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Ask HN: How can I do social good through programming?
461 points by simplicitea on May 19, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 376 comments
Say I want to apply what I know to better our chances as a species and/or as individuals. What problems do i work on?

Just read all the top line comments here. Interesting that no one had mentioned the one thing that has probably done the most to "better our chances as species" in the last few hundred years, and has helped hundreds of millions in India and China get out of backbreaking poverty and accumulate some wealth. And that is...

Work hard, accumulate skills, and become better at your normal job. Even if you're not writing open source software to help local governments in third world countries have free elections and fight malaria or donating 50% of your salary, you're creating value and "bettering our species" just by doing something that someone is willing to pay you for. In fact, that's how most of the world's wealth is created.

Not saying you shouldn't volunteer or donate your salary (I personally try to donate a decent chunk of my salary to givedirectly) but -- unless you're a nigerian hacker or malware developer or something -- just because you're getting paid or working on something that isn't an absolute necessity doesn't mean you aren't doing social good. Just something to think about.

I couldn't disagree more. There's a lot of jobs that add little to no value. In a fictional efficient market economy that conforms to neoclassical assumptions, sure, every job is value adding. But does anyone believe that that is the world we live in?

It's comforting to think that just going to work and doing your job is actually contributing to something, but I just don't see how that can be generally true and definitely not universally true.

Even if we just measured contribution in purely capitalist terms, e.g. shareholder value, I don't think your claim is true. I think there have been several studies showing that the average company destroys shareholder value on net. It's likely that a lot of employees in such companies are also destroying shareholder value. And this is just shareholder value - to say nothing of the value destroyed for other stakeholders.

Yes, it is possible to lead your life in such a way that even if you work very hard, you're still a net drain on humanity.

Sorry, but we have to think much harder about how we can create a net positive contribution.

We need to go beyond high school guidance counselor nostrums like "work hard! study hard!" and really struggle with the issue of how we can contribute.

"It's comforting to think that just going to work and doing your job is actually contributing to something, but I just don't see how that can be generally true..."

I can't imagine how it would NOT be true. Say you buy something from the store. Presumably you're getting more value from it than it costs, if you weren't, you wouldn't buy it. Same with a company. If an employee provides more value than their salary, it makes sense to hire them. Otherwise it doesn't. Sure it's not perfect and wages are sticky and people skate by etc, but you have to be pretty cynical to think most people aren't providing net value at their jobs. Maybe we have a different definition of "contributing to something."


"...there have been several studies showing that the average company destroys shareholder value on net."

Maybe I'm misunderstanding something or this is a typo, but how could this be true? Shareholder value isn't an abstract concept like love or blue, it's the number of shares in a co*their price. The SP 500 is not negative.

> I can't imagine how it would NOT be true.

You can make money while damaging society. Some (possible) examples are employees working at: - a tobacco company - company that supplies oppressive regimes with tools (software and military hardware) to stay in power - company peddling some kind false medical treatment - tax lawyer helping people find loopholes - lobbyist working to increase regulatory capture in favor of their company

> you have to be pretty cynical to think most people aren't providing net value at their jobs

Yes, I agree. But note that you can provide net value to your company, but detract from society as a whole. Even so, I'd say the majority of people are adding value to society: plumbers, mechanics, pilots, engineers, most lawyers, some politicians, etc.

But there is a spectrum of how much you contribute ranging from way in the negative to way in the positive. There's also jobs that contribute nothing, but don't really hurt. Day Traders come to mind, they do high-frequency money sloshing, but don't really change anything.

I honestly think it is very difficult, if not impossible, to assess the individual value of rank-and-file work to society as a whole.

It is easy to build something and say "this helped family X, or this powered Y homes", but there are so many externalities that are simply hidden. What if family X is part of Nation Z, who is about to start thermonuclear war W?

It's just a guessing game at that point. It seems that most people ignore it under the guise of "well, I do the good that I can", but it's false comfort, IMO.

Sure, it may be an educated guess, but we have to try.

It's better than the alternative, which is to assume that any job that pays (and thus is from a company that earns profit) has equal impact or externalities with all other companies.

A lack of clarity shouldn't be an excuse for not trying.

>> the majority of people are adding value to society: plumbers, mechanics, pilots, engineers, most lawyers, some politicians

I agree with the rest of your comment, except for the above quote. The jobs you listed do not make up the majority. It's interesting that you only list trades and educated workers who earn above-average wages. A plumber can earn in one day of overcharged labour what it takes a worker in the service industry a week or longer. Pilots, engineers, lawyers, and politicians certainly do not belong as part of any definition of "majority".

The majority of jobs are in the service industry: fast food joints, real restaurants, retailers, etc. More than half of service industry jobs could vanish overnight, and consumers would get along just fine. These companies and jobs don't exist out of a necessity to serve society; they exist only because employees can be paid a tiny percentage of what they are worth (and in some cases being forced to live off food stamps), while the corporations rake in billions. These companies aim to make the easiest dollar possible, with no effort put into providing a service anyone actually needs. A job does not benefit society simply because a company manages to sustain itself by maximizing its own profits at the cost of taking advantage of employees.

If we could shut down every fast food joint (ex: McDonald's) and bottom-feeding retailers (ex: Walmart), and find positions for all those employees doing something more beneficial to society, that alone would make a huge difference. Those two companies are the tip of an enormous iceberg. These companies are not a "necessary evil", as if without them there would be no jobs. These corporations perpetuate the status quo to benefit themselves - society is an externality.

The capitalism we practice today will never improve upon this situation. The only incentive is for corporations to take the entire cake, offering services people think they want (they don't even really want them), rather than services people need. Things will never change without a major shift in the way we view economics. Perhaps if the next major plague takes out 50% of the population, we'll be forced to return to basics.

Yes, I meant I can't imagine how that's not true in general, I know there are many specific contrary examples. Agree about the continuum, I think we're fortunate that most ways to make a living are on the net positive spectrum.

You are correct about the starting conditions. A company with no revenue will devote close to 100% of its resources to creating value for customers.

But as it grows revenue, shifting resources to protecting its revenue stream starts to become lucrative. Employees spend some of their time providing value to customers, and some of their time protecting the "moat" around the company.

The percentage varies quite a lot, but I think there are lots of places where it's quite high. And within a company you may be acting in a role that's almost 100% moat protection, even if your coworkers are providing value directly. Without you, other people at other companies would provide that value directly, you're just helping to ensure that it happens under your shareholders' brand.

It goes meta, because then you have companies whose product is just moat protection services for other companies.

And it goes meta in the other direction too, down to the individual employee level. When you have no experience, you devote 100% of your energy to providing value. Once you have credibility amongst your coworkers, it makes sense to start shifting some of your resources to maintaining that credibility. This can become pathological in the same way, with entire companies whose product helps employees at other companies appear more credible to their peers. E.g. PowerPoint.

"as it grows revenue, shifting resources to protecting its revenue stream starts to become lucrative"

I have a lot of nice blue chip stocks that don't do that. Companies that not only pay me dividends far greater than any savings account, but the base value of the stock increases as well. None of these companies are tech or speculative stocks. They are solid big corporations manufacturing real things that people buy to live. Maybe it's essential. Maybe it's artificial cheese and soda pop. But it's something regular people buy at the corner store or the equivalent. And there's lots of them. And this activity is essential in some way for them and nothing about the transaction is misrepresented or unreasonable.

Soda pop seem like the best possible example of a business that has worked hard to build a moat around itself, to the detriment of its customers. Those companies work hard to make it hard for people to change their lifestyle. I would be surprised if even half of revenues went into the product itself.

On the first point: Behavioral economics has taught us that life is just a lot more complicated than that. You're referring to fairly simple econ 101 models of human behavior. There's also principal-agent problems. Maybe you create value for your bosses career prospects, but does that mean the stuff you're working on is creating value for the company? Or is just creating the perception of value? Executive tenures are very short - they may or may not be creating long-term value.

On the second point: this could happen a variety of way. For example, shareholder value is destroyed when there are positive returns, but those returns are worse than what could be realized from equivalently risky positions. Another way of thinking about this is that the return on capital is less than the cost of capital, resulting in a net negative return. Another way this could happen is if shareholder returns follow a power law where only a handful of companies (e.g. Amazon) create outsized positive risk-adjusted returns whereas most companies generate negative returns or positive returns at an unnecessarily high risk level.

So, yeah, just because someone pays you doesn't imply you're actually doing something worthwhile.

This is kind of personal for me because I spent way too many years under the mistaken belief that just because I was getting paid I was doing something worthwhile. I would hope others avoid the mistake I made.

In a perfect, free, fair, well-informed market economy all economic activity happens because it helps someone.

However: In that very same perfect system, the individual is also compensated for exactly 100% of the added value.

If they then spend it on personal consumption, they capture all the value of their work for personal benefit.

Society is improved by that exact amount only if you include that workers well-being in the calculation. Otherwise, it's exactly zero.

But the effective altruist community has already come up with a perfectly valid yet somewhat disappointing answer: "earn to give", i. e. try to make as much money as possible, then spend as much of it as possible on others' wellbeing.

