How women in software could change the world

From providing better housing to offering superior medical care and more, software can make the world a better place and inspire more girls to pursue careers in STEM fields.

As a technologist and a mom of three girls, I often think about how to encourage more young girls and women to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. A recent “Women in Technology” breakfast at CA World ’15 featured Talia Milgrom-Elcott, executive director of 100Kin10, who shared a recent finding about one way to inspire more women to be interested in technology.

With a mission of training 100,000 new STEM teachers in the U.S. by 2021, 100Kin10 runs a series of programs to recruit math, science and engineering majors. Typically, the attendance at technology-oriented conferences is predominantly male. But Milgrom-Elcott found that when they started running seminars that show how technology can address the world’s biggest problems—issues like hunger, pollution, lack of access to clean water—about half of the attendees showing up at these conferences were women.

I found further inspiration from several speakers sharing their experiences on how software is rewriting different industries—from healthcare to architecture to government.

Affordable, sustainable, healthy housing

Michelle Kaufman is the founder of Flux Factory, the first startup launched from Google X. Kaufman is focused on addressing two of the world’s biggest problems—making affordable shelter a reality globally and reducing the environmental impact of housing and construction. Today, buildings account for 40 percent of all carbon emissions by some estimates.

Flux has created software that lets architects and engineers much more quickly—and affordably—design and build houses. The software enables the easy design of modular homes that can be adjusted to different environments—and by incorporating big data and analytics, it’s easy to explore various options and understand the costs of these options. Other software Flux creates calculates the emissions and energy usage of building designs.

Kaufman also demonstrated an app that searches through a database of building materials, telling builders what they are composed of, what chemicals they include and even from where those materials are sourced. Having this insight readily available can help builders ensure they are using the healthiest material possible, with the least environmental impact.

Diagnosing tough medical cases through crowdsourcing

Jared Heyman was inspired to create CrowdMed by his sister, who suffered from a rare medical condition that took seven years to diagnose.

CrowdMed is an online community of 1,800 “medical detectives” who have resolved more than a thousand cases to date, with 60 percent of patients saying that CrowdMed has successfully led them closer to a direct diagnosis or cure. The typical CrowdMed user has seen eight doctors before deciding to post their symptoms and seek assistance from this community.

The medical detectives consist of not only professionals from Western medicine—medical students, retired physicians, nurses and physicians assistants—but, also a broader community that includes naturopaths, chiropractors and scientists. According to Heyman, some of the most effective medical detectives are people who themselves suffer from rare chronic diseases and want to help others suffering from the same condition.

While CrowdMed does offer monetary compensation to its detectives when they help provide an accurate diagnosis, many medical detectives tell Heyman that the altruistic benefits are even more motivating. Heyman hopes that, in the future, insurance companies will agree to provide CrowdMed as a service to their customers, since it provides an affordable way to get multiple perspectives, can cut down on medical visits and leads to faster diagnosis of difficult cases.

Coding to inspire activism on a local level

Jennifer Pahlka from Code for America spoke about how coders can help find creative challenges to make local government more effective—and how individuals can be inspired by these technologies to help one another.

Code for America encourages application developers to spend one year working in local government. They man the phones hearing the issues that citizens call in with and create apps to solve these problems on a broader scale.

One such app encouraged citizens to adopt a fire hydrant near their home or neighborhood—and take responsibility for shoveling snow around this fire hydrant to make sure it’s always clear. Started in Boston a few years ago, the Adopt-a-Hydrant app has been implemented by several other communities nationwide.

Another coder recently realized that the online application to apply for food stamps was so cumbersome that many people were giving up halfway through the process. The online system involved more than 30 screens and hundreds of questions. Now, there’s an app featuring six screens and a couple dozen questions, making the process far more manageable.

Rewrite the future: What’s next?

There are many other examples of how technology can be harnessed for the greater good. And it’s interesting to know that by highlighting these opportunities, we can encourage our daughters, sisters and colleagues to consider careers in STEM. The world will be a better place when we have even more perspectives and creative talent focused on addressing humanities’ biggest challenges through technology.

Katherine Demacopoulos has 20 years of experience in business technology marketing and strategy. She leads…


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