Every year, hundreds of globally-minded humanitarians apply for the Tech Awards, one of the most inspiring events unfolding in Silicon Valley. The annual gala hoedown spectacular, this Thursday, will leave attendees inspired beyond words. Why?
It’s dignifying and, dare I say, hopeful, to be in the same room with so many people using technology for the greater good, people that understand the global picture, people at least trying to do their part to fight poverty, improve the environment and empower the underprivileged.
The 2015 edition honors 10 international laureates with unrestricted $50,000 prizes for their work in five different categories: the Intel Environment Award, the Microsoft Education Award, the Katherine M. Swanson Young Innovator Award, the Sobrato Organization Economic Development Award and the Sutter Health Award. The Tech Laureates and the upper tech echelon who attend the event and help fund the whole thing don’t seem like obnoxious branding consultants, content marketing gurus or “change evangelists.” Instead, they come across as people doing something useful with their expertise. And not everyone shows up in a tux, either.
“Clearly these people are brilliant, and they could be making a gazillion dollars, but they chose a different path,” says Tech Awards director Leslie Zane.
For example, slum fires are a frequent and devastating occurrence in urban shantytowns around the world, causing thousands of deaths, disrupting hundreds of thousands of lives, and millions of dollars in economic losses each year. As a result, a South African social enterprise called Lumkani designed a cheap networked fire detector using radio frequency technology. Right now, Lumkani has over 1,000 devices across communities in South Africa.
In another case, the BeeLine Reader does something incredibly simple. The company realized that displaying text using color gradients instead of plain black text helps people afflicted with reading disabilities or even people who spend too much time reading online. Based in Redwood City, BeeLine is now used on campuses worldwide.
Other laureates include those who developed a global addressing system for impoverished areas without postal address systems or a machine allowing locals in impoverished areas to produce high-quality reading glasses using only $1 of raw materials. Also, the first-ever Chinese Tech Awards Laureate developed a free smart-phone app for law enforcement officers trying to stop poachers illegally smuggling wildlife into China.
When it came to judging the Tech Awards, one of the differences in criteria this time around was that the technology itself received more points than the actual numbers of people affected by it. Meaning, a Fortune 500 company couldn’t apply and claim that because their new invention reached 400 million people it was therefore more important. As a result, Zane says the application process elicited a more under-the-radar selection of humanitarian heroes.
“We had people addressing problems that we weren’t aware of, just because of where and how we live,” Zane said. “Problems that made us think, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know that was a problem.’ Things like shack fires. It was one of those things that just never occurred to me, and to most people here—that this was an issue that needed to be addressed. It’s humbling in so many different ways.”
And it’s not like 10 obscure technologists come out of the woodwork in search of the award money. The process of whittling everything down to five categories of finalists and then, ultimately, the 10 laureates, entails a rigorous amount of work. Over 1,000 people were invited, maybe half of whom applied, and all of whom were people using technology to benefit others and not themselves. And that’s why the Tech Awards is a breath of fresh air in a valley scene often characterized by grandstanding and hype, or the use of technology solely for technology’s sake. Instead, the Tech Awards reveals the sheer scope of humanitarian work going on in the world. It’s staggering.
“Every year we get hundreds and hundreds of applications from people addressing these global issues,” Zane said. “It gives you the other side of the headlines.”