By your logic I can make the world a better place by selling heroin to schoolchildren.

"There's a lot of jobs that add little to no value."

Creating wealth vs transferring wealth.

I've tried to choose jobs that have some value add, some win/win angle. Alas, it hasn't been that easy.

> We need to go beyond high school guidance counselor nostrums like "work hard! study hard!" and really struggle with the issue of how we can contribute.

I think your argument is just as reductive as the parent comment. If we're going to come up with a definition of 'value' that actually helps people make good decisions about how to spend their time, then its too simplistic to say 'all jobs create some value', but it's also too simplistic to say 'the average job is destroying value'.

I honestly think the reason most people don't try to do more good in the world is because it's just really hard and complicated to tell what's good/valuable and what's not.

It's a good one, but the caveat is stronger than you mention. Just because someone wants to pay you for something, doesn't mean it's good to society. Some things are unambiguously socially harmful - cigarette industry, gambling industry - but there are also many things that are harmful by perpetuating waste of resources and man hours. Be wary of zero-sum games, where your effort goes mostly to cancel out the effort of others. Some areas of adtech come to mind, for example.

So in short: use judgement. There's a lot of social good to be done in mundane jobs - but just because someone is willing to pay for something, doesn't mean it should be done.

This is the most neoliberal thing I've ever read. No, doing nothing will not make the world a better place. And no, our mindless slide into capitalism-in-all-things is not actually good for most people. For one, see the Clinton Foundation's disastrous neoliberalization of Haiti (touted as a success because it "raised people out of poverty"): http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/05/clinton-found...

In fact, by working for a typical VC-fueled tech company, you're probably helping a few very rich people extract rent more efficiently from a greater number of people. Your best bet for social impact is to do the exact opposite -- get involved in left politics, find ways to show solidarity with people who are being hurt by the Uber-ization and Airbnb-ization of the world, and use your tech skills to counter those effects.


> you're creating value and "bettering our species" just by doing something that someone is willing to pay you for

^^^ The thought process that lets HNers sleep at night.

Have you ever witnessed the anger of the good shopkeeper, James Goodfellow, when his careless son has happened to break a pane of glass? If you have been present at such a scene, you will most assuredly bear witness to the fact that every one of the spectators, were there even thirty of them, by common consent apparently, offered the unfortunate owner this invariable consolation – "It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?"

Now, this form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.

Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier's trade – that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs – I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.

But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, "Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen."

It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented. [0]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_broken_window

To take this to a less absolutist neoliberal place - find a for-profit job where you are actually creating value. A service that saves low-income people money when they use it, that helps small (like, actually small) businesses become profitable, etc.

Sometimes yes -- sometimes no.

Yes, if you're creating better entertainment, but furniture, better toys, better gadgets, and people are willing to pay for them, you have made the world better.

But people are also willing to pay for weapons, for software that helps them to violate the privacy of others, for financial products that promise much and deliver little, for products that have addictive properties from sugar to gambling to everything else.

So, yes, just building things that other people want and getting rich in the process CAN be a good thing to do. But it is not AUTOMATICALLY a good thing to do.

Surely it depends on where someone spends the money they earn doing their job?

If I earn a good salary but I buy nothing but fast food or the cheapest (factory farmed) meat, cheap clothes made in sweatshops, expensive gadgets from companies that exploit workers, own 3 gas guzzling cars, have 5 children, vote for politicians who enjoy waging war on on other countries, how am I making the world better?

The goal is a 'normal job' which encourages me to learn through it's end impact. Further the goal is to take skills learned through developing for impact rather than profit and build something to draw enough of a salary on which has a disproportionate impact compared to it's cost. I want to be the driving factor, not be payed by or pay the driving factor.

Please don't get discouraged by some of the negative comments here. You're not the only one searching for high-impact ways of helping out with the skills one has. I strongly believe opportunities like that exist, even if they're hard to identify. I also believe there's work to be done in making those opportunities easier to find.

Feel free to e-mail me if you ever want to talk about this further (address in profile).

"that's how most of the world's wealth is created" Most of that wealth simply goes to the top 1% and stays stuck there.

Be that as it may, enough of the wealth remains with the 99% to make parent's point valid (with caveats applied).

Sounds like half-reading Adam Smith but OK

Please expand.

Well it's true that simply participating in the market helps to create value, viz the famous quote about it ot being from the good will of the butcher and baker that we enjoy our meal, but from their acting in their own self-interest. But Smith also mulls the need for regulation (due to market participants' habit of rigging markets to suit producers over consumers) and the downsides of pursuing pure efficiency (eg after praising the gains that come from the division of labor at a pin factory, he goes on to point out that getting people to do the same job over and over all day isn't good for them over the long term).

Smith was a very thoughtful economist but people have a bad habit of cherry-picking his work to suit their own needs while ignoring the bits that would constrain them.

Norman Borlaug(Saved a billion lives) had a net worth far less than Martin Shkreli(poached a billion dollars from the sick).

So I would be very surprised if compensation is directly tied to societal value.

I think Bill Gates is an interesting data point here. For a lot of his life he was reviled by many, and yet in the past 15 years he has used his wealth to do great good.

Agree that he's done a ton of good with his charitable giving, but point is that he bettered humanity (probably even more than his charity) even before that with Windows (giving the masses an easier way to interact with computers, allowing individuals and companies to create other valuable things in turn), the whole software not hardware paradigm (led to rapid development in terms of the type of programs and functionality people had access to), and Microsoft Office (Excel and Word == a ton of social value). Obviously he wasn't personally responsible for all that, and also became a multi billionaire in the process (and is giving most of it away, kudos) but even if he kept it all, that's all benefiting humanity and creating social good.

Disagree strongly.

By killing Netscape he set back the computer industry by a decade or more. If Gates hadn't used anti-competitive tactics, and he had just accepted, say, a 60% share for Windows, we would have reached where we are much quicker.

We benefit immensely from the presence today of multiple strong operating systems, Windows, Android, iOS, MacOS, Linux, and Chrome are all great offerings that force the other players to be better.

Windows languished during its monopoly decade, and we were all stuck with it. Why did it even take until iPhone 3G for there to be a widespread online software store? Because Microsoft profited from Office being the biggest, most profitable box on a shelf with a bunch of other boxes, and having that boxed software be the only place you could direct your attention on a PC. Steve Jobs could start an online software store because Apple was barely selling any software. They had nothing to lose. Gates had the world to lose.

Look at where peoples' attention goes today. That's what Netscape was promising. Now imagine if Gates had let that happen in 1995.

And Word and Excel were clones of existing software. Microsoft had about as much positive impact on the tech industry as Baidu is having now. Baidu probably has more users than Gates ever had.

1. Even a monopoly provides social value, though not as much as competitive market. See: http://www.csun.edu/~hceco008/c11d.htm

2. I'm sure Microsoft's competitive tactics had something to do with it, but it also sounds like Netscape had it's own problems: https://www.quora.com/Why-did-Netscape-lose-ground-to-IE

Almost every comment you're leaving here seems based on a Just World Fallacy, which is very close to survivor bias. It's easy but misleading to look back at the good aspects of the past and derive a teleological theory that ignores opportunity costs.

I think 'bettering humanity with Windows' is open for debate. Some would argue that Windows, and the security problems it brought to the Internet, was the enabler for the single largest source of income for criminal enterprise outside of the drug trade.

Now it is much more nuanced than that, network based criminal activity has existed since the invention of the telegraph, but I would be willing to wager even on a per capita basis of Windows, Mac, UNIX, and 'other' users of the network, it stands out.

That said, those days are largely behind us (caveat Wannacry and poor update policies) and I consider properly patched operating systems from all of the major vendors to be credibly defended from exploitation. I reason to that point of view by using the price offered for 'zero days' as an indicator of the challenge of finding them.

Windows contributed to global productively enormously.

It didn't do that by being Windows. It did that by being nearly ubiquitous so that software could be written to a known thing. That could have turned out to be OS/2, but Microsoft played unfairly there. It could have been one of the Unix platforms, but AT&T, Microsoft, and others played unfairly there.

It's really the IBM PC platform, IBM's willingness to sign a non-exclusive contract for the OS, and the success of the early clones (Compaq, AST, etc) making DOS so common that raised productivity so much. Whatever OS had shipped on them would have grabbed the market share DOS and Windows did.

Windows was also much more usable than what was common before it, ubiquity aside. The Office productivity suite was also very good for the time, and represented a major advancement in the state of the art. It's easy to take what Microsoft provided the PC world for granted and assume another company would have provided it if it never existed, but I don't think it's fair.

| poor update policies

which ones? forcing them or not forcing them?


1. Bundling them -- it should be trivial to turn off all non-security updates while still getting all security updates.

Counterpoint: There might be no unambiguous distinction between security update or non-security update.

2. Not having them. WannaCry was so bad because Microsoft stopped providing security updates for a system that's still widely used.

Counterpoint: It seems odd to insist Microsoft continue to provide updates to a fifteen-year-old system they end-of-lifed three years ago. Should we be able to force them to keep providing updates indefinitely by steadfastly refusing to upgrade?

