The Stack Archive Interview

Kiva CTO: Why we have a responsibility to care for the underserved

Thu 2 Aug 2018 | Kevin O’Brien

Kiva refugee

The Stack speaks with Kevin O’Brien, CTO of Kiva, a non-profit that aims to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty.

There seems to be increasing interest from business leaders around tech for social impact. Are you recognising this as a key trend?

Absolutely. I expect the tech community to step up efforts to address social issues over time as the importance of finding a solution for these societal problems becomes more pressing.

Already we’ve seen various groups forming in this vein, such as CTOs for Good, Fast Forward and even meetup groups specifically created to discuss tech for social impact, one of which I help organise. The emergence of this tech for social impact trend is very much a sign of the times.

From children in cages on the US southern border to swathes of displaced people in Syria, Columbia, Congo and Lebanon, their stories are fraught with hardship. Business leaders, are becoming more conscious of their potential impact on these issues and beginning to form innovative ideas on how to solve them.

Despite people entering the tech scene for monetary purposes, like developing advertising software focused solely on generating clicks, that in the end, they’ll develop a desire to work for something bigger than themselves, and more meaningful than a click.

At Kiva, how is technology making a difference in helping to alleviate poverty and promote financial inclusion?

Technological progress has already made a big difference in our work. When Kiva first started getting money into the hands of borrowers who needed it, the method was through delivering cash directly to people and then through field agents going out to villages to give and receive money.

They were noting these loans all via paper and pencil and using spreadsheets to track the money. Now, most microfinance institutions leverage sophisticated software to optimise their operations. It helps them to be able to provide access to more people who are in need, so it’s been a great movement forward.

We plan to leverage…digital ledger or blockchain technology for financial transaction ledgers

Kiva itself has moved forward using well-built products such as Snowflake Computing data warehouse solution to help leverage data and make better-informed decisions. Prior to this, we had gone through a process of not being able to accurately and quickly process data due to not having the right data warehouse. We’re now able to pull variable and reliable data to help put together our data analysis such as our refugee report.

Additionally, the technology has helped Kiva identify loaning activity and understand what is making the most impact. From this, we can make changes to our website, or the loan, or move the finances to more impactful areas. Looking ahead, what we’ll see next is loans being recorded, delivered, and paid back all via mobile phones and digital credit.

As cell and internet access becomes ubiquitous, it’s only natural that the trend will be towards mobile phones as the method of transfer. The hard part will be for existing institutions to adapt to this new way of doing business.

What are your plans for driving Kiva’s social responsibility objectives over the coming years?

For Kiva, our objective is to ensure that we are financially including and serving as many people as possible. We plan to leverage new technological innovations to achieve that goal, including building out simpler borrower and lender experiences over mobile apps, as well as implementing digital ledger or blockchain technology for financial transaction ledgers.

By helping our field partners operate more efficiently and helping larger banks price risk of lending to impoverished and excluded borrowers, we plan to help grow the pool of capital and quickly allocate it to those who need it most and can best leverage it.

Of course, with the current pace of technological change, it’s hard to plan years in advance, so part of the plan will be to just stay abreast of innovations happening and ensure that Kiva utilizes the best ones.

How can we ensure that expertise and leadership continue to be directed into initiatives like these?

Care and compassion must be at the heart of leadership to make a success out of social initiatives

The best way to ensure that leaders and experts put a focus on these initiatives is to shine a light on the impact that successful efforts have. There are few areas one can work in which allow for great impact to be had by the efforts of a minority of people.

Once people witness that impact, they will continue to work hard to see the results continue. It’s such a good feeling seeing your work have real and tangible results both here at home, and across the world.

Those of us in leadership positions have a responsibility to continue this work of pulling others up with us, especially those who have been underserved or under-represented.

Care and compassion must be at the heart of leadership to make a success out of social initiatives. Through collaboration and new technologies, we can make the world a better place.

Experts featured:

Kevin O’Brien

Chief Technology Officer


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