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The 2020 Good Tech Awards

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Some years, I have to dig deep to come up with worthy honorees for the Good Tech Awards, my annual column that honors what I consider the most humane and altruistic tech projects of the year.

Not in 2020, though. This year, technology did more for us than ever — helping us work from home, set up remote schools, communicate with our loved ones, organize for racial justice, protect the integrity of an election and keep the economy running during a pandemic. And all over the world, technologists stepped up to help solve critical problems and keep us safe.

Plenty of large tech companies gave money to Covid-19 relief efforts, antiracism groups and other philanthropic causes. Others donated personal protective equipment from their corporate stockpiles, or built apps for contact tracing and other critical pandemic tasks.

But there were less-heralded tech contributions that made a real difference this year, and the people behind them deserve credit. So let’s give thanks to a few of the technologists who stepped up in 2020.

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In March, as Covid-19 began spreading across the country, a group of tech workers assembled in Slack rooms and on Zoom calls to figure out how they could use their tech expertise to help with the crisis. The result was the U.S. Digital Response, now a network of over 6,000 coders, data scientists and researchers who are helping local and state governments respond to Covid-19.

So far, the group — which is led by Raylene Yung, a former Facebook and Stripe executive, and includes volunteers from most of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies — has taken on pro bono projects in dozens of states. It helped Pennsylvania’s Health Department set up an online data dashboard to track the number of available hospital beds and ventilators. It helped Seattle health officials set up an online testing hub, and rebuilt a Kansas Department of Labor website that was used to file for unemployment benefits.

Ideally, cities and states would have enough money and technical expertise to do these things themselves. But until that happens, we’re lucky that the U.S.D.R. is stepping in to fill the gaps.

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Because of climate change, we’re probably in for many more wildfires like the ones that burned through the West Coast this summer, driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. But in future years, we might be better equipped to deal with them thanks to tools like those made by Perimeter, Technosylva and Ignis, three start-ups that are trying to modernize the firefighter’s outdated arsenal.

Perimeter, a small start-up in the Bay Area, makes collaborative mapping and data-sharing software for emergency workers. Its founder, Bailey Farren, is the 24-year-old daughter of a retired fire captain and a paramedic. After she and her family were forced to evacuate during the 2017 Tubbs fire, she saw the need for a better communication system than the two-way radios and paper maps that emergency workers often used. Perimeter’s app, which allows fire departments to share real-time evacuation routes and safety updates, is being tested in California cities including Palo Alto and Petaluma, and the company plans to expand to other states soon.

Technosylva, another California start-up, makes predictive modeling software that allows fire departments to calculate where a fire is heading, how fast it’s moving and what weather patterns might affect its path. Its software is used in nine states, and helped the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection predict the trajectory of wildfires this year, saving valuable time for those trying to extinguish the blazes.

Ignis, created by a Nebraska company, Drone Amplified, is used for “prescribed burns” — small fires purposely set in the path of a larger wildfire to steal its fuel. The system attaches to a drone, and drops small incendiaries known as “dragon eggs” from a safe height, at a much lower cost and personal risk than a helicopter. Ignis was used to battle fires in Colorado, California and Oregon this year, and recently struck a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.

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When George Floyd was killed in May, lots of Silicon Valley tech companies raced to voice their support for racial justice. But many of those companies have continued to make products that put Black communities at risk — whether it’s through amplifying misinformation, deploying biased artificial intelligence or perpetuating racism in their work forces.

This year, I’ve been more impressed by community-based efforts I’ve seen to support Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements using the tools of technology to hold institutions accountable. One of these efforts, Our Data Bodies, is an education project run by researchers and organizers in Los Angeles; Detroit; Charlotte, N.C.; and other cities. It has worked to teach communities of color how their personal data is collected and used by tech firms and government agencies. This year, it hosted virtual trainings for community organizers to teach them how to fight potentially harmful technologies like facial recognition.

Another effort, Data for Black Lives, is a group of technologists and activists led by Yeshimabeit Milner who are using the tools of data science to empower Black communities. This year, the group compiled state-level data about the impact of Covid-19 on Black people, and it is in the early stages of putting together a nationwide database of technologies used by police departments, with evidence of how those technologies disproportionately harm Black people.

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Last spring, when hospitals were filling up with Covid-19 patients and restaurants were struggling to survive, Frank Barbieri and Ryan Sarver, two San Francisco tech veterans, and their friend Sydney Gressel, a nurse in the medical system of the University of California, San Francisco, came up with the idea of connecting hungry frontline health workers with local restaurants that badly needed more business. They began raising money and soliciting help from their networks in the tech community to send restaurant meals to health workers, and Frontline Foods was born.

Today, Frontline Foods is part of World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit started by the chef Jose Andres. It has raised more than $10 million, has hundreds of volunteers throughout the country coordinating meal drop-offs using tools like Slack and AirTable, and has served more than 500,000 meals to hospitals and clinics, while keeping many struggling restaurants busy and afloat.

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I’ve always been a gamer, but 2020 was the year I needed games to escape the stressful and depressing reality of pandemic life. And of all the games I played, the simple, party-style games with friends and family over Zoom gave me the most joy. Many were made by Jackbox Games.

Jackbox is best known for its “party packs” of games you can play remotely with groups. (I’m partial to Quiplash, in which you compete to come up with funny responses to prompts like “The worst thing to hear during a massage.”) The company’s pandemic-fueled boom — it has more than doubled its user base this year — may fade when we can all go outside and see our friends in person again. But it has been invaluable for my sanity this year.

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The most important innovation of the year, by a mile, wasn’t really “technology” in the conventional, Silicon Valley sense of the word. But make no mistake: The scientists at Pfizer, Moderna, BioNTech, the National Institutes of Health, and other pharmaceutical companies and research labs whose work led to the first approved Covid-19 vaccines are innovators of the highest order, and they probably did more to alleviate human suffering this year than all the app developers and hardware makers in the world combined.

These scientists — and the teams that supported them — worked under enormous pressure and crushing deadlines to develop a new kind of mRNA vaccine for the coronavirus, guide it through clinical trials and get it out to the public in record time. The vaccines are a true triumph of science, and because of these people’s hard work, hundreds of millions of Americans will get to spend some or most of 2021 hugging their relatives, reopening their businesses, traveling safely and doing all of the socially un-distant things that give us meaning and joy.

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