In the wannacry event the policy of not applying updates was contributory to its spread. So 'not forcing them' being the less good choice.

The way it was explained to me was that Microsoft low-balled the market on Office and pushed out the innovators who built the individual pieces and were able to do it because they had a fat bank to lean on. I buy the argument that Excel and Word provide exceptional value to society, but I'm not convinced that Microsoft was entirely necessary for that to happen. Then again, windows, task manager, recycle bin, start menu, etc. etc.

The fact that this is the 'top' comment made me stop reading anything further. Wow - decadence.


The obsession with doing visible social good comes from a certain part of society, reinforced by academic advisors and admissions criteria as a requirement for advancing into the next academic tier.

Nevermind that by merely participating in a marketplace as a service provider or consumer you're providing a social benefit; that benefit's just not as easy to understand and doesn't get you any vanity points.

But if you're on a mission trip carrying a third world orphan in a microloan-built vaccination tent while on the phone with companies asking for food donations, you're just the most selfless person ever - clearly such charity is just an innate part of who you are.

Not everyone here has grown up in US academic culture. I for one have formed my desires of helping others long before I noticed anyone rewards that in any system (not to mention that my country's education system doesn't put much focus on volunteering for social causes).

Also, spending time on understanding the benefits coming from participation in a marketplace leads one to conclude that the market doesn't address all human needs promptly enough, and is not itself beyond creating many great problems.

If you took a few minutes to consider that I may be a completely different person than the one you're conjuring up, you might have something more useful to say.

Well said. I'm certainly in favor of people being free to decide how they want to spend their time and money, but I think you could make the argument that a lot of these visible social good activities, e.g. starting a the upteenth and one non-profit to provide clean water in third world countries, could very well be doing less "social good" and wasting more resources than someone donating their salary or even engaging in regular marketplace activity.

You could make that argument, and indeed many are. For instance, the effective altruism movement is all about evaluating that argument. The real question isn't if, but when participating in the market is an effective way of helping. Similarly, a good question is the one OP is asking - are there effective ways of helping directly with tech skills, and if so, what are they.

Honestly, I think the most effective thing to do is find an organization doing social good, who is hiring programmers, and go work for them. There are plenty of non-profits and governments that do a ton of good, and employ developers to work on their web sites and infrastructures. A good friend of mine is a developer for the ACLU, for example.

There are also organizations like Code for America that do open source work with local governments. Since those projects are open source, you could probably volunteer your time and contribute to those. Or simply volunteer in a non-developer capacity! :)

Doing actual social good -- helping people in ways that will actually solve their problems, understanding the consequences of changing their lives -- requires a ton of context and communication. I think it's very, very difficult to do so without either dedicating most of your time to that cause, or working closely with an organization that is already doing so. (E.g., volunteering for a food bank is a lot more effective than just picking up food and distributing it on your own.)

This. There are many incredible organizations doing great work in the code for good space, and not solely in the non-profit or government sectors.

I’ll second the reference to Code for America. I have a colleague who did their fellowship and learned a ton while working with some great local governmental agencies. They’ve also recently launched a job board to curate high impact mission-driven jobs and jobs with local government entities: https://jobs.codeforamerica.org/.

I’d also encourage looking at B-Corps: https://www.bcorporation.net/. These are for-profit companies that include positive social impact alongside profit as determinants of success. I work at TechChange, which is a B-Corp. If education and capacity development are your passions, we at TechChange are building a SaaS learning platform that empowers organizations around the world to make their training more effective. We are working hard to push the limits of traditional online learning and are looking for talented folks to help us achieve this goal: https://www.techchange.org/careers/.

Hi! I lead engineering on Code for America's work building services improving the social safety net, so happy to answer any questions. I'd also mention that we're hiring directly for teams at CfA building large-scale services serving the most vulnerable Americans.

My team works on radically improving access to the food stamp program, a massive anti-poverty program, but one with only about 65% of eligible Californians enrolled — we've found a lot of that gap is because the process is really difficult.

If you apply in California, this is the online experience — 200+ questions, 50+ screens, a lot of confusion: http://citizenonboard.com/snap/ca/#2

So we operate a much easier online application which is mobile-first (~50% of search traffic for "food stamps") and which takes on average 8 minutes to complete — you can try it out at https://demo.getcalfresh.org/

And we're hiring:

- Senior Engineer (Ruby/Rails, TDD, pairing): https://www.codeforamerica.org/jobs?gh_jid=502640

- Product Manager: https://www.codeforamerica.org/jobs?gh_jid=652829

We also have a superb team working on safety and justice, namely with the goal of safely reducing incarceration. For example. They operate services that:

- Make it much easier for people to clear their records when the law allows (invaluable for re-entry and getting jobs)

- Allow case & probation workers to text with folks in the justice system and help them do the pre-trial diversion things that keep them out of jail/prison and help them with resources

They're also hiring for a Senior Engineer role: https://www.codeforamerica.org/jobs?gh_jid=525208

Happy to answer any questions about these!

I worked with @daguar for 3 years on this and he is the best and the team is the best. I encourage folks to apply!

Are all of these jobs at the same location SF? The jobs page (https://www.codeforamerica.org/jobs) lists locations "Headquarters", "San Francisco, CA, United States", and "San Francisco Headquarters" as if they might be different places.

Oh, odd! Yeah I'll get that fixed.

Yes — San Francisco (SOMA) is the location for all of those.

Do you get any push back on this from the state/gov? Cynically; I can see this process being intentionally obscure and difficult to dissuade people from applying and receiving aid.

Great question! Overall I'd say our gov't partners are incredibly supportive.

A lot of why these processes are hard are not by intentional design, but rather by _unintentional, non-design_.

What do I mean? It's that these systems evolve over time, via massive waterfall IT procurement processes, and you often have someone (say, one county, or one unit) who proposes to add one more question because it makes it better for their unit or a subset of users.

Iterated over years and years — and with no systemic actor responsible for pushing back and saying, "but this creates more burden for the majority of users" — you get overwhelming user experiences. Sometimes I've jokingly called this the "no feature left behind" approach.

What we do is basically design & build a service that puts users at the center, and when someone wants us to add something ask ourselves, "will this help people quickly and easily get through the benefit enrollment process?"

It's essentially applying "products are about saying no," just to a domain where there's currently no one there to say no.

Actually, to follow up -- you mention simplifying the process to be easier on the user. Are myriad of questions one must laboriously answer to enroll in EBT programs a matter of... legislation? taxes? I would imagine that the questions have to do with honing in on a complex placement within the law which determines benefit levels. How do you go about simplifying a process which requires a large number of distinct data points by law or by census design?

That's a fantastic question. There's a few strategies we've used to build a service design that deals with those things:

1. After the initial application, the next step is a phone interview where they're going to ask many of the same questions and verify information anyway. So what we do is focus on the 10-15 questions that make getting someone to that interview as quick and efficient on the gov't side as possible, as well as prepares the interviewer with the best information.

For example, there are complex rules around income and expenses (earned/unearned, self-employed, utilities, child care expenses) but we basically have found that the best situation is — since they'll be talking with someone who knows those rules extremely well — focus on the basics: who's in your household, do you qualify for expedited (emergency) service, etc.

2. Many of those ~200 questions really CONDITIONAL on some (eg, do you have a felony? do you have a felony for DRUGS?) —— but candidly many online gov't forms are just the digitization of paper forms (which obviously can't do conditional showing easily.)

3. We've found that there's a ton of low-hanging fruit. For example, we have an easy way for clients to take pictures of documents they need to submit from their phone (these days, these are often SUPER high quality, even on low-end devices.) We send those to counties via secure e-mail, which means it comes instantly. This has been so successful in one county that they're now using this document feature across ALL programs (health insurance, cash aid) and actually asking clients to send in documents WHILE they're on the phone with them, meaning they can hold for a second, check the email, see the pic, and issue the benefits immediately (rather than waiting for them to mail/fax/scan and upload after creating an account.)

Overall, we've found that despite that "intrinsic complexity," there's still a huge space for simplification just using what computers — and web sites — are good at.

you should include postings from http://www.calhr.ca.gov/ . there are tons of programming jobs there in different classification.

Thanks! It's a little confusing because we have 2 job boards — one for CfA, and one for jobs in gov't (that one is https://jobs.codeforamerica.org/ )

We already have some State of CA jobs on there, but I'll pass along this link to the folks who run the gov't job board!

I agree with this comment. A friend of mine is a programmer taking a year off of work to volunteer for a refugee aid organization to analyze and improve their databases. It's important work, not necessarily sexy, but helps these organizations do their work. In the end he's likely to emerge a better programmer along with a body of domain knowledge.

It helps to actually be passionate about the field.

can you share the organization name?

Thank you for the Code for America recommendation, checking them out now

Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, has been making the rounds lately.

Good conversations on both the Econtalk podcast [0] (which I know is an HN favorite) and the Long Now Foundation [1].

Procurement sounds absolutely awful at the federal level; she makes a compelling case for how needed modern software design and development processes are in providing effective and cost efficient government services.

[0]http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2017/05/jennifer_pahlka.htm... [1]http://longnow.org/seminars/02017/feb/01/fixing-government-b...

Through the Code For Atlanta group I was able start a project with MARTA to make some things better about paratransit customers' access to up to date ETA info for their rides, which is currently a pain point for many customers. The code for America idea is awesome and stuff really does happen!

MARTA seems like they could use some hardware donations - for years the "next train" screens were broken and the announcement speakers on the station platforms were totally unintelligible. Maybe a better use of time would be starting a guerrilla group that fixes their stuff without asking?

Warning - strong opinions ahead: Provide services and tools without the strings attached.

That is to say, provide email services that don't mine data for profit. Provide a social interaction space that doesn't attempt to manipulate moods, opinions, or sell its user's eyeballs. Provide an aggregation service with strong filtering tools in place of strong moderation. Provide a code repository with great tooling that doesn't include value judgements. Provide anonymous, secure communication between parties. Make mobile applications that provide wanted services without the in-app purchases, ads, or profiling.

The downside is that you're unlikely to get paid for it. You'll probably even lose money on it. In some cases, you'll even face legal pressure to stop or change.

Is "Facebook without advertisements" really the bar for social good now?

In some way it is. One can't deny that social networking has pretty huge positive impact on communication and creative output. It would be better if it didn't come with surveillance capitalism in the same package.

Why not? If we're being realistic and ideal simultaneously, one recognizes the immense social impact and shift driven by Facebook, as a social media platform as well as a lexus of modern web programming, at the same time as one recognizes that the user is the product to be sold and could imagine the potential negatives of that paradigm. So why not?

If an ad-free, privacy-friendly social network actually managed to replace Facebook, that would be an enormous social good.

My idea was that Google+ should have run ads from the beginning, but donated all profits to some large but approachable goal like eliminating polio. This could have undermined Facebook's drive to create an alternative advertising ecosystem, while giving G+ some hook to encourage people to switch.

It would be an improvement, but probably not enough to convince many people to switch to it. The network effect gives Facebook too much of an advantage.

yes. the world would be a much much better place had a non-corporate version of facebook had become facebook.

I'm not convinced yet that a non-profit is capable of doing what Facebook does. I'd love to read about it if you have any lit on the topic.

I doubt anyone has ever written anything on the topic. Keep in mind that non-profit is not the same thing as non-revenue. Also, replicating facebook isn't necessarily what I'm talking about, but instead seeing whatever sorts of applications would be developed in the presence of altered incentives.

Work as a programmer for whoever will pay you the most. Invest, and donate money to causes you care about.

People are going to shit on the parent comment - but honestly, anyone with more than a few years of experience in a tight tech job market is going to easily be in the top decile of earners. The highly-committed individuals that do the brutally hard work on the ground for non-profits or NGOs make a pittance in comparison. Committing a quarter of your salary would pay the entirety of theirs. Consider that for a moment.

That's great but you have to consider the social cost of the day job, which the parent comment assumes to be neutral even though in practice this may not be the case. I think the OP's real question is how to pick ethically efficient employment, not how to make money in order to be more charitable.

I guess I have the advantage of starting out with close to a decade of low wages doing something that I enjoy ;)... I'm definitely attracted to billboard tech wages -- but I really could get by pretty comfortably with half were I building something I had faith in.

The premise that NGOs need tech more than they need money is shaky at best.

I wouldn't know but I'd venture that makes sense... Thanks for the perspective.

My $.02 - good for you for asking the questions. Don't stop there :)

I'm suspicious of the notion that throwing money at problems can solve them.

To quote 'Eliezer, this is how adults solve problems. Professional specialization has huge leverage. If you can find a way to use your professional skills to help society, go ahead and do it. If you can't, it's more effective use of your time to leverage your professional skills into money, and then use that money to fund professionals helping society directly.

You throw money at people who have the domain knowledge and are actively solving the problems.

This is where due diligence comes in. You throw money at people and orgs who are good at solving those problems.

But it's pretty hard to solve a problem without money. There are a lot of people out there already trying to solve problems. But not enough giving them the money they need to do so.

Agreed. Money can't buy everything, including experience and awareness gleaned from personally facing the problems such NGOs target. The knowledge accrued could demonstrate value later.

True, but you need to consider what you care about more - to have the problem solved, or to solve it yourself? Or to put it differently - do you care about increasing utility, or your own fuzzy feelings?

Either of those goals are good, but they're better done separately. See also: http://lesswrong.com/lw/6z/purchase_fuzzies_and_utilons_sepa....

I'll admit that I didn't read the link that you shared. However, I'd like to assert that I feel fuzzies yield utilons to the individual in a similar manner as utilons yield fuzzies, each requiring refinement in their acquisition to be optimal. I think it's a more-grey area than your comment or the title of the article you linked implies (having not read said article).

Please read it, it's not long. In the article, utilons refer to the utility your help brings, and fuzzies to the feelings they generate in you (which indeed you can see as utility for you, but you could also count it separately).

The point of the article is that if you optimize for utilons, fuzzies and status points separately - e.g. by doing one thing for maximum utility, and then another for maximum fuzzies - you'll be more efficient in all of them than if you try to find one thing that maximizes all three at the same time.

If you're on HN you're probably also conscious of your philanthropy being used for the maximal good, in which case you may be interested in projects like https://www.effectivealtruism.org/

Thanks for posting

I went through a similar period of soul-searching as the OP (or so I would imagine) back in November, and this is the conclusion I ultimately came to.

Even if you're willing to take e.g. a 50% paycut to write code at a nonprofit, you're likely doing more good taking the obscenely high-paying industry job and donating that half of your salary, as unsexy as that is.

Which isn't to say there aren't meaningful social problems that technology can solve, but rather that the cost/reward curve is often suboptimal if you're optimizing for impact.

50% is a conservative estimate. If you are a software engineer in the SF Bay Area you can expect a 75% pay cut or more.

Hmm, depends on the non-profit, but in tech-forward non-profits we are often only about 20% below market for most positions: https://www.ctosforgood.org/

Is CTOs for good US only?

Not by design, but by circumstance yes. I'm sure we'd be open to folks joining from other nations though as long as they could travel to our once-a-year in-person meetup.

And yet, there must be a supply of hackers to which you donate that money.

This is exactly the advice a sociology professor in college gave to the sociology majors.

A sociology professor advised sociology majors to work as programmers?

That's much better advice than I'd expect from a sociology professor, if I'm to be honest.

Yes. Any high paid job actually. Point being don't do this solely because you "want to make a difference".... making a lot of money at a different job and giving to causes you care about is a legitimate way to make a difference.

I always thought that was interesting.

One can do that. But I'd like to believe that I make a bigger impact in actually applying my skills directly to the problem.

...Unless it's advetising. Or Uber. Or government wanting you to implement yet another freedom-restricting bullshit.

I believe that over time your environment shapes you. I agree that you should devote your working hours to something more than shareholder value or increased clickthrough rates. Sure you can pull down the big bucks working on the next version of biological warfare weaponry and make large donations to Red Cross or whatever, but not without a personal toll.

Or do work for those places if you don't find them morally questionable.

A better rule is: just don't take a job in which your negative impact on the society will be greater than the positive impact of the money you donate.

> Or Uber.

There are plenty of companies 10x worse than Uber. Hivemind.

That there are worse companies than Uber doesn't make Uber good, or even worth working for.


I think it makes the point that there are some cases where the cost of negatively impacting society is not worth the benefit of making more money to give to charity.

Ummmmmm but Uber made the world a better place? (for me anyway)

Did it make your world a better place, or just add a bit of convenience whose cost was distributed to people you don't know?

Well, the benefits are also distributed to people I don't know, so this type of accounting is tough.

Disrupting the taxi mafia has definitely made the world a better place.

Did the "taxi mafia" encourage a class of laborers who sleep in their cars for less than a minimum wage while depriving them of any kind of protections normally associated with employment?


Are you really unfamiliar with how medallion owners used to treat their drivers?

Perhaps I have rose colored glasses, but the "sleeping in the car" problem seems new. But I could very well be wrong.

That said, how are we really in a better place? Same problem, different master.

There is an early NYT article (early in the context of Uber's lifespan) detailing a day when a cab driver in NYC ended up paying his employer a few hundred dollars for the privilege of working that day. This was after all his fares for the shift.

> But what if drivers don’t make enough to cover their rental charges? The company has clearly considered this possibility, as it’s included in a program FAQ. “No problem,” Uber says. “When you pick up your vehicle, Enterprise will take your valid credit or debit card to place on file. In the event of a difference, Enterprise will automatically charge the outstanding balance to the card on file.” See? No problem.


Sorry, I said Uber a bit provocative. I meant companies doing unethical things and asking you to do unethical things.

Which Uber is definitely a good example of, but I agree it was a bit provocative :).

I work in advertising and I don't think it's immoral or unethical.

Advertising is about creating artificial problems and needs, making the world a shittier place for profit. Maybe pulling your head out of your ass would help?

