It’s been able to do this, at least in part, because the city follows an organizational approach similar to one that Jen Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and author of the fabulous book Recoding America, told me about: government technologies are run by in-house product managers who are able to make policy decisions.
“Some of the most successful legislations are the ones that empower the programs and services where you really have the biggest ability to have tighter feedback loops with the constituents,” said Garces.
Garces told me that the city recently hired the first chief product officer in the country and is building a team of product managers and UX designers to work hand in hand with policymakers. The bottom line is that when people who actually implement policy are able to shape technology, we can get much better results.
Harlan Weber, a former user experience designer fellow for Massachusetts’s IT department, told me about working on the Common Housing Application for Massachusetts Program (CHAMP) several years ago. He noted that they “went out and did research with tons of people in housing authorities and with government workers who’d have to use the thing.” They then used that feedback, he said, to shape the portal that finally let residents apply for housing benefits in a single streamlined online system.
Boston has “a lot of inbuilt advantages,” said Weber, also the founder of Code for Boston. “And we’ve worked hard to press those advantages.”
Massachusetts, he points out, is a highly educated, well-resourced state “that mostly believes that government can be part of the solution and not just part of the problem.” It also helps that Boston is home to a lot of tech companies and tech researchers working in close proximity to the center of government. This has allowed the city to build up an internal talent pool.
Finally, Boston also has an established culture of prioritizing digital services. The mayor’s office created one of the first government innovation labs in the US, and the city was one of the first to have a chief digital officer and fellows from Code for America.
All this said, digital services in Massachusetts are far from perfect (and in fact a recent investigation reveals significant problems with CHAMP and affordable housing). As I found in my reporting, there are simply no silver bullets that can fix the government’s broken relationship with technology. It’s just an incredibly thorny problem (which is why this story is part of our new print issue devoted to hard problems!). But it’s critical that governments urgently work to improve digital services—our democracy depends on it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about something Pahlka said to me about core government services: “If the American public doesn’t see government deliver, I think it’s less that they get driven toward one party or another, and more that they get driven away from government altogether.”
What else I’m reading
- This story from the New Yorker about the inaccuracy of social media posts about the violence between Israel and Hamas is a thought-provoking reflection on the future of our information system, especially during times of crisis.
- Clearview AI, the face recognition system that scrapes the internet for photos, does not have to pay a $9 million fine to the UK’s Data Protection Agency. The company escaped the massive fee on the grounds that the agency doesn’t have jurisdiction over how foreign law enforcement use British citizens’ data. Clearview is facing several of these fines, which pose an “existential threat” to the company, according to this report from the New York Times’ Kashmir Hill. But this is a sign that perhaps the company will prevail.
- A 21-year-old computer science student at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, used AI to identify a word in a charred, 2,000-year-old, tightly wrapped scroll from Pompeii, damaged in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The scroll had been incomprehensible, but using a 3D x-ray scanner, the student was able to identify ink patterns and train AI to make out letters that spelled the word for “purple.”
What I learned this week
Google released a policy proposal focused on online safety for kids and teens. It offers several suggestions for legislation, including a risk-based approach for systems to estimate a user’s age and better tools for users to control recommendation algorithms. Perhaps most notable, it recommends a ban on personalized advertising that targets those under 18. Child online safety has been a hot topic in tech policy lately, as I’ve written about, and it’s interesting to get a perspective from Big Tech.
The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush
The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania.
Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.
Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.
A changing way of life
The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.
Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.
One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.
Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.
The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.
The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan
Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.
Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost.
But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.
Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation
—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures
The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.
Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI
A strategic imperative
Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.
According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.
Mapping out a generative AI pathway
One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.
The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.
Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.
All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.
The benefits of third-party experience
Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).
Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”