BEST OF THE WEB: An open letter from Bill Gates

At this point, Microsoft founder and international philanthropist Bill Gates is a man who needs no introduction.

In the most recent issue of Wired, Gates explains the philosophy behind his philanthropic works. At its core, Gates reveals, is a strong belief in the power of innovation:

A full 40% of Earth’s population is alive today because, in 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Haber figured out how to make synthetic ammonia. Another example: Polio cases are down more than 99% in the past 25 years, not because the disease is going away on its own but because Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk invented polio vaccines and the world rolled out a massive effort to deliver them.

Despite his decision to step back from the day-to-day running of Microsoft, Gates reveals he is still a firm believer in the principles of a market economy. The challenge, Gates says, is directing that capacity towards the world’s poorest people:

I am a devout fan of capitalism. It is the best system ever devised for making self-interest serve the wider interest. This system is responsible for many of the great advances that have improved the lives of billions—from airplanes to air-conditioning to computers.

But capitalism alone can’t address the needs of the very poor. This means market-driven innovation can actually widen the gap between rich and poor.

For Gates, the secret to good philanthropy is to take a private market mindset when choosing projects, including looking for leverage points to maximise returns:

I have been sharing my idea of catalytic philanthropy for a while now. It works a lot like the private markets: You invest for big returns. But there’s a big difference. In philanthropy, the investor doesn’t need to get any of the benefit. We take a double-pronged approach: (1) Narrow the gap so that advances for the rich world reach the poor world faster, and (2) turn more of the world’s IQ toward devising solutions to problems that only people in the poor world face.

If you want to have a big impact, you need a leverage point—a way to put in a dollar of funding or an hour of effort and benefit society by a hundred or a thousand times as much.

For anyone interested in bigger picture issues as well as technology, Gates’ essay is certainly insightful reading.

Why you should ignore user feedback

At first glance, it might sound counter-intuitive to suggest that software developers and businesses can improve their products while ignoring user comments.

Yet, as Ron Miller from CiteWorld says, it was central to Steve Jobs’ philosophy on product design:

Steve Jobs once famously said he didn’t run focus groups because in his view, customers couldn’t know what they wanted until he showed it to them. In some sense, the same can be said for interviewing users about what they want in an app or a program.

A far more useful strategy is to watch users go about their job:

Instead of asking your users, watch them as they do their jobs and you are going to learn so much more. See what they do in the course of their day and what it takes to do their job. What are they doing now manually or with clunky business software that you could simplify and make easier?

Observing users in the field can reveal unforeseen real-world situations:

[A developer said] he [observed his users] with one app designed for salespeople that relied on having a solid connection to enter and retrieve information. The trouble was, as Sanofi is a drug company, salespeople were often on-site at a hospital where they prohibited cell phone use. Learning that was a huge eye-opener for Katz and his team and it allowed them to iterate in the next design to build the app so it was better suited to the way the users actually worked.

The next time your business develops an app or overhauls its website, it might be worthwhile observing some real-life users in action before you decide on changes.

How Silicon Valley paved the way for the NSA

Recently, Silicon Valley has been gripped by the NSA scandal, in which a US government intelligence agency reportedly gathered large amounts of private information from a range of popular websites. 

However, as Abraham Newman points out in Foreign Affairs, the tech giants have to share part of the blame for their predicament.

Back in the 1990s, major tech companies thwarted efforts for any internet regulation, including on the grounds of privacy:

Since the 1990s, companies from Google to Yahoo and Microsoft have done their best to ward off national privacy rules, calling instead for self-regulation. Early attempts to pass privacy laws, such as the Online Privacy Protection Act in 2000, died thanks to lobbying by the Direct Marketing Association and the Information Technology Association of America, which represent most of the country’s major information and communications technology firms.

Self-regulation allowed tech companies to gain a competitive advantage when it comes to data collection:

Until this year, the self-regulation strategy paid off: With their nearly unrestricted access to U.S. consumer data, IT companies were able to mine information in ways that many of their European competitors could never imagine. For example, Acxiom, one of the major direct marketing companies in online advertising, developed software called “Audience Operating System,” which allows companies such as Facebook to link consumers’ online and offline data – from credit card purchases to web interests — even when those consumers use different names for each activity.

Years of legislative success, however, soon came back to haunt Silicon Valley, when the covers were blown on the NSA’s PRISM program:

What has become all too clear, though, is that what was good for Google was also good for the NSA, which could use the lax rules and resulting hoards of data to its own advantage. The public is aware of that now, and it will be less trusting of IT giants in the future, especially as the companies develop technologies that increase the amount and types of personal information that they can collect.

Looking forward, there’s an important lesson for the tech giants when it comes to data collection – and it applies to your business too:

Firms, then, need to find ways to limit unnecessary data collection and integrate privacy and consumer stakeholders into their business models. Privacy by Design, an initiative that helps raise privacy concerns at each stage of a technology’s lifecycle, offers one concrete example of how firms might do this. Rather than thinking of themselves as data vacuums (as the NSA does), IT companies should build a system of data stewardship. Doing so will make good business sense: The trustworthy companies will sell more products.

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