I have posted this before, countless times, but techies who want to volunteer their skills and knowledge to advance the democratic process should think about joining the PROGRESSIVE CODERS NETWORK[0]. They are a non-profit that helps organize and direct volunteer coders, programmers, designers into open-source political projects. They are about connecting and facilitating projects, not dictating what projects should be. They are party-neutral, but seek to empower the people and provide tools for running successful campaigns and being engaged as a citizen.

If you can take away the need for millions of dollars to run a campaign then policy makers aren't beholden to the few wealthy supporters that helped get them elected.

They help connect volunteers to projects that range from building an open-source voter database to an Uber-like app that helps the mobility-limited get transportation to vote. They are extremely transparent and always interested in growing the network. Many members of the network are engineers, product managers, or independent coders.


Party neutral?

They list MoveOn as a key partner: https://github.com/ProgressiveCoders/functions/issues/196

This document clearly states the organisation is founded by Berine Sanders supporters: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1P8iL3kTWO0Y9aYe8lndcUWTJ...

And they built something called the "Resistance Calendar", containing events like: https://tockify.com/resistance.calendar/detail/384/149523120...

I mean for the most part it seems to be stuff I would support (personally), but to call it party neutral is at best true by way of technicality.

I doubt you find many Republican events on that calendar. Of course, I wouldn't expect to given the name of the group, but let's not play games and pretend it isn't partisan?

The non-profit is neutral because it will create applications for all party/political affiliation causes.

So it'll make an application that supports primarily republican causes too.

"Progressive" tends to mean "liberal."

And if you're not American?

Then liccbb's suggestion doesn't apply to you. Look through the other comments and see what you can find. Or you can consider looking at the organization that liccbb is talking about, and see if there exists something similar in your own country, or start your own movement.

Check out 80,000 hours: https://80000hours.org/

They have a bunch of interesting research, online articles, guides, and a book. The entire website is focused around how to make a difference with your career in a way that aligns with your own goals. It's a great resource.

Definitely seconded. They also have an excellent pamphlet with the evidence-based advice on how to be successful at whatever job you have, including advice both general to life and specific to work: https://80000hours.org/career-guide/how-to-be-successful/

I'm skeptical of the premise (sounds self-helpy) but I'm gonna check it out. Thanks for the recommendation and I'm completely open to being wrong!

As a cycle campaigner I am using my programming/data/design/socialmedia skills to present information to decision in better ways.

1) https://cyclebath.org.uk/map/ This one has gone national and is up for a Creative Bath Innovation Award.

2) Using Census 2011 Data I've created a healthy cities and towns league index as well as spatial analysis on commuter behaviour. (6M people drive to work, of which 3.5M live within a 20 minute cycle ride) https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B4YARJgso6IxRjd1ZlNDZklGaX...

3) Worked with Bath Hacked and Strava to deliver a year of cycling in the city of Bath strava.bathhacked.org

4) Get involved in your local tech4good meetup.

Do not start from a "hey where can I use my skills for good?". Start with "I am passionate about X, what can I do to help X in anyway?"

I'd like to get involved in this kind of thing in Melbourne, Aus. I'm already a campaigner, but hadn't thought of contributing in a technological sense! I think I'll get in contact with the others I know and offer to help out!

Cheers for the insight!

I'd look at the 2016 http://www.abs.gov.au/census data set and see if you can start playing around with some of the data sets within there.


Open source, modern software for charitable hospitals in the developing world.

Find some open source projects for some issue you care about. The medical community could use a lot of help, anything that automates some part of their job means medical staff is available to help more patients. There's a lot of room for automation in this field.

Personally I think anything in renewable energy, sexual education, and poverty alleviation are good highly effective causes to get behind as well.

My opinion: take whatever idea you have for a great company, but make it a non-profit.

Other than maybe e-mail, wikipedia is the best thing to come out of the internet. And its creator may not be a billionaire oligarch, but he has a GREAT life. If you can set aside a need to be filthy, needlessly, pointlessly rich, then maybe turn your next idea for a social network or a communication platform or whatever into a non-profit. It's amazing what types of products can be built for this world when you're building for the world, and not the shareholders.

This is the dream. OpenStreetMap is another great example of such an idea. To take it a step further, I'd encourage setting the non-profit up as a worker's cooperative. Just imagine all of the big companies out there organized as open-source, co-operative non-profits. We could kill a lot of redundant work, retain people's privacy, and really empower the employees of these companies to ensure the company works on things they believe in.

Tools for automating the mundane tasks of running a co-op, sounds like a great idea for a project. Something along the lines of the GNU tool suite.

How does one build and maintain a co-op? Could anyone recommend a book on the subject, that covers a variety of nations or regions?

I'm not sure about resources for starting a co-op outside the US, but here are some resources I've found on how to start a co-op. Web searching will find more.

- https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14135068

- https://electricembers.coop/pubs/TechCoopHOWTO.pdf

- https://www.coops.tech/

- Tech co-ops mailing list: https://npogroups.org/lists/info/tech-coop

I talked briefly with this co-op whose set up in Europe and seems to have members from all over, so they might provide good insight: https://camplight.net/

Also, talking to nonprofit founders, I've heard that starting a non-profit yourself can be pain in the ass. However, you can essentially outsource the management of the nonprofit to another nonprofit via 'fiscal sponsorship.' Web searching for that will bring up more details. For example, http://grayarea.org/incubator/fiscal-sponsorship/. I met the founder of this organization that started providing fiscal sponsorship recently as well: http://blog.hacker.fund/fs/

And finally, there are actually some co-ops that are trying to make this process easier. For example, this co-op alternative to kickstarter: https://snowdrift.coop/ and this co-op that makes software for making decisions within co-ops easier: https://www.loomio.org/

If you're located somewhere near Seattle, I would recommend going in to Central Co-Op and trying to talk to them about their story and business needs.

There is absolutely nothing inherently morally superior in making it a not-for-profit. Lots of not-for-profits have serious problems. I wish making life better were as simple as "well, just make your business X format and you are suddenly on the moral high ground!"

You should not make your business idea a not-for-profit out of the idea that this is somehow inherently morally superior. That is a bad reason to do so. Some types of work or goals are better served by a specific model. Some things are best served by having it done as a public good by the government, such as police and fire. Some things are well served by the not-for-profit model. Some things are well served by a for-profit model. Some things are well served by a co-op model. None of those is inherently morally better for all goals all the time.

Insomuch as I never proved using a not-for-profit is best for many of the use cases that we are currently using the business model for, you also didn't in any way demonstrate that we are doing it correctly. I think Wikipedia alone offers great evidence that we are underutilizing the nonprofit model. What evidence to you see for companies remaining moral in the face of shareholder pressure for profits?

These structures are not inherently moral as you said, but they do offer distinct incentive structures for their owners and employees. And there are plenty of ideas today that get called business ideas that could easily be better crafted outside of a corporation.

Corporation and business are not synonymous. You can own and run a business that is not incorporated, thus there are no shareholders. In fact, most businesses are not incorporated.

I work at fightforthefuture.org and I've thought a lot about this.

My first answer is to develop your skills to the point where you are strong on design and UI/UX, not just coding.

I say this because we've worked with some people who have this ability, and they're extremely effective as activists once they focus on a mission.

Aaron Swartz is one person who had this ability, but you don't have to be a genius polymath to be good at this, and Aaron wasn't amazing at visuals and design either. (He was good enough at it though, which was what mattered.)

Ideally, you should be able to speak persuasively online, using text, code and design creatively to get your message across. But as a minimum you should be able to build a prototype from your own vision, get the UI/UX to a point where you're happy with it by iterating, and QA it yourself.

There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that most social change gets done by small groups of people, and many of those people aren't technical. And usually it leverages certain moments when people happen to be paying attention, and makes the most of those. So you won't have a big team, and being able to do most things yourself lets you respond quicker.

If you have that, I'd try your hand at working on some issues that interest you, either directly, or showing up at an org you admire and seeing if you can help.

We're setting up a space for volunteers, and also a YC-like fund for new activism projects that emphasizes the need for technical founders: http://fightforthefuture.org/ateams/

Since you mention a YC-like fund for activism projects, and at the risk of breaking a rule i may not be aware of (let me know) I'm gonna quote myself and hope you are interested or know people who may be interested

" OP here, actually floored by the rapidity and variety of responses. Thanks HN.

I'll take this opportunity to float an idea that's been kicking around in my head for a long time. The premise is to:

1) (this is almost certainly the easy part) build out a platform that is like a two-way khan academy - teacher and student, with at least the teacher having a tablet and a stylus that function well, sharing a digital blackboard, with a video chat optional -- where a student of something in a relatively privileged situation teaches a student of the same thing in a relatively less privileged situation -- where the sessions are stored and rewindable, both video and blackboard input.

2) the hard part; selling it as something to invest in and driving it to a point of having an endowment behind it, like Harvard's endowment, that allows the service to pay for moderation of student-teachers something like $12.00 USD an hour to teach, while subsidizing well-chosen students to have to pay something like $2 an hour to learn

it's been an idea for a passion project for a while "

Do you have books or examples (or books detailing examples) that you can recommend w.r.t. this comment? "most social change gets done by small groups of people, and many of those people aren't technical. And usually it leverages certain moments when people happen to be paying attention, and makes the most of those."


