Author | Tania AlonsoPaul Duan is the person behind Bayes Impact, an NGO that uses Big Data and Artificial Intelligence to resolve social problems. One of its objectives is to create citizen-led public services, in collaboration with governments and thanks to technology.Bob, an employment search tool created in coordination with the French government, is one of its main projects. The platform expedites personalised advice, thanks to artificial intelligence, and has guided in less than 3 years over 200,000 French citizens in their search for work, with a team of only 9 people.Paul Duan’s work has been recognised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Google.org, Forbes Magazine and MIT Technology Review, which included him in the list of ‘Innovators under 35’ in 2018. We talked to him about his project and the importance of technology in the future of public services and cities.
What is Bayes Impact’s main objective?Our mission is to create a new generation of public services. We use technology to identify problems and to find solutions. We have worked in various fields, from health, in order to improve the treatment received by patients in hospitals, to unemployment. We do a great deal of work in collaboration with NGOs and governments to implement the solutions we have created.
Bayes Impact is, in fact, an NGO. Why did you choose this path?For two reasons. Firstly, because we believe technology has the capacity to empower people, but unfortunately a large part of the industry has not focused on resolving problems that affect society as a whole. As an NGO, we have the freedom to seek solutions to the problems that we consider to be of utmost importance for society and not just to be guided by the most practical solutions.The second reason is that we have noticed that, if you want to have a social impact, you need to work together with governments. This is very important for us. When we say that we want to create a new generation of public services, it is because we want them to continue being public. We want everything to be open code, free, so they belong to the people and not to investors or to risk capital.
What exactly do you mean by citizen-led public services?A vast number of citizens want to have a positive impact on their surroundings and resolve the social problems they are aware of. However, for them it is difficult to obtain the money required and to implement the solutions through private businesses. They also find it hard to get help from governments, because they see them as individual citizens. Hence the need to create a halfway point: an organisation that can collaborate with governments, but whose power comes from outside, from the private sector.We have chosen a framework, which we have called citizen-led public services, which is how we understand the concept of public services, so that governments do not think they can only be created by them. If citizens want to collaborate by creating public services, the government can support them by providing funds, access to resources, data… It is a collaboration between citizens and governments through innovation.
How do you identify social problems?At Bayes Impact, we have a laboratory where we explore new project ideas. Our main aim is to have a large-scale positive impact. We try to identify areas in which we can have the greatest impact and, within these areas, we identify where it would make more sense to develop a technological solution.We use a list of criteria and a kind of formula: if the problem is significant, we can create a solution that helps people and also use technology to have an impact on each individual, then it is a good project for Bayes Impact.
And how can citizens help to identify them?We believe we should trust in the power of the multitude. This idea is what made Silicon Valley strong. There are so many people with the capacity to develop a creative approach to problems and with the freedom to analyse the problems that surround them. In fact, many technology companies have been founded by someone who was capable of identifying a small problem and proposing a creative solution.
“The great thing about this idea is creating an innovative environment in which new ideas are generated”This is a complementary approach to administrations’ traditional way of working. Normally, when governments identify a problem, they create a plan to resolve it and they start from top to bottom, creating huge national programmes. But often these are not exactly aimed at the problem. They are extremely centralised programmes, which often lack the perspective of the people themselves.The idea of these public services directed by citizens is to enable people to identify solutions. Some solutions may work and others may not, but what is nice about this idea is that an innovative environment can be created in which new ideas are generated.
What are the main problems of public services, as we know them today?The main problem, as we see it, is that they are not personalised enough. They have a single approach, in which one service is offered for all of them and this is not enough. We need more flexible and personalised services, particularly if we take into account that the world is changing rapidly and people need a growing number of new and different services.People also have more expectations with regard to the quality of services they receive. Internet and new platforms are getting people used to having much faster responses and when they feel that the government is not providing them with what they need, this generates a degree of frustration. This is a problem because it generates a disconnection between the urgency demanded by the people and the way in which governments act, offering slower responses. A clear example is what is happening with environmental demands and climate change.
What do you consider an inclusive society or city to be?I don’t have a definitive answer to this question, but I believe cities should have an important role to play in terms of creating inclusive solutions. It is important to see cities as places in which people can meet other people, create human connections. It is something in which city governments, central administrations and digital platforms, together, have a great deal to say.
“Cities can also be innovation laboratories”Cities also have a fundamental role in terms of the environment. If you want to changes peoples’ lives, you have to create green cities, with sustainable mobility options, cities that change the behaviour of their citizens. Cities can be innovation laboratories and if you find an idea that works, then it can be scaled and generalised with central governments.