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SXSW 2019: Foursquare + TechEthics: Creepy, Cool & In-Between

Bright and early on Saturday, March 9, a room full of people gathered to see a conversation between Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley and tech journalist Laurie Segall at the 2019 SXSW Interactive Festival. The session ran from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m.

Much of the conversation (unsurprisingly) focused on location tracking and the data tech companies gather from users. While Foursquare was a little bit ahead of the curve nearly a decade ago, location tracking has now become an unavoidable part of the tech we all use in our daily lives.

Segall is interested in the intersection of tech and ethics, and has recently begun a new career path based on that interest. It’s so easy at this point to just assume that all tech companies are evil, and that the people who work for them don’t prioritize morality. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for Foursquare or Crowley (who is no longer the company’s CEO). He gave the audience plenty of insight into how they tried to work ethics into the fabric of the business.

In regard to the tweet directly above, Crowley said they examined the legality of allowing that type of advertising on Foursquare as well as discussing it with their ethics committee. The end result? They chose to allow it.

Crowley refused to say anything negative about other tech companies, in what some may see as an integrity move. Especially when talking about ethics and wanting to make a comfortable, inviting environment for his employees, it was refreshing to see that he truly does seem to believe that his success does not have to come at the price of others. And privacy is a hot topic right now, which is also a part of the bigger conversation about tech and ethics.

Foursquare has introduced hyper trending too. Crowley shared never-before-seen data visualization with the audience at SXSW, explaining that it’s anonymized — no information about race, gender, age, etc. But it does see where people are congregating and what paths they take, which could have a lot of interesting uses. They’re still deciding if it should be shared to the public, and if so, what form that could take.

The main takeaway from the session is that there is still a lot to be done in the tech sector in terms of ethics. Twitter and Facebook have been national news lately for privacy concerns, and it’s clear that that can’t continue to happen — it’s going to have be a conversation in these companies. It will be fascinating to see where things go next, and who (if anyone) will take a page from Foursquare’s book.

What are your thoughts on data collection and the ethical implications of what tech companies are doing? Let us know in the comments!

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Featured image credit: Jackie Ruth/Shuffle Online

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