Work with mission-driven businesses. B Corps[0] are a good place to start. There's nothing quite like coming to work every day with a group of like-minded folks who want to make a dent in the universe.

My company, www.grove.co, strives to help families making it easy to buy sustainable products vs. conventional CPG. It seemed a bit crazy when we started, but now literally thousands of families get sustainable products from us every single day. It's hard to make a big impact on your own, but organizations and companies can do great things.

[0] https://www.bcorporation.net/

B Corps don't always stay B Corps when they get all grown up: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-05-18/the-barba...

Worker co-ops usually have provisions in their bylaws to ensure they stay co-oops. This is to guard against the issue you allude to here.

Exactly. :)

Shameless plug: we at https://www.patientsknowbest.com/careers.html are also hiring and are a B Corp -- our mission is to give patients control over their own medical data.

Volunteer for DataKind (http://www.datakind.org/), a charity that connects "data professionals" (in the broad sense of the term) to charities who have problems to solve and the data to solve them, but not the resources to do it!

They organise different types of projects: DataDives, which are hackathon-type events and focus on data exploration and analysis; and DataCorps, longer term projects (a few months), where a team of volunteers will team up on a more project for the client charity.

They are looking for volunteers for a wide range of roles, including data scientists, programmers with experience with ML, dataviz experts, project managers, etc.

Join or start a tech worker co-op!

First, one of the best ways to do social good is to fight capitalism. Just by working at a worker co-op, you're doing this. Many tech co-ops are also built around resisting other oppressions like racism, patriarchy, etc.

Second, many co-ops (e.g. http://sassafras.coop, the one I work for) work on lots of social good projects.

Yes, evil capitalism.

You know, don't want to think you actually think that. Perhaps you meant, "fight the negative outcomes sometimes found in capitalist societies."

Honestly the idea that capitalism itself systematically causes inequality is not a crazy thing to believe. You obviously don't agree and that's fine, but it's not the case that every smart person believes the "negative outcomes found in capitalist societies" can be resolved without a fundamental change in the underlying system.

My thought process:

Inequality causes capitalism. Liberty allows inequality. Those "negative outcomes" come from inequality, not capitalism. Fighting capitalism is a workaround. It's an appealing workaround because the "underlying system" is centralized, and inequality is not.

Can you expand on how capitalism is an outcome of inequality?

I just reread my post, and noticed that I wrote the first sentence completely wrong. It's too late to edit, so here is what I meant to say:

Inequality does not come from capitalism. Liberty allows inequality. Those "negative outcomes" come from inequality, not capitalism. Fighting capitalism (socialism) is a workaround. It's an appealing workaround because the "underlying system" is centralized, and inequality is not.

It is not.

The negative effects of inequality are free to do harm in a society with capitalism. That does not make capitalism the cause of those effects, it simply means that capitalism does nothing to prevent them.

Socialism does (claims to) do some things to fight inequality, but that does not mean I must prefer it to capitalism.

Lots of people completely take the material blessings of capitalism for granted and totally believe capitalism is evil. It rarely dawns on them that their high quality of life and the luxury to fret about things like social good (instead of survival) is a direct result of so called capitalism.

Yes. But this is about as stupid an attitude as believing capitalism is a pure God-sent miracle and everything it does is only wonderful. The market economy brought us the age of unparalleled prosperity worldwide, but it also has serious problems worth addressing. One can talk about the drawbacks while at the same time being grateful for the positives.

(Personally, I believe market economy has been much more beneficial to society in the past than it is now - simply because it's running out of "low hanging fruits", and the disconnect between its implicit values and what humans would generally like to see is growing.)

I'm sorry, but I said nothing about it being pure God-sent miracle. I find that to be a wild misinterpretation of my point.

Generally speaking, you need a certain level of material security to worry about more abstract things like social good -- or even sexual pleasure. Lots of stuff I have read indicates that people in wealthy countries have a great deal more sex and talk and think about it a great deal more than those struggling to get something to eat. It is something of a luxury good. Ironically, the complaints about being a member of the lonely hearts club is generally an indication that you already have some baseline amount of your needs met well enough to bother to notice what you lack in that regard. People who are poor or oppressed enough typically spend all their time worrying about resolving whatever their largest problems are and spend much less time thinking about things like love, sex or romance.

Maslow's pyramid and all that.

I didn't mean to put things in your mouth. I read your comment as complaining about an extreme anti-capitalism position; I wanted only to complement that with an example of extreme pro-capitalism position that I also frequently notice here.

You're 100% right about the hierarchy of needs (and about my baseline need satisfaction too; I can bitch about the state of the world exactly because I have somewhat stable income, health, safety and social sphere). I'm not disputing that. But since there are people who have those needs satisfied and are free to worry about more abstract things, is it wrong for them to ask how can they contribute so that more people reach that level of Maslow's pyramid (or, alternatively, so that the whole world won't go deeper into shit than it already is)?

Rebutting the idea that capitalism is pure evil has nothing at all to do with suggesting that people should not be seeking to make the world a better place.

So, perhaps we should just let this be as we seem to be talking at cross purposes.

Fair enough.

I don't think it's unreasonable to be consequentialist about it and short-cut that, especially if done tongue-in-cheek.

a co-op is a business venture, and so is a form of capitalist organization. But I think your point is that some forms of capitalism are more aligned with societal good than others, and that we can make different choices.

Leave your programming at work. Find a cause you believe in or a political candidate you think will do good, and volunteer for that. Knock on doors. Call people. Do research. Organize events and people. Donate money. Change other people's minds.

A lot of these social good things need people to get involved, not software to be written.

This is an understated answer. It's not enough to be a strong engineer, solving problems well often means having a lot of context from several backgrounds and experiences.

I think the best social good comes from fostering a more civilized environment. Sure, we need things like fire fighters and EMS. But keep in mind that fire fighters also try to do fire prevention. Sometimes, people get so focused on how to be a hero (metaphorically looking for the best way to fight the worst conflagrations) that they overlook opportunities to do more valuable though less "sexy" prevention.

Anything that helps feed people well or better, promotes germ control, reduces social friction in some way, helps marginalized peoples earn a living or helps people of limited means access basic decent housing promotes the social good. But those things are often not the heroics people have in mind when asking this type question.

This. We have had a horrible track record with tech volunteers, in part because our mission is not tech-centric, so they don't get any glory. It doesn't mean there isn't anything for them to do - it's just that the story isn't about technology ... or them.

There is a mountain of boring, yet critically important work waiting for people to just roll up their sleeves and pitch in.

Yeah, the last hackathon-type thing I was at, we had a few projects that desperately needed a little bit of TLC from someone with solid programming chops to help push them forward.

Instead, we ended up with half a dozen prototypes of new projects solving problems no one had.

Yep - that's been our experience with hackathons as well :(

"Oh goody, a bunch of half-finished abandonware ..."

I'm pretty sure the original post is asking what's in that alleged mountain.

Go ask the people doing the work - not the folks looking to enrich themselves by "disrupting" (read: injecting software into) every industry imaginable.

I mean this is Y-Combinator after all, not exactly a hub of philanthropy.

Long experience suggests they probably are not.

Why? I have exactly the same question on my mind as OP, and I'm definitely not thinking about yet another bullshit mobile app that'll save the world.

Because long experience tells me that it is inherently hard to see and measure the disasters you prevented. This makes it incredibly hard to feel like you are accomplishing anything and harder still to convince other people you are actually adding value.

Y2K was supposed to be a global meltdown. There were people who prepped for that like a coming apocalypse. It was prevented and many people remember it as "Ha! Can you believe those fools ever believed we were in real danger?!"

No one gets up today and goes "Oh, thank god they fixed that and I am not living in the Y2K post apocalypse! My ATM still works and life goes on!"

I was molested for 2.5 years as a child in part because my mother stopped being a homemaker and began doing paid work outside the house. The direct cause and effect connection is extremely clear to me not only due to first hand experience but because of extensive reading on the topic. This is part of why I was a full time homemaker until my sons were 19 and 16. No one ever molested them. There was damn little opportunity for anyone to get them alone. I made sure of it.

I get straight up told I just got lucky and do not actually know shit all about preventing bad things from happening. When I try to share such information to help other people I basically get told "Shit happens. You can't stop it. Quit blaming the victims."

Sorry to hear about your experience, but you make a very salient point and I also agree that you made an enlightened (if hard earned) decision regarding the best thing you could do for your children.

In my experience there are thousands of people doing the hard work day in and day out, quietly holding the line. It's a constant effort and constant tension, but for those who won't settle for anything less than revolution - that sort of work, no matter how vital, just isn't compelling enough. I personally find the prevalence of this kind of attitude very disturbing, although I suppose it is just human nature in the end - perhaps with a bit of celebrity/hero worship thrown in.

I try to assume they just don't see it because it is hard to see.

