In a year of high-profile controversies and failures for IT, people still found ways to use technology to make life better for others. You may recognize some of these folks; others might surprise you.
Every year, there are heroes and villains across all industries. Though it's much easier to point out the villains, the heroes are the ones who should really be getting the attention. Within the world of technology, there were quite a lot of ups and downs in 2013. For this article, I want to focus on the ups – the heroes. These are people who invented, used, or promoted technology in a way to better a group of people or society in general or to further the reach of technology itself. You might find your own hero on this list — or you might find someone you consider to be a villain. (That's where perspective comes into play.) Either way, 2013 was an exciting year and I want to applaud a few of those who made it so.
1: Ed Snowden
Ed Snowden was a whistle blower the likes of which the world has never seen. Many consider him a villain. I, on the other hand, hold him up in the hero category for one simple reason: His disclosure of classified documents unveiled the NSA's mass surveillance program. Snowden's goal was "...to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them." Prior to this leak, the public was unaware of the depth of surveillance and the true nature of government secrecy. His disclosures have also had major implications for those in the technology field.
2: George Takei
George Takei is not only a hero in the world of Star Trek, he is an unsung hero of equality. In 2013, Takei took his charge to social platforms like Twitter and Facebook to spread the word of love and compassion (with a mighty sense of humor) for all. Takei has helped bring the spotlight on bullying and inequality in a way few others have. And thanks to social networking, Takei's voice (literally and figuratively) has spread like the meme it deserves to be.
3: Chuck Hull
Chuck Hull is the co-founder of 3D Systems. If that doesn't ring a bell, all I need to say is 3D printing. That's right, Hull has helped to bring three-dimensional printing into the household and turn it into a revolution. With the help of 3D printing, the manufacturing process has become something even a single-owner business can master. The year 2013 was a major blastoff for 3D printing and Chuck Hull, and 3D Systems will see to it that the years to come continue to broaden the horizons for this miraculous technology.
4: Mark Shuttleworth
Mark Shuttleworth wound up in the center of controversy within the open source community. Many in the community pointed fingers of blame at Shuttleworth for moving away from the Wayland X Server to an in-house solution. Nearly everyone was up in arms. But Shuttleworth had a vision, one that could easily skyrocket the usage of Linux on the desktop and mobile platforms. I give Shuttleworth this nod for sticking to his plan and continuing to make Ubuntu Linux one of the most user-friendly Linux distributions on the planet. If Shuttleworth has his way, Linux will become a household name.
5: Estella Pyfrom
Estella Pyfrom is probably not a name many of you know – but it should be. This amazing Florida woman used her life savings to create a mobile computer lab (Estella's Brilliant Bus), which provides a mobile tutoring program for thousands of low-income students in the Palm Beach County area. Pyfrom doesn't consider her brainchild just “a bus,” but “a movement.” With the help of her Brilliant Bus, Estella Pyfrom is bridging the digital gap so that less fortunate children can get their hands on technology and level the playing field.
6: Dr. Laura Stachel
Dr. Laura Stachel created the "solar suitcase" to enable healthcare workers to deliver babies in more than 20 underprivileged countries. The primary focus is for women to be able to have babies safely and with dignity. Stachel was inspired to develop the suitcase when she discovered many women and babies were dying simply from a lack of proper lighting during the birthing process. With the help of the suitcase, births can now happen with adequate lighting as well as power. The suitcase also aids in numerous other treatments for the sick.
7: Jen Vargas
Jen Vargas wanted to be a Google Glass explorer, so she turned to her community to raise the funds to achieve that goal. But then something special happened. Jen gave back. With her Google Glass Explorer status, she used her glass to start the grass roots initiative Glass4Good. Jen used her Glass to help improve the city of Orlando and other local non-profits. Her efforts have gone to help organizations such as Give Kids the World, Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, New Hope for Kids, and a Gift for Teaching. Jen has proved that grassroots efforts do pay off and that sometimes a return investment can go much further than you might expect.
8: Boston Marathon bombing investigators
When the tragedy occurred during the Boston Marathon, the police reacted with efficiency and remarkable humanity. They used every piece of technology that had at their disposal (surveillance video, private video, thermal imagery, robotics, data analytics) and quickly located the suspects. There is no way to proclaim this a “win,” when lives were lost and ruined and innocent humans were disfigured. But in the end, the heroism of the police and other authorities can't go without mention. This is one occasion where the smartphone (and its video cameras) proved its value.
9: Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. That in and of itself should be impressive enough to land her on the list of 2013 tech heroes. Many consider her to have been the single most powerful woman in technology during 2013. In March 2013, she published her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which sold nearly 150,000 copies in its first week and held the top spot in nonfiction for quite some time. Being in charge of the operations of the largest and most popular Web site on the planet solidifies Sandberg as a hero of 2013.
10: Amy Parnell
Amy Parnell is the principal designer for LinkedIn. She led the redesign of the LinkedIn homepage and profile pages, which helped make LinkedIn one of the best means of networking for businesses and technology. Her skills extend to engineering, Web development, and data science. I believe she will be a superstar in the years to come, so I hand her a 2013 hero award for technology.
There you go — my heroes of 2013. Some have had a tremendous impact on technology and some have used technology to have a positive impact on others. Heroes come in all shapes, sizes, and forms, but their deeds all serve a singular purpose: to better the world.
What tech heroes would you add to this list? Join the discussion and share your own picks.