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SXSW Festival 2017: Tech That Includes, Innovates and Uplifts

Tiffani Ashley Bell lives in Oakland, CA, but tapped her programming skills to create The Human Utility, which uses grant money and crowd funding to pay the water bills of people facing hard times in Baltimore and Detroit.

Bell will speak on a panel called Tech Activism: More Than a Hashtag at the popular South By Southwest Conference and Festivals (SXSW), which runs from March 10-19 in Austin, TX.

Her idea came from reading an article in The Atlantic, which asked "What Happens When Detroit Shuts Off the Water of 100,000 People?" The story explored how the city had declared bankruptcy and, in turn, cracked down on citizens whose water accounts were in arrears. She wanted to help.

Tiffani Bell
Tiffani Bell

“I started tweeting, asking if anybody knew of anybody who was not able to pay their water bill,” she recalled. On the the water department’s website, she found 400 pages with account information—but no names—on customers who were behind and by how much. Then she used her programming skills to match people who wanted to contribute with people truly in need.

In its first 30 days alone, The Human Utility paid $100,000 in water bills.

While technology addresses a range of needs in the black community, using tech to uplift the community is a common thread through several SXSW panels.

Related: SXSW: Is Diversity in Tech Leaving American Minorities Behind?

“People like Tiffani, who use software to help people, that’s where we want to go with this,” said Rodney Sampson, who puts together panels for SXSW. “There are some problems in our community, and only we can hack them; the people in Silicon Valley are not coming up with programming to solve our problems,” he said.

Owner of a company called Opportunity Ecosystem, Sampson first came to SXSW four years ago when he worked with Mark Burnett Productions, and sought to increase diversity on Shark Tank’s production team, as well as among entrepreneurs pitching, and the sharks themselves. Sampson and his partners are exposing some Historically Black College and University (HBCU) students to the SXSW world, arranging sponsorship for 100 students from 41 HBCUs, who will spend a weekend experiencing the fest, and rub elbows with tech recruiters, who could become future employers.

Austin Miller
Austin Miller

Five years ago, Austin Merrill created a unique job for himself. He co-founded of Everyday Africa, a collective of 30, mostly African photographers, seeking to rise above stereotypes of the continent. “It’s not just poverty, conflict, and disease,” said Miller, who’s also on the Tech Activism panel. “Life is pretty normal for most people, and we wanted to use Instagram and social media to show it.”

Both Miller and co-founder, Peter DiCampo, were Peace Corps volunteers in Africa, and then stayed on as foreign correspondents — Miller for the Associated Press in the Ivory Coast, and DiCampo as a freelance photo journalist in Ghana.

Related: These Entrepreneurs Brought 100 Black College Students to SXSW

While doing typical crisis coverage in the Ivory Coast, the two decided “a form of activism” would be to take pictures of everyday life — “someone going to the shopping mall; someone having dinner at a restaurant.”

Everyday Africa has more than 300,000 Instagram followers, has exhibited internationally; and has inspired more Everyday projects such as Everyday Migration and Everyday American Muslim. Their book, Everyday Africa, comes out this spring.

Bamako
A woman riding over the Niger River in Bamako, Mali, as posted by Everyday Africa on Instagram. Jane Hahn / Jane Hahn

“The collective audience of The Everyday Projects,” said Miller, “is well over 1 million.”

Julius Pryor III had done the numbers: He knew that black men had a 60 percent higher incidence of prostate cancer, and died from it more often. But when he urged the joint-venture company he worked with to market a treatment for the disease to black urologists, he encountered push back from some colleagues who quickly wrote off black patients.

“They don’t comply with doctors orders, and they don’t pay bills on time,” they told Pryor, who will speak on SXSW panel Diversity in Tech: Readiness to Recruitment. Nevertheless, he persisted.

“You have to have someone in the company who understands the unique diversity dimensions to help drive a business outcome,” said Pryor, who’s the author of Thriving in a Disruptive World.

He used search engines to identify African-American urologists. Though only four percent of the nationwide total, they saw 26 to 28 percent of patients. By reaching them, Pryor said the company achieved 100-percent penetration nationally, and enjoyed a 25-percent increase in market share of the product.

“I knew it was a success,” Pryor said, “when everybody in the company took credit for it.”