Prototype Fund in Interview: Promoting Public Interest Tech in Times of Covid

Technology developed for the good of society - Germany's Prototype Fund has been supporting "tech for good" projects since 2016. We spoke to Patricia Leu about public interest tech, sustainability and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their mission.

Author Jasmina Schmidt:

Translation Jasmina Schmidt, 08.06.20

The Prototype Fund helps hackers, data journalists and other creative software developers to turn their “tech meets social innovation” ideas into reality. A funding programme from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), it’s aimed at individuals and small interdisciplinary project teams and their open source projects. The funding supports projects in the fields of civic tech, data literacy, data security and software infrastructure, and the funding consists of seed capital of up to 47,500 euros over six months. This allows the developers to concentrate fully on their projects and to test out possible ways of implementing them. The funding also includes two coaching sessions and the opportunity to build a network that will continue to provide support after the funding period ends. The recipients of the funding also get support from the Prototype Fund team and the community of former funding recipients.

The Prototype Fund will enter its ninth funding round in August 2020. We talked to Patricia Leu – responsible for communications at the Prototype Fund and for developing their content strategy – about the Prototype Fund’s work and public interest tech. We also asked her about their role in initiating the “WirVsVirus” hackathon that was held in March 2020 to gather ideas from civil society and develop them into solutions for dealing with the corona pandemic. Over 28,000 people took part.

Patricia, you support open source projects and solutions in the field of public interest tech. What does “public interest tech” actually mean? And when are tech solutions of interest to the public?

Public interest tech means the use of technology for the benefit of society – and that can be anything from a tool for citizen participation to a whole decentralised communications infrastructure. It’s important for public interest tech to be in the interest of the users, to be developed in a user-centred way and to be free from market forces. And because there’s no such thing as a one-fits-all solution, the results are both freely accessible and adaptable. We are aware that the concept is not well known in German-speaking countries. We want to change this, among other things with our recently launched “Public Interest Podcast”.

How important is sustainability when it comes to selecting your projects?

Sustainability is very important to us. It’s often difficult to combine technology and sustainability, so it’s important for us to emphasise that the way technology is developed has a huge influence on its environmental impact. We only fund open source software, for example. The code of open source software is freely accessible to everyone and it can be used and developed further. That means that people can adapt existing programs to their own own needs instead of having to invest a lot of resources in developing new software completely from scratch.

Proprietary software also creates dependencies: sometimes when old versions are no longer supported, it means a device may no longer be provided with updates and you end up having to buy a new laptop or phone. Open software helps you avoid that problem. We also make sure that the projects that get funded aren’t isolated solutions, but ideally can be integrated into larger community projects and thus sustainably find a place in the ecosystem. Many of our projects are specifically designed to tackle sustainability issues. Our sixth funding round even included the topic of sustainability as a funding priority.

The last funding round was open to all topics – to give you an overview of which topics are currently important for developers. Were there any “trend” topic areas that stood out?

Yes, there are always topics that stand out in the submissions. An important part of our work is carrying out accompanying research – looking into and analysing overarching trends. That’s how we’re able to recognise that trends that appear within the submissions are usually things that have already already become generally apparent in the software development ecosystem – such as cloud computing or privacy. Another trend that has been observed for a long time is that programming is increasingly being done for mobile devices and less for conventional PCs.

The corona pandemic coincided with the submission period for your eighth funding round. To what extent has the pandemic affected the submissions?

The corona pandemic has of course had an impact. Terms like “corona”, “Covid-19” and even “isolation” appeared in the submissions for the very first time. We also received a really huge number of project ideas – 385 valid submissions, the highest number since the very first round four years ago. So you could assume from that that the lockdown gave people more time to develop and submit their project ideas, and that there are many creative ideas on how we can respond to the crisis. Right now we are all even more dependent on digital tools than ever before, meaning that people are even more quickly getting to the point at which they wish the digital tools they were working with were different or better somehow.

