Nov 6, 2023

Mei Lin Fung: The Humanitarian Tech Innovator Behind People-Centered Internet

Data, collaboration, and the future of resilient communities!

Mei Lin Fung: The Humanitarian Tech Innovator Behind People-Centered Internet

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In the heart of Silicon Valley, where innovation is a way of life, one remarkable individual stands out as a true pioneer in the realm of technology and human connection. Meet Mei Lin Fung, a brilliant mind with a global perspective, whose journey from Singapore to the heart of innovation in Palo Alto has been nothing short of extraordinary.

With a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Australia and a master's degree in Management Science from MIT, Mei Lin embarked on a path that would ultimately shape the way we perceive the intersection of technology and humanity. Her story takes an intriguing twist as she recalls her early days at Shell's IT department, where, as a newlywed, she and her husband found creative ways to communicate across a 15-mile gap, predating the era of email. It's a testament to Mei Lin's ability to adapt and innovate, a theme that would become a defining trait in her illustrious career.

Today, Mei Lin Fung serves as the Chair of the People Centered Internet, a role she assumed from the legendary Vint Cerf. She believes fervently in an Internet that is "of the People, by the People, and for the People," and her work is dedicated to ensuring that everyone can access the boundless opportunities that connectivity brings. With a passionate founding team, Mei Lin established the Impact Network in 2017, working in tandem with the IEEE Industry Connections Social Impact Measurement, which she chairs. Her mission is clear: to incorporate the voices of the people and the community into the measurement of social impact, ensuring sustainable outcomes for all.

But Mei Lin's impact goes beyond the digital realm. She has joined forces with the Health Occupation Students of America/Future Health Professionals, leading Global Network Outreach efforts and co-founding the California Health MRC, pioneering youth engagement for a healthier future. Her role as Socio Technical Lead in a US Department of Defense project examining the Future of Health is nothing short of groundbreaking, as she brought government and community leaders together to devise the Healthy Community Collaboratives of America, representing over 50% of all US healthcare spending.

As a pioneer in Customer Relationship Management and a driving force behind the shift from healthcare to health, Mei Lin Fung listens to the hopes and ideas of the people, transforming communities into hubs of inspiration and action-oriented learning-by-experience. Her journey is a testament to the power of innovation, connectivity, and a deep-seated belief in the potential of people to thrive.

Intrigued by Mei Lin's remarkable journey and her commitment to harnessing technology for the betterment of humanity, we sat down with her for an in-depth Q&A that sheds light on her vision for the future...

Can you tell us more about the concept of People Centered Internet and its importance in reshaping societies and economies?

The primary goal of the People Centered Internet (PCI) is to leverage the internet's potential to enhance the quality of life and well-being on a global scale. PCI consists of members from various countries worldwide. We aim to build resilient communities through digital infrastructure and ecosystems that are informed by local priorities and goals. We actively encourage connectivity, combat the spread of disinformation, tackle ethical concerns related to technology, provide support for people-centered applications and initiatives, offer guidance to policymakers, and leverage technology to strengthen community resilience.

What motivated you to co-found the People Centered Internet? What goals did you aim to achieve through this organization?

The concept of a People Centered Internet (PCI) is to have an internet of the people by the people, for the people, and with the people.Over the years, larger institutions have exerted influence, shifting the internet away from its people-centric origins. PCI seeks to bring the internet back to the people, emphasizing their rights and needs. It is essential in reshaping societies and economies as it promotes empowerment, inclusivity, privacy, democratization of knowledge, and active civic engagement.

How do you envision resilient communities being financed with digital assets? Can you provide some examples or case studies?

Rather than perceiving disasters and challenges as setbacks, they can be seen as opportunities for growth and development. By ensuring access and inclusion for marginalized communities, we tap into their inherent resilience and resourcefulness, as they have already navigated a world not designed for them.

In modern finance and economics we have not rigorously tracked intangible assets even as they are a larger and larger portion of the value of public companies. Companies should more clearly track intangible assets - as we begin to identify them and track them using digital asset registries, communities can follow suit, and count the capacity-building the community does to become more resilient, as digital assets on the community balance sheet.

Drawing from your background in financial analysis and operations research, how have you applied these skills to the field of information management and community development?

While working at Intel and Oracle, I played a pioneering role in the development and implementation of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) strategies. Specifically, I helped transition Oracle's focus from Fortune 500 customers to smaller enterprises, recognizing the value of targeting a broader market segment. This experience allowed me to witness the evolution of CRM systems and the potential divergence between their original intent of benefiting customers and how large corporations often prioritize their own profits and interests.

In your experience, what are some of the challenges communities face in leveraging digital assets and connecting with one another? How can these challenges be addressed?

