Blog Post

The rise of the do-gooder developer

Apps will save the world — or at least there’s a trend around developers donating time to working on apps to make the world better. These projects give the developer community a chance to give back and work on rewarding projects, while at the same time providing some much-needed innovation around data sets for the public good.

Developers are more in-demand every year, particularly now that a seeming Internet and social media bubble is growing, and as young developers graduate college (or skip university altogether), they seem to be increasingly looking for do-gooder developer projects to work on. Perhaps it’s the young age of these new developers, the “free-for-all” mindset of the coder, or the relatively high pay for many developers, but donating time to hack projects seems to be de rigueur in many programmer circles.

Data that can be mashed up and blended, for free or at a low cost, to create these types of philanthropic apps is being unleashed at a rapid rate, with continuously easier access and open source tools. The rise of big data, in general, is leading to the need for more types of ways to organize and access this data.

At least three groups come to mind, that have helped pave the way for the rise of do-gooder app development. First, Google (s GOOG), which for years has touted its “do no evil” slogan, has encouraged employees to have their 20-percent time and also runs a philanthropic arm. Google commonly does things, like when donated 20 million CPU hours of Google Earth Engine to groups in the developing world to use.

Second, the rise of Y-Combinator, (and similar incubation groups) that encourage young entrepreneurial and developer types to come together and channel their coding creativity. Lastly, the popularity of business competitions like those from the X-Prize Foundation have helped show companies, investors and entrepreneurs that these innovation prizes actually work.

Do-gooder developers

Last month, Hack for Change, sponsored by, brought together around a hundred developers that spent 24 hours building do-gooder applications like winner Good Neighbor, which sends users a text message when a neighbor in need requires help. Another dozen philanthropic apps were coded and launched at the event.

Random Hacks of Kindness (RHOK) is a group that came together in 2009 — backed by Google (s GOOG), Yahoo (s YHOO), the World Bank, Microsoft (s MSFT), and NASA — to hold events where developers spend time working on applications for disaster relief and fighting climate change. Last year RHOK spawned I’mOK, a mobile app that helps people in disasters alert loved ones that they are OK, and Google also used RHOK to refine its PeopleFinder app, a similar app that connects disaster victims.

Grass-roots programs like Hack for Change and Random Hacks of Kindness can be a good places for small developer teams to flesh out ideas that can become larger projects, or startups even. Or, as in the case for Google, potentially projects that can be taken back to their companies.

The trend is also moving beyond the grass roots to the corporate and government worlds. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency launched its Apps for the Environment contest, which calls for developers to use EPA data (and any mashup data) to produce apps that can help the environment. Winners of the EPA contest win a trip to Washington, D.C. to present the app, and the EPA will highlight the winning apps on its website. GE (s ge) has also tapped into this type of contest with its smart grid challenge, though GE’s contest is more about creating innovation for GE around the smart grid sector than helping people or saving the planet.

The real challenge for these do-gooder developer projects is that donated developer time sometimes leads to apps that aren’t fully baked or all that helpful. But the good news is that since these projects are largely open-sourced, future developers can often connect with the project and help take it a step further.

Image courtesy of Guillherme Chapwieske.

9 Responses to “The rise of the do-gooder developer”

  1. Sorry but it’s not grassroots if it’s funded by corporations, especially huge ones like Google. Grassroots means up from the people, independent of large commercial or governmental interests or support.

  2. Dave Getzin

    Katie, Thanks for the article, I have been looking for these types of connections for a while now. I have a project that uses a meritocracy (open source like) to evaluate the merits of Green practices and CleanTech innovations. And while IBM (my employer) helped me with programmers to code a Proof of Concept web site, this “Do Good” and non-profit venture has been stuck since that ended.

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Katie.

    There is indeed great potential and opportunity in projects like RHOK – not only for business ideas, but also for new types of NGOs. It is very interesting to see how different their approach to solve the world’s problems is compared to their established (and old) counterparts (I actually think this can lead to some disruptive changes in the non governmental sector – a thing I’m also aiming at with, a newly founded Tech-NGO that connects creative ideas in order to solve everyday problems in developing countries).

    I’m really looking forward to read and learn more about this!

  4. Great article! I love to see developers involved in green actions.

    Our company Mobiversal has volunteered to build the iPhone app for “Let’s Do It, Romania!” (part of initiative). The app is used to create a waste map and then, in a single day more than 500,000 volunteers are expected to participate in an effort to clean the countryside. In the 2010 edition 200,000 people gathered over 550,000 bags of refuse.

    You can read more on our blog: