In a world entrenched in race and class divisions, technology unites us all. You may have lost count, but on average we swipe our phones 2,617 times per day, checking for notifications, updates and messages every 12 minutes.
But the fact remains that the industry is far from diverse. Only four per cent of tech workers in the UK are people of colour. The tech sector not reflecting society has unexpected implications, some more serious than others. With everyone drawn into virtual meetings, for business or pleasure, during lockdown and beyond, inevitably participants are tempted to make things more interesting by changing their background. But the algorithm used to work out what the actual background is sometimes identifies darker skin tones as the area to replace, pasting the Golden Gate Bridge (or other exotic landscape of choice) over a user’s face.
More seriously, facial recognition technology increasingly used by large organisations or law enforcement is repeatedly shown to confuse black faces, and some infrared hand gel dispensers don’t recognise darker skin tones.
“This ‘diversity thing’, as some people describe it, boils down to being a life or death issue,” says Josh Babarinde, 27-year-old CEO of Cracked It, a social enterprise that trains young offenders, or those at risk of offending, to repair smartphones. “If someone of colour cannot wash their hands then that individual is going to be at a greater risk of contracting coronavirus and spreading it. Then it’s no wonder that the report by Public Health England recently found that black men are four times more likely to die from the virus than their white counterparts.
While Building Back Better is a catchphrase for post-pandemic thinking, Babarinde believes it is essential that diversifying the tech industry and hearing from under-represented voices is part of the process. And, he says, companies will be forced to do this for one reason or another.
“There were just so many arguments for why diversity and inclusion, whether on an ethnic, gender, disability, sexuality or socio-economic basis, is critical. It’s just not fair that some people get more opportunities than others, and those cycles just repeat themselves. If young people beginning their careers look at a sector like tech and think it doesn’t really look like them, they consider something else. What a waste.
“Then the pragmatic point, and frustratingly the one that starts to change behaviours of some of the offending workplaces, in order to have the best chances of selling your services to the market, you need to make sure that that product meets their needs. There are a very particular set of needs that people in the black or Asian or Roma community have so how can you possibly meet those if you do not integrate those kinds of views and perspectives in your workforce, if those people aren’t part of the development, marketing or evaluation of services?
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“Organisations that do diversity well sell more and make more money. If that is the argument that they need to achieve this more egalitarian outcome, then fine.
“Are we contributing to trying to rebalance that diversity? The short answer is yes. You know, we have a CEO in me, who is of colour, so that’s one. Most importantly, though, the people we work with, yes, most of them are from black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds. And many do end up in the tech sector.”
Babarinde is speaking to The Big Issue from Eastbourne, the “sunniest town in the UK” with sounds of the sea (squawking gulls) in the background. From a deprived estate “featured in the news, not always for the right reasons”, he went on to politics, studied at LSE and volunteered in London as a youth worker supporting kids on the verge of being sucked into a life of crime and gang violence.
From this work grew Cracked It. With 29 per cent of us having a smashed screen but 76 per cent not bothering to get it fixed, Babarinde had spotted a gap in the market – one worth £2bn in the UK alone – “so there’s clearly cash that can be harnessed to invest in supporting young people”.
In the five years since, Cracked It has worked with close to 200 young people. While more than half of young offenders reoffend within a year of leaving prison, two thirds of Cracked It participants have not done so and have moved on to other jobs or further training.
“How can we stop the reoffending from happening? How can we stop there being victims of crime?” Babarinde says.
“This is the mindset we all need to have. Employment is the single most effective factor that reduces someone’s propensity to offend or to reoffend. They’re able to put a roof over their head and feed their families, and employment fosters values like teamworking, communication, negotiation and conflict management – all things necessary for participation at the core of society, rather than at the margins.”
Babarinde admits to schmoozing at every corporate networking event going to spark conversations that would lead to partnerships. His crack Cracked It squad would set up a roving pop-up repair service in the foyer or cafeteria of large offices – including the Ministry of Justice and US Embassy – where employees could get their phones repaired quickly and conveniently.
During lockdown, Cracked It began operating a ‘Deliveroo for mobile repair’ service, with devices picked up and dropped off to people’s homes the same day. They have also focussed on delivering refurbished tech to older and vulnerable people to keep them connected to family, friends and GPs while shielding.
But further evolution is required. Babarinde explains: “Working from home, chances are people are dropping their phones on carpet, not marble floor – great for the owner of the device but not great for the repairers of broken devices.”