There is a lack of inclusivity as not all segments of the population have equal participation or access to the digital world. For instance, the visually impaired encounter significant difficulties with the internet, women are underrepresented in technical roles within digital companies (only 23%), and not everyone can benefit from digital healthcare methods. Furthermore, data concentration among a few entities limits access and prevents profitable analysis for the benefit of the general public.

To tackle these issues, the establishment of digital utilities is crucial. These utilities would handle data collection, ensure access rights for all stakeholders, be managed publicly or cooperatively, operate based on open-source principles, and adhere to consistent global regulations.

Efficient management and availability of data collected by digital service providers, while complying with data protection regulations, are vital for addressing digital inclusion gaps in various sectors. In the healthcare industry, digital public goods can be created to facilitate equitable access to critical resources. Moreover, simplifying lending to micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) can be achieved through data processing services, eliminating the need for manual and repetitive data entry while allowing funders to focus on assessing innovation capabilities.

These new structures should be implemented across multiple areas, with each domain learning from the experiences of others. We refer to this new organizational framework, which builds upon existing initiatives, as the Prosperity Network.

We are proposing Prosperity Data Networks where the data nodes  are governed and controlled by communities - but the network connects the data nodes so the communities can share and learn to be resilient and more prepared.

Could you share a specific example where the lessons learned from tech corporations have greatly improved the effective delivery of desired outcomes in community health centers?

Currently, there is no specific example. Tech companies have not addressed this important sector. However, there is potential for startups and tech corporations to utilize technology to enhance the efficiency and impact of cooperatives in the community health sector, in transportation and other sectors. India has 10,000 cooperatives mostly in farming. Trail Guides and Trading posts on the Journey to Health describes the way 8000 community health centers begancollaborating and improving their outcomes. The Practical Playbook gives the specific example. 

How do you build alliances and people-centered ecosystems with organizations like the IEEE, World Economic Forum, World Bank, and the UN? What role do these collaborations play in advancing your mission?

I make friends and by helping to achieve their agendas, we achieve our own. These collaborations - these connections of dots -  play a crucial role in advancing our mission and enabling more of us to achieve our separate goals together. The People Centered Internet convenes the monthly Digital Cooperation and Diplomacy informal network, where people come together to hear the latest developments from the UNDP and ITU, the IEEE, WEF and the World Bank. This venue brings private sector and civic sector leaders together to engage with their like-minded peers. It's a forum for friends - building on the lessons of the early internet which was fueled by friendship. Lasting relationships are built, even as individual people might move from institutions or between the public and private sector. 

What role does data play in promoting resilient communities and ensuring people thrive? How do you ensure that data is used ethically and responsibly?

Data plays a crucial role in promoting resilient communities and ensuring people thrive. Throughout the stages of resilience, including anticipation, withstand, recover, and adapt, data is essential at each step. It provides valuable insights and information that, for e.g., enable communities to anticipate climate change impacts, assess first responder resources, evaluate state and local support programs, and gauge readiness in both the public and private sectors. Situational awareness is enhanced through data, aiding communities in withstanding and recovering from disruptions. Additionally, data facilitates the understanding of the "new normal" post-disruption and tracks progress in adaptation, emphasizing the importance of data-driven decision-making rather than simply rebuilding to the pre-crisis status quo. Access to previously untapped data sources is instrumental in driving innovation, particularly in empowering small and medium-sized enterprises and optimizing resource allocation through community data utilization.

To ensure the ethical and responsible use of data, it is imperative to establish checks and balances that incorporate diverse community stakeholders beyond government and business entities. Ethical data usage requires a collaborative approach, where communities actively participate in decision-making processes related to data collection, analysis, and utilization.

Can you share any success stories or significant milestones achieved by the People Centered Internet? What impact have these achievements had on the communities you work with?

The People Centered Internet led the development of Puerto Rico's Digital Recovery plan after Hurricane Maria and Irma. Working closely with the people of Puerto Rico and the US Department of Commerce, PCI is currently involved in the Puerto Rico Prosperity Initiative, focusing on Sustainable Prosperity Centers and MSME financing.

Since the founding of PCI, we have been working together with Native American tribal communities. The Tribal Resource Center supports digital opportunities to provide high-speed internet connections on tribal lands. The initiative currently reaches over 175 tribes.

As the Chair of the People Centered Internet, what are your future plans and aspirations for the organization? How do you see its work evolving in the coming years?

My future plans and aspirations for the organization include developing regional Digital Cross Sector Regulatory Sandboxes with the International Telecommunication Union.

What guiding principle do you live by in both life and work?

Friendship will fuel the future we want.

Further reading: 'Addressing the Digital Divide and Mitigating the Risk of AI by People-Centered, Collaborative Digital Regulation' by Mei Lin Fung & Jascha Stein in Issue #3 of The Bridge.

Photos courtesy of: Mei Lin Fung, HPI/K.Herschelmann, Planet Home

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