I also have a serious medical condition and have gotten off all drugs. I am routinely told I am crazy, making that up, it is a tall tale, my success is because my condition is mild, it is wild coincidence...etc etc...and I cannot possibly actually know anything useful. People who don't think I am straight up crazy and have acted on my suggestions have said things to me like "I fed my child like you suggested and they are in the ER less, but they aren't taking fewer drugs." What they mean is the child still needs the same maintenance drugs. They completely miss the fact that fewer ER visits means fewer antibiotics and other drugs, thus fewer ER visits means their child is taking fewer drugs.

Even people who have it clear in their mind that A prevented B have difficulty measuring the things that have not happened. They still mentally minimize the value of the accomplishment. It takes real and significant effort to try to quantify in a meaningful way that "We prevented X amount of catastrophe with our work." It is much easier to see lives saved by an ambulance than lives saved by the local gym or the local organic grocer.

> It takes real and significant effort to try to quantify in a meaningful way that "We prevented X amount of catastrophe with our work." It is much easier to see lives saved by an ambulance than lives saved by the local gym or the local organic grocer.

Maybe something could be done to help / teach people to better quantify it (caveats about Goodhart's law notwithstanding)?

I have a zillion little blogs about various things that interest me (but, wait, there's more! I also leave comments like the ones above in various online forums!). Maybe over the course of the next 30 years, my writing shall become popular and this issue will substantially change.


Well, maybe you could aggregate some of those comments like 'edw519 did :). His "best of"[0] is actually a pretty solid reading about programming and entrepreneurship.

[0] - https://v25media.s3.amazonaws.com/edw519_mod.html

I'm very sorry about your experiences, and at the same time thank you for sharing them.

Here and elsewhere in the thread you make really good points about prevention and about non-obvious benefits of mundane things. That said, within the context of the topic, I can read your remarks in two ways:

1/ Helping society is much less obvious than it looks at first, so just drop the whole techie do-gooder savior attitude and get back to your job.

2/ Helping society is much less obvious than it looks at first, so please think about this space hard, and make sure to look at the unsexy, non-obvious places.

I'm not really sure which of the two you mean more, but I'll choose to read it as 2/.

Or, 3, it can be read to mean exactly what I said in my first remark:

I think the best social good comes from fostering a more civilized environment.

There are myriad ways to foster a more civilized environment. Pick whichever one fascinates you and go with that. Some people find snails endlessly fascinating. Others find computer security endlessly fascinating. Both interests have potential to be used to further the greater good.

Just because it is boring to you or me doesn't mean it will bore everyone. Sometimes it helps to have a larger perspective, like the story about the two brick layers. When asked what they are doing, one says "Building a wall." and the other says "Building a cathedral!" Both answers are equally valid, but I bet the second guy is a lot more jazzed to go to work in the morning.

NGOs are not simply biding their time waiting for the next Tech Messiah to come along and save the world. Their tech problems are terribly boring and mundane.

We deal with this all the time. Well meaning techie comes along with a bunch of ideas, none of which are particularly compelling and all require a ton of work (on both sides). When we don't immediately do backflips, they disappear. Rinse, repeat.

It's good that you mention this and it's an important datapoint for OP's question. That said, I don't think OP gave any indication anywhere to dismiss them as fly-by-night techie seeking social status. There are people (myself included) honestly asking how they could maximize their positive impact on this world, especially using the skills they already have.

Yes yes, #notalltechies - but as stated above, best thing you can do is to take your wildly disproportionate capacity for earning, do the due diligence and find a group worth sponsoring.


Let me explain why donations like these are particularly valuable for orgs that survive on donations. Every bit of grant money comes with a huge amount of donor service attached to it, from the initial grant writing, to metric collection, to reporting and presentation - then the hassle of having to do it all again next year and hoping you still have the donor's attention. Of course all of these things take away from your core mission, and sooner or later you are wasting huge amounts of time doing fundraising and donor service.

If you find under resourced people doing effective work for a cause you believe in, a no strings attached gift at the right time can be a huge relief.

As someone currently running a nonprofit (a Hackerspace), I can sign under what you wrote. Grant money is utterly annoying to secure and requires spending huge amounts of time that would be better spent on actually doing the things the organization exists for.

We do that everyday. Maybe indirectly, but we're making a lot of things way more efficient. Information is a huge part of our nature, since the first days, and we're the main collaborators to simplify the access to information.

Said that, you can also think "smaller". Teach someone how to code, and it might be a complete life changer. I run a coding school and we offer free sits for people who need it, and we're greatly satisfied. We've seen students working for McDonald's, for 10 hours per day making just minimum wage, move to a software company with a $+90K salary and changing their lives completely.

Share what you know, try to fix the problems that humanity faces. Don't try to do everything just by yourself. But your "tiny" collaboration ads up.

Honestly, most of the skills I've learned in building products for people can be used to make tech that has a social purpose. First, you find a problem. Then you find people who can honestly tell you if your solution will actually work. Then, you do the hard work of building what you're gonna build, and seeing if it can fit at the locus of how things are actually done.

That sounds vague, so an example might be nice. I travelled to Oaxaca recently and toured around a bunch of palenques (mezcal distilleries) to see how folks did their work. It sounded like there's an enormous problem with overcultivation of maguey — a plant that needs 30-some years to mature in some cases. I thought maybe an app that could identify + track maguey would help. I talked about it with folks, and realized that the problem isn't that they don't know where the plants are, or that they don't know how long they should grow for. It's that there's too much demand for what the ecology can bear, and a lot of it gets carted off to Jalisco to fill tequila bottles before it's mature.

In that light, an app for identifying + tracking maguey isn't really gonna help. But now I have the contacts, they know I want to help, and we can keep talking about what they're working on. Maybe it'll line up. But it's uncertain. And frankly, that's how this stuff works — whether you're building something in the hopes of getting into YC, or building something to help out humankind. Just because you can earn a paycheque writing code doesn't mean you can identify and fill a new need with that same skillset.

UN Volunteers ( http://www.unv.org/ ) has a Technology development section. ( https://www.onlinevolunteering.org/en/opportunities?f[]=fiel... ) A lot of it is web work, but there's sometimes app development.

For an in depth talk about the affect of directing your salary to charity check out the following Tech Talk by Toby Ord: "How Many Lives Can You Save? -- Taking Charity Seriously"


They talk about using the metric of "how many lives can be saved" with your cash.


People admire doctors and rescue workers and marvel at the possibility of saving someone's life -- something that few of us would ever achieve. And yet at the same time, we routinely hear that for a small sum of money we could save someone's life in a developing country and this scarcely impacts our behaviour. There is an important disconnect between these two attitudes and it has serious moral implications. I will speak about the evidence which shows that we really can make a tremendous difference by giving, and then explore the moral case for giving much more than we typically do. I will then look at the great disparity in effectiveness between different charities and show how choosing where to give can be even more important than the decision to give in the first place.

I'm working on an application that will allow organizations to better keep up with the homeless. From what I've heard a lot of folks who are chronically homeless difficult for a single individual to keep up with so it often takes a team to keep tabs on them. Sometimes information isn't adequately disbursed through the whole team and it leads to knowledge that goes nowhere. My idea was to create an app that works as a single source of truth allowing all workers to update on an individual and raise issues. Probably just going to make it donation oriented unless it really takes off and I need to acquire an operating budget.

I don't know where you're located, but in the US, the HMIS was intended to serve this purpose. It hasn't for a variety of reasons, but especially because it isn't easy to use so only trained intake specialists use it. Beyond just poor design, the legal requirements for privacy and non-discrimination make intake and data tracking a fraught activity. Also homeless people will frequently avoid giving accurate biographical information to avoid denial of services. So those are two major obstacles you will face.

Tracking homeless individuals is an incredibly challenging task, even without considering the tech. For example, my girlfriend works in macro-level social work primarily focusing on the homeless population. (She and I are data geeks so we talk about this a lot). She currently works at a shelter where they are trying to identify the homeless citizens who cost hospitals and medicaid the most money, because there's some insane distribution of costs such that something like 1% of the patients account for 90% of the costs. She can't get any cost data from hospitals though, because they refuse to disclose it, even anonymized. Medicaid only has part of the data at best and the government officials there haven't been responsive to her requests. So she can only get the cost data by getting individual clients to sign consent forms. Which is methodologically troublesome because she only has access to the clients that happen to come to her shelter and many of the highest cost patients are specifically those who don't go to shelters and instead end up in the hospital due to exposure/hypothermia/etc. Point being, she can't get the necessary data in the first place, never mind that she doesn't have anywhere to store it.

Beyond tracking individuals, the data problems in the field are enormous and I think that may be where you can make the most difference. Even within her one agency, she can't get a lot of the basic data to evaluate programs because the agency has not invested any money in tech for 15 years. Primarily because they can barely afford to stay open. So they've got tons of legacy systems with data scattered around. No one knows where anything is, and even if they did know where to find data, they wouldn't know how to aggregate it or display it in a useful manner.

