Benetech’s Code Alliance Connects Communities for Social Impact

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About a year ago, I joined the Benetech Labs’ team to learn more about the role technology plays in improving people’s lives. Benetech has been actively working in this space since 1989, when Jim Fruchterman first founded the organization. Jim’s goal was to improve machine reading and recognition systems and build software for people that are visually impaired. Today, one of Benetech’s flagship programs, Bookshare, is the world’s largest online library of accessible ebooks that contains over 460,000 titles and counting.

As Benetech continues to gain recognition in Silicon Valley as an organization that measures its technology against real-world impact, many of our departments have been contacted daily to help other organizations understand technology applied to the social sector. This is one of the reason why the Benetech Labs program was started: to help bridge gaps between different sectors and explore what is possible when we bring people together.

At Benetech Labs, we ask ourselves: Which of the many new product ideas in our pipeline could become successful tools that improve the lives of entire communities by an order of magnitude? Our labs team has always worked directly with other organizations and made communities and end users a focus in how we think about building products for social good. Consequently, the Code Alliance initiative was created because we knew that there were hundreds of technologists who wanted to use their cutting-edge skills to change the world for the better.

Code Alliance and Optimizely Help Nonprofits Scale Impact

Most recently, we worked with Optimizely to help three nonprofit organizations learn how to scale impact. Optimizely is a startup in San Francisco that has been working on innovative technologies for years. They’ve been on the cutting edge of personalization and have been using their robust A/B, multivariate, and multipage testing technologies to drive users to take action on the web. When we consider how fundamentally the Internet has changed the way we process information, and we think about the fact that small content changes can make a huge difference in driving user behavior, Optimizely’s expertise becomes especially relevant in social change work. That’s why Optimizely chose to engage their engineers, designers, and product managers in a volunteer event this year.

Said Howard Dyckoff and Tom Pyle of OCCUR, one of the three nonprofits at the event:

Our Open Oakland project – TrashTalk-Oakland – had a great session at Optimizely in San Francisco on July 27. We had a resourceful and engaging volunteer technical team and after five hours, came away with a working website prototype on the Google App Engine platform running on Python and NodeJS. Our thanks to Deep Datta from Benetech and the volunteer leaders at Optimizely for the setup and coordination of the working session and for welcoming us as guests. It was great fun, and we accomplished a lot for our project.

Even One Day Can Yield a Big Impact

I know what you’re thinking. How much of an impact can we make in just one day? The truth is, events like these are just a starting point; they’re a way to help people realize how important collaboration is – especially in today’s globally-connected society. Even short events have provided opportunities to make a huge difference. This is because when we bring together experts from different fields, we’re not talking about a day’s worth of impact; we’re talking about specific and relevant expertise that professionals share with each other to achieve mutually-beneficial goals. In fact, the line between for-profit and nonprofit impact is so thin that we find ourselves referring to this dynamic field of change as “social entrepreneurship.” The same experts that have been working at large companies in the past have found their way to smaller organizations where they can take a more agile and cross-functional approach to solving problems with technology.

Daniel Hill from Green Impact Campaign is one such expert. His organization uses cloud-based tools to drive change in the energy sector. Says Daniel:

As a small, startup, tech nonprofit, it can be difficult to find and afford the technological expertise that our program needs to make an impact. Often times we must rely on manual processes to work around solutions that we know could be better automated with technology. Through the Volunteer Hack with Code Alliance and Optimizely, we worked together with a team of brilliant, creative developers to try and find the best solution to tackle this task. This kind of event is the perfect example of how technology can bring people of different backgrounds together to tackle complex social issues. Code Alliance is truly helping move the tech field more toward humanitarian and social issue development.

Because of the highly digitized world we live in, the list of organizations that are technology-focused

continues to grow. While it may sound obvious to state that technology plays an important role for nonprofit organizations, what is slightly less obvious is how important it is to acknowledge that both for-profit and nonprofit organizations are highly reliant on the individuals who dedicate their careers to driving things forward. This commonality, and the interdisciplinary nature of digital work, is a feature of our modern world that provides exponential opportunities to focus on collective change. This aspiration is what drives organizations like Benetech to build communities and take a cross-disciplinary approach to social impact. As we continue to work on some of the biggest problems on the planet, our Code Alliance team is fortunate to be able to provide a first-mover advantage to all of those technological change makers out there. Thank you to Optimizely, Green Impact Campaign, Root & Rebound, and the OCCUR Technology Center for allowing us to help you make a difference.

About Code Alliance

Code Alliance is a Benetech initiative that brings together developers, nonprofits, and tech companies to harness the power of open source and make an impact.