You co-initiated the relatively spontaneous hackathon “WirVsVirus” and organised it together with the German government and six other organisations. What was the goal of the digital hackathon and how do you think it went?

The aim of this hackathon was to pool the potential within civil society and mobilise it to tackle the different challenges that arose as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 28,000 people took part in the event – none of the co-organisers were expecting that kind of response. It was really nice to see how well the participants organised themselves and how dedicatedly they worked together over the weekend on their various ideas for solutions. That alone was very impressive. Of course, it doesn’t help when ideas and prototypes are created in the course of an event and then nothing else happens to them. That’s why we designed an implementation programme during the preparations for the hackathon and are very happy to be able to support 34 of the resulting projects through the Prototype Fund together with the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

What kind of projects and ideas have emerged from “WirvsVirus”? Which of them are particularly promising and are now being developed further?

There was such a huge range of different ideas: from supporting local retailers, to assisting your neighbours, to 3D printing respiration equipment to uncovering fake news about the pandemic. Many of the projects are now being developed in one form or another and will receive support from one of the various building blocks of the implementation programme. In addition to funding from the BMBF, there is a matching fund for projects that didn’t emerge within the hackathon. The most promising projects are ones which can be applied beyond the very concrete case of a pandemic because they are well adapted or can be integrated into our “normal” everyday life in their current form. A good example of this is the “Digital Stage” project, which enables choirs, theatre or dance groups to carry out virtual rehearsals and performances. That is of course a concept which would be useful to a lot of people even without the context of a crisis. We’ve published the 34 projects that the BMBF is funding on our website (Ed: in German only), along with a detailed description. Take a look!

This is a translation of an original article that first appeared on RESET’s German-language site.

Our Digital Carbon Footprint: What’s the Environmental Impact of the Online World?

Every single search query, every streamed song or video and every email sent, billions of times over all around the world - it all adds up to an ever-increasing global demand for electricity, and to rising CO2 emissions too. Our increasing reliance on digital tools has an environmental impact that's becoming increasingly harder to ignore.

How to Reduce Your Digital Carbon Footprint

Every single search, every streamed video and every email sent, billions of times over all around the world, it's all part of our daily life by now. But it all adds up to an ever-increasing global demand for electricity, and a large digital carbon footprint too. What can we do to reduce the impact our energy-hungry online lives are having on the planet?

Interview: Can We Trust Artificial Intelligence?

How can we design AI-based systems so that they benefit the common good? RESET talked to Kristina Penner from AlgorithmWatch about algorithmic bias and the potential for AI to reproduce systemic inequalities - but also about transparency and civic participation.

The Solar-Powered Website Offering a Vision for an Eco-Friendly Internet

Websites are getting faster, fatter, and… more polluting. Solar Low-Tech Magazine's solar-powered, low-carbon website is a compelling demonstration of the power that web design has to help the planet.

Power TAC: The AI Platform Showing How a 100% Renewable Energy World Might Actually Work

In theory, a world powered entirely by renewables is possible. But given the natural fluctuations of the wind, waves and sun, how can we ensure that the green energy market of the future is safe, fair and truly sustainable? An open source project Power TAC is using machine learning simulations to help us find out.

Masakhane: Using AI to Bring African Languages Into the Global Conversation

Researchers from across the continent are collaborating on an open source AI project to develop machine translation for African languages - facilitating communication, increasing accessibility and opening doors to the world’s youngest continent to play a stronger role in shaping the digital world.

What Do You Know About Your Digital Carbon Footprint?

When it comes to things that are bad for the climate, flying is pretty high up on the list. But actually, the energy consumed by our digital habits - all those emails, posts, search queries, streamed songs and shared videos - has long since overtaken the CO2 emissions of air travel.

Project Owl: Internet Providing “Clusterducks” Win IBM’s Disaster Relief Hackathon

A project aiming to set up communication networks following major floods and hurricanes has just grabbed IBM's top hackathon prize.