Thursday, September 20, 2012

SocialCoding4Good: Mobilizing Technology and Volunteerism for Transformative Impact


Benetech, like many nonprofit organizations building open source software for social good, often relies upon the contributions of experienced software developers to help its solutions grow and scale. We frequently have more volunteers than we have projects; while at other times, we have a list of tasks we could get done -- if only we had the people.  Often there's a mismatch between the skills of a volunteer and the skills required by our projects.  Last year, we found ourselves asking two key questions:

  • What if we could build upon the enthusiasm and momentum that spring out of increasingly popular weekend hackathon-for-good events, and channel them towards existing, sustainable humanitarian free and open source (HFOSS) projects?
  • What if there were a website that software industry professionals could visit to discover open source organizations like Amara, FrontlineSMS, or The Guardian Project, and learn about their technical volunteer opportunities?

With a seed grant from the Knight Foundation, we set out to find the answers to these questions. In so doing, we launched Benetech’s newest program, SocialCoding4Good.

It’s been an exciting year for SocialCoding4Good: in addition to partnering with several social good open source projects, we’ve participated in NASA’s Open Government Initiative, joined Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) as a Sustainability Partner, and are working with Amnesty International on an application first featured at the June 2012 RHoK Global event. Most importantly, we’ve matched dozens of volunteers to opportunities to contribute their technical talents toward solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.

One area that’s been especially rewarding is our engagement with technology companies. While working alongside corporate social responsibility and innovation teams was part of our initial long-term vision, the immediate interest and active participation from the likes of Cisco, Google, HP, ThoughtWorks, and VMware has been tremendous, with very real impact.  It turns out that leading tech companies are eager to have skills-based volunteer opportunities for their employees, especially those that advance social and humanitarian goals.

Employee teams have created new features for Mozilla’s Popcorn project, designed and developed desktop and mobile applications supporting conservation management, education, and human rights, and provided technical image descriptions for accessible STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) textbooks to Benetech’s own DIAGRAM Center.

“SocialCoding4Good is an important partner supporting VMware's commitment to giving back and active learning through service,” says Nicola Acutt, Director of VMware Foundation. VMware employees and teams can volunteer their 40 hours of paid service time on any number of SocialCoding4Good opportunities, and those in R&D who are eligible can even devote three months to work on a single HFOSS partner project. The Tech Talks at VMware, in which I presented SocialCoding4Good along with Code for America Founder Jen Pahlka and Wikimedia Foundation Director of Engineering Alolita Sharma, attracted a large employee turnout. It was heartwarming to see so many industry professionals eager to jump on board: to see their technical skills be effectively applied to social problems!

With generous funding we recently received from the Hewlett Foundation and from Hewlett Packard Company, SocialCoding4Good is taking off! At scale, our platform will support an active network of education and volunteer opportunities for individual and corporate technologists of all levels, as well as a practical toolset for nonprofits and social enterprises building open source software solutions in service of social good. We envision a thriving community committed to leveraging technology for good and bridging sectors for lasting, transformative impact.

SocialCoding4Good will be attending Mashable’s Social Good Summit in New York September 22-24, and A Billion+ Change’s Envisioning the Future of Corporate Service event in Los Angeles on October 1. We’d love to meet you there!

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