Q&A: Pomona Alumna Jessica Ladd Speaks on the Implementation of Technology to Bring About Social Change, to Build Solutions

Jessica Ladd PO ‘08 visited campus last week to discuss Callisto, the sexual assault reporting website launched this fall at Pomona College. Ladd is the founder and CEO of Sexual Health Innovations, the nonprofit that created Callisto. While attending Pomona, Ladd taught sexual health education in San Francisco over the summer. After graduation, she worked in HIV advocacy in Washington, D.C. She completed a master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University and began a Ph.D. program there before leaving to focus on Sexual Health Innovations. TSL sat down with Ladd to talk about technology, social change and how the two can come together.

TSL: You’ve taught sexual education in classrooms. You’ve worked on national HIV policy. You have a master’s degree in public health. How did those experiences lead you to focus on technology as a route to social change, and in particular for sexual health and well-being?

Jessica Ladd: One thing I loved about the classroom was the ability to really make a change that you could see, and that was very immediate and very important. One thing that was hard for me was that it felt too small-scale. What I loved about policy was the potential to have a much larger impact, but it was frustrating how political it was. It was frustrating how slow decisions were made, and often for what felt like the wrong reasons. And there wasn’t much of a feedback loop, of knowing whether or not what I did actually mattered.  What I loved about tech was it felt like the best of both worlds. It had this ability to provide access immediately, to a large number of people, in a way that I could get that feedback of knowing that I had made a difference, and in a way that was really scalable … The Internet just made sense as being the best delivery method for a lot of the information I thought needed to be spread and a lot of the tools I thought needed to happen.

TSL: What role do you think technology ought to play in efforts for social change?

JL: There’s a lot of excitement about how technology can be used in this space, but a lot of it’s kind of misdirected. A lot of nonprofits, their first instinct is, “Oh, we should have an app,” meaning a mobile app, and you’re like, “Why? No—use your money for something else.” I think there’s a lack of, often, critical thinking … What problem am I trying to solve? What type of information am I trying to give people, or what type of behavior am I going to want them to take? What is the best delivery mechanism for that? It won’t always be a website; it won’t always be an app … You have to think about accessibility and your population. What’s most convenient for them, given the way they’re currently living their lives and what type of technology they’re used to?

TSL: What are the major obstacles that you’ve encountered so far that are preventing broader implementation of technological solutions that might already exist?

JL: Some of it’s marketing and good design. Details really matter … For something to get widely used, it has to look nice, it has to feel nice to use, and you need to market it in a way that’s smart. Some of it is not enough up-front research about whether or not anybody actually wants this. People will just create something without asking the population they’re trying to help whether it’s something they would ever use, or remotely want. One of the main reasons why better things aren’t created is lack of funding—lack of funding, and lack of places where the people who know how to build and design good technology are together with the people who understand the problem … The only way we’re going to create good tech is if we create places and organizations where those two things are merged together and have mutual respect for each other.

TSL: There have been numerous authors who have written recently about the lack of gender diversity, and diversity generally, in virtually every level of the tech sector. Do you think that that lack of representation impedes the development of technological solutions to problems that disproportionately affect women or other groups underrepresented in tech?

JL: Absolutely. Totally. 100 percent. We build solutions to the problems we encounter … There’s 20 different startups competing to do the same exact thing as one another, and then you look at the social sector and all these problems that all these people face, and we operate in a white space. We never have any competition. It’s because the people who have lived with those problems, who experience those problems, aren’t the ones who are in the technology space with the power and funding to build the solutions to those problems. And that’s true even when there’s a compelling business case for it.

TSL: There was a book that came out this spring called “Geek Heresy.”

JL: I haven’t read it, but our CTO [chief technology officer] has. She was talking about it.

TSL: It’s by an author and researcher named Kentaro Toyama. He suggests that technological solutions to social problems far too often take the form of inadequately supported and ineffectual “packaged interventions.” He goes on to argue that the idea of technology as a universal panacea is distracting and misguided.

JL: My CTO, she’s a big fan of the book and definitely agrees with a lot of the points in it. I do think that pretending that tech is going to solve all the world’s ills is just that—it’s pretending that tech’s going to solve all the world’s ills. A lot of the cutting-edge innovation is happening for the wealthy and for those who are already privileged … I think that tech has changed the world; I think it will continue to change the world. It doesn’t always change it in a good direction. And it can hardly solve every problem. So, Callisto, it can maybe help a little bit with reporting, but it can’t solve what the school does after reporting. It can’t stop assault from happening in the first place. It can’t give you a hug. It can’t give you a box of tissues. There’s a lot of things that tech can’t replace and shouldn’t try to. There are huge limits and people often try to do too much in the same piece of tech. They try to solve every problem that exists rather than solving one and solving it well.

TSL: The Claremont Colleges recently announced the Rick and Susan Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity, funded by a $25 million gift. Rick Sontag, in the announcement press release, said that the center will help students “pull together knowledge from a vast range of sources, and have meaningful impact on the most difficult problems with no clear solutions.” What sorts of problems do you think are conducive to technological or design-thinking solutions, and what sorts of problems require a different approach?

JL: I think design thinking, as an approach, can be really valuable … whether or not technology is the end solution. Teaching people creative problem solving and different methods that can help you understand the problem that you’re trying to solve … that is a really important thing to learn, whether that intervention is a website, or whether that intervention is changing the order in which food is passed out or the type of blanket that is keeping somebody warm at night. I think the places where technology can help the most are with information access and sharing… Tech has always been really good at that. I think it can help with efficiency.

One non-sexy thing to do that is critical is take forms that are right now done on paper and put them online. It’s pretty simple; it’s not that sexy, but … it solves a lot of problems for a lot of people. That said, some people still might need the paper forms. I think people get too excited about things, like, “Let’s just create a heat map!” If you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail … There gets to be a lot of enthusiasm for new techniques or technologies, like virtual reality or drones, when actually the more old-school tech might be the more important place to start.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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