How Can We Help?

From the Comments to “A Problem From Hell”, below. Justin is an Irish software engineer based in California; Caitríona is an Irish human rights worker based in Iran.

The question I keep asking myself is, is there a way to help human rights without full-scale immersion — that is, without going over there, cutting off links with your family and friends, and dedicating your life to it?

I try to do little bits to help these causes here and there — like developing open source software that’s useful for everyone; I’m ecstatic when I hear of an NGO getting good use from one of those apps. I keep contemplating doing more. But I haven’t — yet — and the idea of breaking away to such a degree is the big problem.
Posted by Justin at January 30, 2004 03:15 PM

Every little bit helps Justin. In fact, the most important person in our little office in Tuzla was Andre, our computer expert. He designed a special software to match postmortem data from the bodies we exhumed with ‘antemortem’ or ‘living’ information from the surviving families. His work alone reuinted countless families with their missing loved ones.
Posted by Caitriona at January 31, 2004 03:57 AM

So how do we do a better job of putting the Justins in touch with the Caitríonas? We need a matchmaking service to hook up tech professionals with the dedicated field workers who need help. (New York Cares is a good example of a matchmaker service for volunteers.)

The open source community is engaged and civic-minded, and clearly capable of building tools remotely. Product managers (like me) could ask NGO(Non- Governmental Organization) field workers what they need, helping them to build a collection of “user stories”, Extreme Programming style, for volunteer engineers to work on in their spare time.

Any examples out there of this working already? Perhaps the ambitious JHAI Remote Villages project, where Linux meets Laos.

4 thoughts on “How Can We Help?”

  1. Good idea.

    People in the Perl community are trying to do something similar. Their angle is different; they want to help programmers train themselves in testing and extreme programming by working on real projects. They’re using a wiki with user stories and acceptance tests to achieve this; maybe their tactics could be reused.

    Also of possible interest is SchoolTool. Its development is being funded by South African dot-com millionaire Mark Shuttleworth. :

    SchoolTool is a project to develop a common global school administration infrastructure that is freely available under an Open Source licence. Our vision is to create a platform that is equally compelling for schools and colleges in First and Third World countries, that supports best practices in school administration and which is readily customised to comply with local regulatory requirements.

    Perhaps a similar project could be used to create software that meets common requirements for NGOs and others helping their fellow man in need.


  2. Why stop at software? What volunteerism needs is a way to harness all sorts of different skills for the public good. If I’m a programmer, is volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and inexpertly driving nails the best use of my skills?

    We’re trying to build a system that lets engineers, programmers, scientists, MBAs and everyone else donate their expertise towards the collaborative design of all kinds of useful products and services for underserved communities.

    Here’s an earlier version of the same idea:


  3. Wow — some great tips in the comments. Designthatmatters looks really interesting! It’s encouraging to see there are structures to support this, and that it *has* made a difference already. I was totally unaware.

    Thanks Dervala!


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