SXSW 2017: Banding together to tackle greater challenges

Whether it’s technology companies boosting disaster communications systems or remote translators ganging up on asylum cases from different corners of the country, industries are continuing to figure out how to leverage what they have to offer and combine it with other entities to solve problems previously thought to be unsolvable.

Elaine Weidman-Grunewald of the communications company Ericsson spoke to that this afternoon in the How Tech Companies Can Give Back to Communities panel at South by Southwest Interactive. Her company approached the United Nations after an earthquake shook Afghanistan 15 years ago offering to help in future relief efforts. “Fast forward 15 years, (and) we’ve supported the U.N. in over 40 major relief efforts,” she said.

The company works with the Red Cross to train its crew in disaster relief. Another project is fighting the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram, which is part of an effort on the company’s part to tackle more “human-induced (problems) rather than a natural disaster.”

John Donovan of AT&T, who focuses on ending homelessness, said the company works with the Salvation Army to connect homeless people to meals and warm beds in their communities. In his opinion, technology is a key component to achieving that goal. Another is pulling together resources and employees in order to create a more noticeable impact on the ground.

“You can organize it better than one person showing up on a Saturday and working by themselves,” Donovan said.

Later in the afternoon, Crowdsourcing Justice took the concept of collaboration and twisted the knob to 11. The panel of lawyers all work to provide immigrant legal services, and all of them say what ultimately fuels their work are partnerships between lawyers, experts, translators and countless others.

When Renée Schomp of OneJustice heard President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration went into effect, she immediately went to the nearest airport to lend support. When she got there, however, she realized protesters were plentiful — what was needed was someone to organize a pop-up legal services station, which is what she and her coworkers organized.

Torchlight Legal’s Jennifer Gonzalez recounted an asylum case she worked on when, at the last minute, she needed “two week’s worth” of translation work. By crowdsourcing — reaching out to her extended network of colleagues and friends — she was able to get the work done on time. That example is just the start of it. She cited fellow panelist Stephen Manning’s work with Immigrant Law Group PC, which harnessed an army of volunteers to tackle cases at the Dilley Detention Center.

Gonzalez said that while lawyers are notorious for working independently, that the need for increased collaboration — between themselves and nonlawyers — is a key component of a better future. That means growing from using Google Docs to translate documents to even more advanced tools. And for it to succeed, there has to be a sustained effort by developers working on them and the lawyers and other advocates working with them. Currently, lawyers tend to have very little patience for tech that isn’t immediately functional, and that makes it hard to improve.

“It’s not enough to have Uber for lawyers,” Gonzalez said.

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