Charities can mitigate negative effects of new technology, says CAF head of policy

Rhodri Davies tells a Labour conference fringe event that such developments as automation and algorithmic biases could cause problems for charities and their beneficiaries

Rhodri Davies
Rhodri Davies

Charities have an important role to play in ensuring that new technology does not have a negative impact on their beneficiaries or society as a whole, delegates at the Labour Party conference have heard.

In a fringe meeting yesterday on the value of charities in a digital future, Rhodri Davies, head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation, said charities had an important role in combating the negative effects of new technology, such as automation, algorithmic biases and online "filter bubbles", where people communicate only with others they agree with.

"These issues are exactly the sorts of thing that civil society organisations should be thinking about because they are the types of problem they have traditionally dealt with," Davies said.

"If you think back to previous industrial revolutions, civil society organisations played a massive role in making sure the negative impacts of those were reduced – things like children having to work in factories or dangerous working practices.

"There’s exactly the same sort of role for them to play now at the start of what is potentially a fourth industrial revolution."

Davies said many charities were using good practice when introducing new technology and ways of working, but these examples were "a little bit self-selecting".

He said a lot of charities were not taking advantage of new technology, despite its potential impact on their operations, governance, fundraising and, more widely, society itself.

For example, Davies said, there was a gradual shift from people owning goods such as cars to sharing or accessing services that provided these goods, which could have profound implications for the charity sector.

"A lot of charities were based on the idea that people have things, then give them away to benefit other people," he said.

"What does that look like in a world where none of us really own those things and we all have a bit of access to them?"

Davies said charities needed to consider how they could share their knowledge about communities and their cause areas with technology companies, and vice versa, to mitigate any of the problems caused by new technology.

At the same session, Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and the shadow industry minister, said a new social contract was required for new technology and charities had a role to play in creating this, both as users of new technology and in their role of representing people who would not otherwise have a voice in the debate.

She said the Charity Commission should play a role in helping charities to "increase their skills base" to better adapt to new technology.

The Labour peer Baroness Young of Old Scone told delegates there was a niche for charities that helped other charities adapt to new technology, as well as for charities generally to help their beneficiaries adapt.

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