The first rule of solving real-world problems using technology is to work directly with the communities that know the problem space best. That’s precisely what Benetech’s Code Alliance initiative has done by bringing nonprofit organizations together with Google engineers for the annual #GoogleServe event in June at the company’s Mountain View headquarters. Today, many nonprofits are highly technical and some even use technology as their core tactic to achieve their social mission. But nonprofits are not like large technology companies – they cannot just hire engineers whenever new problems arise. Instead, they must rely on their existing teams to solve a myriad of issues. While nonprofit software engineers are usually highly skilled and versatile, many are asked to play multiple technical roles at their organizations, and sometimes this can limit their team’s capacity and lead to new technical features and fresh ideas being left on the back burner.
Code Alliance + Google is a Winning Formula
This is where Google comes in. Google is known for its culture of innovation, and through various unique programs like Google.org, GooglersGive, and Google X, employees at the company have shown the world that they’re not afraid to tackle complex social issues. It makes perfect sense, then, to bring these two communities together to continue the process of improving how human beings live and thrive on this planet. We at Code Alliance feel privileged to be the bridge between these social entrepreneurs and Google engineers to collectively hack applications that can scale social impact.
Google Volunteers Build Entire Web App for Elva.org
Monday was the kickoff of our series of hack events and we were graced with the perfect project to start. An international nonprofit, Elva.org, that builds custom web applications for vulnerable communities, needed help building a new module for an agricultural app called Traktor. The goal of the module was to take market price data from local governments in the country of Georgia and display average crop prices to local farmers. The module was also designed to allow individual farmers to input their own data directly into the app and provide additional metrics to measure and track prices in different regions. Elva did a great job providing some fairly mature wireframes, so all the Googlers had to do was help build the data model, setup the actual database, and get this data to show up in a mobile browser.
The three Google volunteers built an entire responsive web app in less than eight hours. Collectively,
they set up a PostgreSQL database in Heroku, built custom APIs to access that data, and created a responsive web template using Bootstrap and JQuery. The team from Elva.org was on Google Hangouts during the first hour of the event, but because of the time difference with Eastern Europe, we advised them to get some shut eye and told them that we’d update them later in the day (which was the next morning for them). As Elva members were waking up, our Google team was wrapping up the project. Elva was pleasantly surprised to see that the three Googlers had completed the entire module in one sitting. After wrapping up the day, Elva emailed me to express that they were very happy with the hack day. In response to the Google team, Lasha from Elva.org said, “I just want to thank you, Zora, and all other team members for your work and collaboration with us.”
Google Volunteers Develop BitGive’s Donation Transparency Platform
BitGive is another organization that submitted a project for GoogleServe. Benetech’s Code Alliance initiative had worked with BitGive in the past. Thus, we were excited to see their Donation Transparency Platform project evolve. This platform is meant to help donors track their bitcoin donations through the entire system and see the final outcome of where their bitcoins had gone. Connie, the Executive Director of BitGive, came to Google’s campus in person to guide the Google volunteers through the entire BitGive system so they could better understand her vision and strategy as we attempted to build more of the platform.
As it turned out, many of Connie’s needs involved wireframes and design. Aaron, a project lead at Google, created a beautiful new mockup of the Donation Transparency Platform landing page. He helped design part of the user experience and then handed the wireframes off to two more volunteers who continued to walk Connie through how to approach wire framing the other features of the app. While the team’s work may not have resulted in tons of actual code, by the end of the day, the volunteers really helped Connie clearly articulate the specific user journey that each bitcoin donor would go through on the system. Connie was extremely happy with the work provided.
Additionally, she also got help from some expert Googlers on the Adwords team on how BitGive could better utilize Adwords. While the wireframes were being created, three other volunteers created some basic web templates that BitGive’s developers can later code up to track users as they watch their bitcoins move from one part of the donation system to another. Connie graciously said, “Deep and Seth, I want to thank you both for such an amazing day yesterday. I am still on cloud nine!”
Code Tenderloin Gets Alumni Tracking System
The last project to highlight is Code Tenderloin. Code Tenderloin is one of my favorite new nonprofits that we’ve had the opportunity to work with this year. Neil Shah, head of Development and Partnerships, is clear and concise about the strategy and ultimate goals of the organization. He really understands what technology’s strengths and weaknesses are in helping solve social issues around homelessness and workforce development. Code Tenderloin helps homeless participants get basic technology training and provides a step-by-step process to get some of them into developer boot camps and ultimately into coveted careers. Neil and a fellow Code Tenderloin volunteer met with five Googlers to build an alumni tracking system, so that Code Tenderloin can understand the short- and long-term career needs of their participants.
With Google’s help that day, Neil and his team were able to come up with a simple Google form that used Google’s Apps Script to move data from forms into a user database. While the team had a small hiccup trying to set up an Amazon Web Services instance, it eventually moved the database to Heroku and put the core infrastructure of the tracking system in place. A UX designer at Google also provided Code Tenderloin with some excellent graphics and visualizations that Code Tenderloin says they will continue to integrate into the application. Said Neil: “The day at Google was immensely helpful for us. I debriefed the team on what happened and their jaws dropped. We are ahead of the San Francisco city government on tracking homeless populations longitudinally from just one marathon day with Benetech. We will take what the GoogleServe volunteers and Code Alliance did and build on it.”
Code Alliance Manages Nonprofit Partners’ Needs with Google Volunteer Supply
While we’ve had many successful project days with Google over the years, we’ve also had some failures. The toughest part of matching nonprofit projects to Google engineers has to do with timing. Nonprofits don’t have detailed volunteer project plans just lying around. Nonprofit leaders usually have to ask their engineers for help in scoping out projects appropriately, and sometimes this process can take many weeks because nonprofit engineering teams are already operating over capacity.
Google engineers, on the other hand, are often bombarded with meaningful opportunities and projects outside of their highly regarded day-to-day work at Google. During GoogleServe itself, many of these engineers are awash in volunteer options. Occasionally, Googlers don’t show up for projects they signed up for, and in many cases, we’ve had to cancel nonprofit projects the day of the events for lack of volunteers. While GoogleServe presents an opportunity to get a lot of work done in a short period of time, we also recognize the challenges we face in creating appropriate matches during a busy month. We are committed to working with Google on solving some of the issues that arise during technical volunteer events.
We’ve found that consistent communication and marketing is key in getting volunteers to commit to projects. As we continue to build out ways for nonprofits to connect with Google engineers, Benetech’s Code Alliance initiative would like to thank Seth Marbin and Google for making a dedicated effort to use their skills to make an impact with organizations in the social impact space. The learning opportunities that we’ve seen arise when Google engineers have the chance to work with engineers at these nonprofits on social issues is infinite. The rewards often speak for themselves.
Success Stories Make a Big Impact
This year alone, Code Alliance has helped human rights organizations build new encryption features to help protect international activists and journalists in the field, we’ve seen agricultural workers get better access to market data, we’ve helped with workforce development, we’ve helped an NGO in the Amazon with mapping features, and we’ve helped people measure the success of their bitcoin donations. Through our partnership with Google, we’ve seen the real-world application of technology firsthand and watched as cutting-edge nonprofits help communities thrive and build sustainable processes. Together, we hope to continue to help the humanitarian technology space evolve, and we hope that we can bring more technologists into this nascent field to learn how open source collective efforts can achieve immeasurable results.
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. www.codealliance.org