Which tech trends are changing the social impact sector?

22 Oct 2021

Elaine Zhou. Image: Change.org

Change.org’s CTO discusses how technology is making a difference in the world and how non-profits can tap into digital transformation.

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Elaine Zhou is the chief technology officer for non-profit-owned platform Change.org, which is best known for its online petitions and currently has more than 450m users worldwide.

Zhou has more than 20 years of experience in tech strategy, AI research and development and software product development.

Prior to joining Change.org, Zhou was the CTO at Vidado, now part of SS&C Chorus Document Automation, which uses AI to help organisations unlock data and insights from handwritten documents.

In her current role, she sets the company’s technology vision, specialising in AI strategy while also ensuring Change.org’s engineering team is able to drive change.

“My goal is to ensure our engineering team is on track to become the same top-calibre team you’d find at Amazon, Microsoft and Google, but with a genuine mission of changing the world,” she told Siliconrepublic.com.

‘AI will create new or better ways of working in a more connected world’

Are you spearheading any major product or IT initiatives you can tell us about?

I’m very excited that we are investing in two major areas – modern infrastructure that is centred around big data and user-centric product expansion.

We are currently underway with a huge transformation for our platform infrastructure in end-to-end data engineering, event-driven and service-oriented architecture, and responsive front-end architecture.

Change.org started as a single Rails application 15 years ago. Over the years, we grew to a collection of sites built on various programming languages, frameworks and architectures.

Just front-end alone, we had four different architectures built on four technical stacks. It’s clear to me that in order for us to advance in scale at a fast pace, we need to transform our infrastructure through cloud architecture simplification and standardisation with consolidation around toolsets and frameworks.

Last fall, we started an effort of designing a new frontend interface, which internally we refer to as Corgi, short for Change.org interface. A year later, we have migrated 60pc of our old pages to the new front-end stack. Now, we’re full speed ahead building new features on Corgi with a 30pc increase in productivity and multiple fold in website response time.

How big is your team?

I have a team of approximately 70 engineers, covering product engineering, data engineering, data science and machine learning, QA, DevOps and site reliability engineering, and security. We are currently hiring across several open roles with an eye on attracting the best who want to become great while doing good.

For select projects, we do outsource on occasion, and are especially interested in working with talents in South America and Africa through global outsourcing firms, or small consulting firms in the US.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation?

Change.org was born into the digital transformation era and digital technology is in our DNA. We see ourselves as a leader in setting the pace and an example for other non-profit organisations and social change companies on how to utilise cloud technology, big data and AI.

Earlier this year, we kick-started our data platform initiative to build our end-to-end data pipeline from the ground up to transport and transform our vast data from disparate sources to a single source of truth that can support product engineering, data science and machine learning research, product analytics and business analytics.

By the end of the year, we plan to roll out a key machine learning recommendation feature in five English-speaking countries to dramatically reduce manual processes. Until now, we have been heads down focusing on model building, experimentation and testing. The initiative will be our biggest machine learning product launch to date and will complete our human-in-loop automation process, which I see as the approach for AI adaption.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world?

I see the industry 4.0 and IoT trend expanding into the global supply chain post-pandemic. It will play a key role in improving equity in underserved communities through building locally and consuming locally.

Responsible AI will advance to bring personalised experience to users through deep data-led insights that are purposeful and open.

Opportunities unlocked by the power of AI will create new or better ways of working in a more connected world.

Blockchain technology will extend beyond cryptocurrency to other industries. It allows building trust into applications through more transparency and better security.

These trends are very relevant for the social impact sector. We are seeing more and more interest and entry into leveraging technology for democratising data, and decentralising insights, building trust and safety, and creating opportunities to create a more equitable world.

Change.org has been ambitious in its efforts to leverage technology in meaningful ways as a public utility to create the civic infrastructure required for meaningful social change.

Now, as the world’s largest non-profit-owned tech platform for social change, I want to make it clear that saying non-profit doesn’t mean that you can’t be industry-leading. I hope that our work at Change.org will set a benchmark for that and that we’ll see more organisations in the non-profit and social impact sectors aligning their efforts with the industry’s best.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

At Change.org, we see security is more than the basic compliance but user safety and privacy. The petitions on our platform range from local issues to nationwide political campaigns. That means we could be a target for bad actors including state actors for their political gain.

This is certainly a big challenge for us where, at one side, we want to connect our petition starters to as many audiences as possible, and at the same time we need to protect our user data at the same level [under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act rules in the US].

I think the blockchain technology could play a big role in addition to the typical application security, ongoing audit and risk mitigation.

It is worth emphasising that all security starts with people. We need to create the security mindset through better training, reinforce the learning to form habits through ongoing exercises, and solidify that habit into our culture.

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