The rise of the do-gooder developer

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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┬áInternet 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, 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 Google.org 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 Change.org, 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, Yahoo, the World Bank, Microsoft, and NASA — to hold events where developers spend time working on applications for disaster relief and fighting climate change. Last year RHOK spawned┬áI’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 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.

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