Coding for a Better World

For lawyers or doctors eager to lend their professional energy to good causes, it’s fairly straightforward to find pro bono opportunities. But what if your work involves writing code or fixing bugs? Software developers, technical writers, and other IT professionals who want to volunteer may not know where to begin looking for causes that make use of their expertise.

SocialCoding4Good (SC4G) aims to fill this gap by developing an online platform to match skilled employees from the technology sector with causes that need technical help. An initiative of Benetech, a nonprofit pioneer in leveraging technology for social good, SC4G focuses specifically on opensource projects that address humanitarian issues. Known as HFOSS for humanitarian free and open source software, such projects are proliferating to address causes ranging from human rights to global literacy.

“Open-source projects are perfectly suited to volunteers,” explains SC4G leader Gerardo Capiel, vice president of engineering for Benetech. The open-source Firefox browser, for instance, has been developed and improved by thousands of volunteers collaborating from around the world. Why not do the same, he reasoned, to speed the development of innovative tools to protect human rights workers, improve food supply chains in drought-stricken regions, or achieve other social benefits?

Seed funding from the Knight Foundation through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation has enabled SC4G to launch a pilot with HFOSS “sister organizations,” as Capiel describes them. Although not formally connected, organizations such as FrontlineSMS and Benetech are like-minded when it comes to using technological innovation to solve tricky social and environmental problems. They also need more extended volunteer engagement than a weekend-long burst of hackathon energy.

The Guardian Project, for example, is building tools on the Android mobile platform to ensure safer communication channels for those working under high-risk conditions. “These tools make secure communication possible in sensitive areas,” explains Guardian’s Derek Halliday. Having a safe way to gather and send information via mobile device, protect online contacts, or just keep your web browsing history private can be a lifesaver for human rights workers, journalists, health workers, and citizen activists in political hotspots.

The Guardian Project’s work has attracted grant funding and government support, “but we don’t have the funds to really ramp up resources,” Halliday says. Developer headcount runs to “the tens,” he estimates, rather than hundreds. Through SC4G, Halliday is anticipating an influx of highly skilled technical innovators to advance the Guardian Project’s cutting-edge mobile tools on a limited budget.

On the other end of this equation, technology companies see SC4G as a way to offer employees new opportunities for skills-based volunteering. , a global cloud virtualization company based in Palo Alto, Calif., is the first to commit to the initiative, giving each employee five paid days per year to devote to “causes they care about, things that are closest to their hearts,” says Nicola Acutt, director of the  Foundation.

Through SC4G, VMware’s global workforce of 12,000 “can leverage their specialized skills to have a bigger impact,” Acutt predicts, “and find opportunities that spark their passions.” What might software engineers gain in return? “Leadership experience, working in new situations—there’s a whole host of potential soft skills,” she adds.

SC4G is developing its own tools to fine-tune matching opportunities between HFOSS projects and interested volunteers.
“We want to pair up the right developer with the right project,” Capiel says. “We’re breaking projects into small bits so that it’s easy for lots of people to collaborate.”

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