It's been a year since Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, destroying homes, taking lives and decimating the Eastern seaboard. During the natural disaster, donations to relief agencies and charities poured in from across the country via text—a technology that proved essential in the immediate aftermath of the superstorm. It's a simple and yet revolutionary idea, born out of the tragedy of another hurricane seven years prior, when AT&T's Marian Croak witnessed the misery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and felt moved to help. She developed and patented the donation-via-text message system and made the technology free to use without licensing or fees. Since then, organizations such as the Red Cross have relied on Croak's invention in earthquakes, tornadoes and other natural disasters—and for her ingenuity, she was just honored with the 2013 Thomas Edison Patent Award. Croak spoke to The Daily Beast about using technology to tap into our altruistic impulses, and about encouraging young women to enter the STEM fields, where they have a real chance at changing the world.
What led you to develop this technology?
It was while I was watching Katrina that I conceived of a concept of being able to donate to a charitable organization as quickly as possible. And then we filed a patent—I think Katrina happened in August of 2005 and we filed the patent that September. So the concept behind the patent is, if you have a service provider—and that could be a telecommunications company like AT&T, or a bank—anyone that has a billing relationship with a consumer can incorporate this type of technology and use this concept. It allows the consumer to be able to donate to a named charity as quickly as possible. So in the case of using texts, a charity can quickly send a message to a consumer asking for a donation, the consumer can quickly put in an amount and send a text to a short code that’s associated with the charity. If you were a bank and you had a relationship with a client through a debit card, a consumer could designate a certain charity, or the bank could designate a certain charity, and every time you used the debit card over a certain amount, a certain amount could be donated to a charity. It’s a foundational technology, meaning that it can be used in a lot of different applications, and with a lot of different technologies. But it allows you to donate very quickly, to do it without really thinking, and for it not to be a burden.
In the wake of these disasters, people often have the impulse to help—and this technology greatly facilitates that. It sounds like you had that impulse yourself after Katrina.
It was really my own feelings of reacting to Katrina, and how desperately the people seemed to need help. And yet it was very hard to understand how to help them, because it seemed like things were very fragmented, and it wasn’t clear which organization was in charge. If people needed clothes, if people needed money—it wasn’t clear how to get it to them quickly. So I was just trying to think of ways that some leading charity or organization could offer the opportunity for people to donate quickly in a crisis situation without having to use methods that are difficult, or that would cause someone to hesitate to do it. People donate a lot on impulse and there’s a lot of emotion involved in wanting to donate, and sometimes you see a visual image that causes you to want to do something very quickly, but then you get distracted and it’s gone. So if you have to use the mail or you have to call someone or use an 800 number, a lot of times, people are reluctant to do that. And they’re event reluctant to answer the phone sometimes, even if they see that there’s an 800 number coming in asking for a donation. But people usually will respond to a text message.
After Katrina, what other kinds of disasters have you seen this technology be most useful in?
I noticed that it was used for the situation that happened in Haiti. There have been a few other natural disasters where the Red Cross has used it. Mostly in tornadoes or natural disasters, I’ve seen it used. I’ve love to see banks start using debit cards, because I think that would be a great application for it—but I haven’t seen that yet.
Is this something that could be used in foreign countries, for in-country donations and not just Americans donating abroad?
I would love to see it used across the world, because there is nothing domestic about the technology, and the concept is very generic. All you really need is a billing relationship with a customer and you can use it—and a way of communicating with that customer. You could definitely use it in different language; you could use it across the world. You can use it in different industries as well, not just telecommunications.
In terms of other needs that you see with disaster relief, where do you say to yourself, ‘I’d really like to see this be the next big invention’?
That’s a good question. One way of thinking about this is that, the way the technology is used today, the charity is soliciting donations from the client. I’d love to be able to initiate a donation on my own. And so that would be another type of invention that we could think about doing. It may not be a natural disaster, but I may see a homeless person and think, ‘There’s this great food bank that I would love to be able to donate to,’ and just instantly be able to text a donation to that food bank. Or use a debit card to provide a donation to them. So it would be almost the reverse of what this does. Many times, people do feel a sense of empathy for someone who is in trouble, and they want to be able to provide help in a more generic way, and so something that would allow them to do so spontaneously, as opposed to a predetermined way, would be a good thing to do.
What’s your own personal background that led you to become an inventor?
My title right now is Senior Vice President and I’m in AT&T labs and I have an organization that is called Domain 2.0 Architecture and Advanced Services Development. It’s the research organization and the advanced technologies organization. We work on things like cloud technology and virtualization…so what we’re trying to do is to take AT&T into the next revolution in technology, trying to divorce hardware and software and make our network more software defined, and to open it and expose it to API, as opposed to just being a service provider…we want to open up the network and allow third parties to develop applications within the network itself as well…I’ve been at AT&T for 31 years now, and I’ve been in research and development for that long, as well. It’s been a very excited, very fast-moving path.
What did you study in college?
I have my doctorate in quantitative analysis—that’s now called Beta Science—and social psychology.
Then it’s no wonder you understand what motivates people to give.
In social psychology, I did study altruistic behaviors, so maybe that’s why that patent happened.
We talk a lot about women in the STEM fields and trying to get more young girls involved in STEM. Have you seen women in the young generation be more involved in computer science?
It’s really exciting, because there was a trend where, for awhile, a lot of women were going into technology fields and then there was a drop-off. I’ve been working with a lot of younger people who are in high school and just starting their college careers, through the Girls Who Code program, and it’s very exciting because they were shocked to hear that. They’re not as hesitant about getting into scientific fields or using math, or thinking of science in a way that is intimidating at all, or engineering, for that matter. So I think over time, we’re going to see the trend reverse itself. Because it has been declining—women have been leaving these fields—but I think that from what I’m seeing among younger people, we’ll see a big growth start to happen within about five or six years.
I think one that I try to motivate younger students to think about the field of STEM is that this is one way you can change the world. That you can use technology to change the world—you can come up with inventions or things that may be bothersome to you, or you see are broken and you can’t fix, and you can use your technology, you can collaborate with other people, to actually change that and make a difference. So it’s a very difficult path in terms of having a lot of discipline and doing hard work, but once you’ve achieved that, the world is open to you in order to make a difference. And I think a lot of young women, they’re creative and I think they like to collaborate, they like to work in teams. And in many corporations, especially larger corporations that are focused on research and development, those are exactly the skills that are needed. And the more diversity you have in the way that people think and the way that people design things, and the perspectives that they have, the better. I’m hoping we’ll see that change.