Harper Reed on community and systems to combat a global crisis

What does a technologist with a history of public service do in the face of a global crisis? Gather a community, and figure out how you can help — at least, that was the approach taken by Harper Reed. Here's a summary of his interview on What's NEXT?

Harper Reed is a technologist that predicts the future for a living. He spends most of his life building big things, hacking things, and talking about doing both of those things. As CTO of the Obama 2012 campaign, Harper was the first to bring the tech mentality to a political level. He believes the talent of a great bunch of humans can transform an organization like nothing else and uses that belief to strengthen, deploy, and inspire every team he works with.

In our third episode of What’s NEXT?, he explored how to channel your anxiety in the face of a pandemic into public good – and the role of technology in that. Here’s a summary of the key points of his talk:

How does a technologist with a history of public service work handle a global pandemic? For Harper Reed, the answer is to keep busy, build community and find ways to help. And he does that by looking for the signal – the system – in the noise.

On his website is the following statement:

There’s a beautiful and organized system hidden underneath what seems messy

It’s not as much a motto, as an acknowledgement that he flourishes in confusing, complex and messed up situations, where he and the very smart people he works with are able to extract a system, and do something interesting with it. Sometimes it’s looking at the noise and trying to see the thing underneath that gets you what you need, he explains. And there’s a lot of noise in the world – which means there’s a lot of opportunity, too.

The Pandemic Basement Community

How has Reed been coming with the pandemic? He’s been sitting in his basement, staying at home. It’s a very small world he lives in now, and he’s used to a much bigger, global one. So, he started trying to figure out how to create bigger places for himself, digitally, through community organising.

He and a group of friends started a WhatsApp group back in mid-January as the Wuhan situation became clear. It was obvious that there were a lot of interesting things happening, and a lot of social technology being used, along with mobile phones and drones. It was very different to the way they remembered SARS being handled.

As the crisis deepened, they started expanding that group, and soon they had 100 genomics folks, epidemiologists, and so on, watching all this together, as a community.

And then one event pushed it further. One friend in his extended network got locked down in China. “How do you lock down a city?” he found himself wondering. This was clearly a serious global crisis in the making. He had a community of experts, and communication tools. What could he do with that?

Build the community, build the answers

Sometimes, the skill is just in using your network to build a community, said Reed. They ended up building a series of communities; one for scientific information, one for clinical information, another for data science, and so on.

From all these groups spun out some interesting projects. They built “a food & beverage guide to Covid-19” to help everyone eat safely, and to protect workers in food service businesses.

This frenetic, solution-creating activity was an emotional reaction from Reed. He was stressed. He was scared. The economy was collapsing, taking with it a business he was launching. There was a lot of uncertainty – so he decided to be busy, to find the order in the chaos.

He noted that the epidemiologists he knew were saying that it was really bad, but that the military were also saying that – but then immediately discussing what they should do next. How do you follow their lead and iterate over to action?

That’s been the driving principle behind what he’s doing.

Exposure APIs and Data Privacy

The biggest technological response to the virus is the exposure notification API Apple and Google are jointly deploying. Should we be concerned about it? Yes, it is a problem, said Reed. Yes, we will give all our data to someone. And yes, it will help.

The question is how bad will it get from the virus standpoint? We can build a plan, with all the privacy safeguards built in – but the virus also gets a vote on the plan. A privacy-centric solution seems like the best one – but if that doesn’t get us out of the pandemic, we should have an open mind about what will.

The Apple/Google solution will be great – if it works. But we don’t know if it will yet. “It’s super-speculative,” Said Reed. “What if it doesn’t work? What then?”

Getting the right voices in the room

Technologists need to keep learning one lesson over and over again: sometimes they are not the experts. We have to listen to the actual experts. If we mess this up, we could create software that kills people. It’s not about who builds it – it’s about who is in the room when it’s decided what it will be.

When Apple and Google released their API back in April, they called it the contact tracing API. But it doesn’t do contact tracing – which is a very specific term in epidemiology – it does exposure notification instead. This misuse of terms caused confusion. The tech companies didn’t know the vocabulary of the space.

Unilateral (Tech) Power

Harper Reed suggested that we should start adding Apple, Google and Facebook into our lists of countries. “They have huge geopolitical power. If there was a nefarious CEO at one of the tech giants, who wanted to kill everyone, they probably could do so. That level of power means we need to start treating them the same way we would a very large country with the same income,” Harper Reed said.

They can make decisions that unilaterally affect most of the people in the world. And that includes this API. This is complicated, because you have an unelected company telling elected governments “no”. If they can unilaterally decide to protect your privacy today, what can they unilaterally decide tomorrow?

We don’t have a lot of power – even stopping buying their products would take a while to have an impact, he suggested. We have tried to move towards a system of government with checks and balances – and there’s none of that for the tech companies.

They are going to have to get more public and transparent on this. But then again, maybe if governments had moved faster, we wouldn’t need the tech companies to save us, Reed concluded.

This is a summary of an interview with Harper Reed, conducted by David Mattin and Monique van Dusseldorp during the NEXT Show on May 20th 2020. You can catch up with Reed’s work on Twitter or on his site.