligence that are able to identify the most vulnerable victims of child abuse, law enforcement can focus on the most urgent cases.

Thorn’s efforts to speed up victim identification, unsettle the platforms spreading illegal content, and hamper child abusers is making a significant impact. In 2017, the organisation was instrumental in helping police identify 5,791 sex trafficking victims, with their web-based tool, Spotlight, used by more than 5,000 US law enforcement officers.

02 World hunger

More than 800 million people, or 11 per cent of the world’s population, are suffering from chronic hunger. After a decade-long fall in global hunger levels, the United Nations announced last year that the number of people going to bed hungry is steadily rising. Despite enough food being produced every year to feed all people on the planet and more, a small but substantial amount of this is wasted, even in developing countries.

From using agricultural devices connected to the internet of things (IoT) to gain insight into crop health in a bid to improve yield quality, to reducing the quantity of lost and damaged foodstuffs by implementing IoT monitoring devices in the entire distribution ecosystem, IoT solutions can offer data-driven insights and play a role in eliminating world hunger.

According to business information provider IHS Markit, the total number of IoT devices is forecast to reach 125 billion in 2030, up from 27 billion in 2017, creating an IoT network with unprecedented coverage levels. Sharing real-time data about urgent food requirements and wastage will make the distribution of limited food supplies as effective as possible.

03 Modern slavery

Modern slavery and forced labour are profound problems found to exist in more than 165 countries across both the developing and developed world. The Modern Slavery Act was introduced by the UK government in 2015 to combat this global injustice, but charity Focus on Labour Exploitation has called on companies to do far more on this issue.

Due to poor procurement practices and unaccountable supply partners, some companies have unknowingly participated in unethical supply chains and, in the process, are exacerbating issues surrounding modern slavery. Smart procurement technology greatly improves the ability of major companies to achieve a comprehensive view of often complex supply chains and root out irresponsible suppliers.

“By efficiently capturing information from suppliers and complementing it with third-party data, such as sustainability ratings from EcoVadis, organisations can better evaluate suppliers and ensure their supply chains don’t support practices such as slavery and child labour,” says Alex Saric at procurement management software company Ivalua.

Moving away from simplistic supply chain checks will damage the widespread modern slavery industry, which generates $150 billion each year, according to the International Labour Organization.

04 Digital divide

The digital revolution has connected billions of people to the internet and paved the way for transformative technologies that have improved countless lives. Yet many individuals living in developing countries have been left behind as high-speed broadband access remains practically out of reach to entire nations and regions. This digital divide is holding back the economic growth of poorer countries as they are unable to take advantage of the opportunities found in the global digital ecosystem.

Communications firm Viasat is helping reduce digital inequality by providing access to broadband, through their satellite-enabled Community Wi-Fi service, to isolated regions across the world. Wifi hotspots in rural areas of the United States and parts of Mexico are being served by Viasat’s existing satellite network, with millions more people without internet access being able to make use of these services in 2020 when the newest ViaSat-3 satellite comes online.

“Specifically in Mexico, we are using our existing satellite network to deliver an internet service that can be deployed with minimal local infrastructure investment and low ongoing costs, making it simple for these communities to fund through the increased economic opportunities the connection offers,” explains Kevin Cohen, Viasat’s general manager of Community Wi-Fi for the Americas.

05 Animal testing

Big data technologies are fundamentally changing how companies in all industries operate due to their ability to provide actionable business insights and better understand customer behaviour. By applying these same data interrogation techniques to publicly available records, both governments and private enterprises can gain a clearer understanding of how to deal with pressing social issues.

Animal testing is still widely used in drug trials with governments, animal welfare charities and other non-governmental organisations maintaining pressure on major pharmaceutical companies to reduce the number of tests carried out. To understand the extent to which animal tests are predictive of human response, pharmaceutical firm Bayer and information company Elsevier analysed more than 1.6 million public records.

“Our findings, which also have considerable implications for improving patient safety, can help pharmaceutical firms decide which tests are appropriate and which might be ruled out to reduce unnecessary testing on animals. This will hopefully encourage other researchers to examine public data to see what other socio-economic issues can be addressed through proper data analysis,” says Dr Matt Clark, director of scientific services at Elsevier.