This is a common problem for community services organizations. They are chronically underfunded and tend to be run by people with little expertise in tech. And the staff tend not to be much more qualified. My girlfriend asked their in-house accountant for a list of expenses related to a specific set of grants the other day. The accountant sent her a part of the general ledger, which is incomprehensible to anyone who isn't familiar with accounting (and it was the wrong part, but that's another story). She also went to a program director and requested some demographic data that was required for reporting under the grants. Turns out he hadn't been collecting it.

Anyway, my point is that it would be helpful for many of these shelters and agencies to have a consolidated information system. So, for example, they can enter information about a grant they've received, including important dates and reporting requirements. And then have some tool to ensure that the program director is aware of and meeting those requirements.

So far, my girlfriend's biggest data/tech success at this agency has been a project I helped her code. The head fundraiser has to fill out a ridiculous number of grant applications every month. They are all in PDF and mostly request the same kinds of information (agency location, purpose, intended use of grant, etc.). So we wrote a program that takes a canned set of responses and automatically inserts them into the PDFs, so that the fundraiser only has to enter answers for non-standard questions. It then auto-updates their grant tracking system. It's cut down on the time they spend processing applications tremendously.

It would work a lot better if there was an integrated information system from which we could pull a lot of that data automatically, because currently it requires the fundraiser to keep the underlying data store up to date manually.

You should check out Popcode! (https://github.com/popcodeorg/popcode). It’s is a free OSS online IDE used by https://scripted.org to help kids in under-resourced high schools learn HTML/CSS/JS.

The big focus is helping students identify and fix mistakes in their code in a friendly and approachable manner.

Find a local nonprofit or other organization you like and ask them what tech help they need. Many small nonprofits are starving for IT resources, either for financial or cultural reasons.

It's not glamorous, but if you're willing to volunteer your time helping with an org's Wordpress site or making sure everyone is educated about phishing and 2FA, you can make a meaningful impact in your community.

Programming is only a SMALL part of doing social good. Find a problem you care about first.

For us we wanted to help people who were skilled, but ended up washing dishes, as they did not understand the Danish culture. We made NemCV.com to make them CVs in 2011. The website is now defunct, but since we cared about helping people we turned into a real life event to help people and has helped 1000s of people into a better life here in Denmark, and continues several times a month to this day:


So, find the problem first, and then spend time helping and make an IT tool IF needed!

This link will be of interest to you: http://worrydream.com/ClimateChange/. It's a long read, but it's packed with ideas.

Get involved into development of free software, preferably that can be used by people and other free software developers, not just corporations building "cloud services" (i.e. graphic editor, not js framework).

"Fixing world with software" nowadays cynically means just "to build closed platform and seek for rent".

I think the most basic and overlooked thing is food. Eating well, reducing waste, and sustainable production are areas with huge opportunities. Energy and food are fundamental for improving quality of life; and they're also the human activities with the largest negative externalities to nature.

Totally agree. This is a field I'd like to explore and see where I can help improving it.

Also, everything that has to do with food is tangible and understandable by every single person in this world.


Open source tax-calculator for tax policy analysis. Used by many policymakers to inform their decisions about tax policy via the TaxBrain GUI (https://www.ospc.org/taxbrain). Influences decisions that affect hundreds of millions of lives.

Fix ordinary problems.

That is to say, there are probably hundreds of things, off the top of your head, that bother you and probably bother others. To the best of your ability choose one that you have a clear "thread to pull on" - as in, there is an action here you could take that might not be elegant, might not scale, be politically heated, or put you in a position beyond your understanding, ultimately require a team or need financing. But you could do it NOW and not just dream about it, consequences be damned. When the potential is scary like that, that means you actually hold a lot of leverage to unleash new forces, just by starting on it and not stopping.

Most of software isn't like that: it's predictable in its design, it automates a thing that was done slower or less effectively before. It fits into the system and stays within the lines. So you also won't find many examples for the particular thread you're pulling on, and that's expected.

If you do this and it's something you personally care about and will pour heart and soul into, you're doing about as much as anyone could hope for. You won't and can't get all of it right - but what people need isn't perfection, so much as a vehicle that will last well enough for the journey.

Work to make widely-deployed software more efficient. For open source software, anyone can help with this. Data centers are ~2% of U.S. energy consumption [0], and that will probably grow.

[0] http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2016/06/27/heres...

If we go looking for what truly betters our chances as a species I'm not sure we'd like the answers we'd find.

And I'm pretty sure most of it would fly in the face of just about every conventional human morality (which comes about largely for self serving purposes in my opinion).

Our horizons of view are necessarily limited by the narrow slice of space and time we occupy and the culture in which we come to conceive the world. We can break out a little from time to time but for the most part we can't separate our innate ideas of "social good" from that which more objectively probably is better for the species.

I understand the sentiment. I thought about it a lot. As I got older I realized the important things in society are the little things. We are individuals, there are millions of us. We generally won't dramatically alter the course of history but the way we treat others personally, the way we conduct our affairs, our character as individuals, that's what makes up a society. We have to eat and drink. It's part of life. So we sometimes have to do things that we'd rather not. But we can try to minimize our negative impact.

Also I think we partially got where we are right now because some of our ancestors were basically beasts who killed the competition and took their women. And if that hadn't happened at some level regularly we'd probably still be swinging from trees and eating seasonal fruit. I'm not sure I want to know what the implication of that is. But I try to live in peace and stay balanced which means not worrying about saving the world all the time. Because it truly cannot be saved but maybe you can be. And a few others.

This is almost certainly the wrong place to ask this question, unfortunately. The HN demographic is spectacularly disinterested in the well-being of humanity. Try /r/socialistprogrammers or /r/anarcho_hackers on Reddit.

> The HN demographic is spectacularly disinterested in the well-being of humanity.

Wait, what?

You can see it in the many comments claiming that working at an ordinary day job or donating your income to charity is akin to the social good asked for by OP. It's a failure of imagination to assume that you can do more good for the world as programmer #9001 at Facebook who donates some of his income to effective altruism than as a programmer who adds all of her value to some other cause. A good programmer making 100k contributes far more than 100k value to the company she works at, so why not find a charity to which she can contribute similarly?

   It's a failure of imagination to assume that you can do more good for the world as programmer #9001 at Facebook who donates some of his income to effective altruism than as a programmer who adds all of her value to some other cause.
It's obviously a failure of imagination to believe this is not possible either. I'm not saying it is the clearly or always the best outcome, but it's clearly possible.

Consider law, for example. To use round numbers, biglaw mid-career in NYC could target $500k/yr, and plenty of lawyers are working for non-profits at $50k/yr. So one could choose to take the $500k/yr, plus donate enough to a non-profit to hire two people full time. Now you have 2x your "more than x value".

The numbers in tech are actually not much different, for certain skill sets. It's also important to remember that skill sets are not fungible this way. I could be really good at something HFT or OR companies really want, but only middling at what a non-profit needs. This affords a sort of arbitrage opportunity.

Another option - chase a high paying career for 10-15 years, retire with a modest but secure income, move to a cheaper location and volunteer the remainder of your working life to charities.

etc. etc. be imaginative.

> You can see it in the many comments claiming that working at an ordinary day job or donating your income to charity is akin to the social good asked for by OP.

If OP doesn't see donating to charity as interest in the well-being of society then let's just admit that the parent isn't so much concerned about whether or not HN is interested in the well-being of society so much as if HN wants to contribute to the well-being of society in the same way the parent would. Thus, parent really should say, "HN doesnt seem to agree with my particular persuasion as to how one creates well-being in society."

Donating to charity is, almost by definition, interest in the wellbeing of society.

Also, if you're going to be paid $100k at Facebook that means the value you provide is >= $100k to Facebook. It does not mean that your work is objectively worth $100k anywhere you could go. There's some correlation, of course, but I think given the context it's an important distinction to make.

As an aside, it's entirely possible for me to imagine a scenario in which the most beneficial thing one could do for society is utilize the scale and reach of Facebook. I doubt that the vast majority of the work at Facebook is that specifically, but it's certainly possible to imagine.

> Donating to charity is, almost by definition, interest in the wellbeing of society.

...or dodging taxes while getting good PR and also giving jobs to people in your own country (instead of elsewhere)?

It isn't a tax dodge.

The cost of the donation always exceeds the tax benefit.

People do things like setup foundations and then appoint people to work for them, but that still doesn't allow the money to be kept without paying taxes on it (the foundation has to engage in bona fide charitable activities to maintain tax status).

It's crudely phrased, but the quantity of posts which show up in opposition to anything that helps society at large at the cost of profits is remarkably high, and getting higher as time goes on.

All anecdotal, of course.

I'd say that HN seems extremely interested in the wellbeing of humanity. That's all anyone talks about. The disagreements are over what methodology is most likely to reach that ends.

My guess is that parent sees comments that recommend a different means to the same end we all generally believe in, and views those as disregard for humans.

"making the world a better place by selling $service" is usually hypocrisy rather than a matter of methodology.

Same goes for making a service cheaper at the expense of the workers and the list goes on...

>"making the world a better place by selling $service" is usually hypocrisy rather than a matter of methodology.

You can't be binary about this.

In many situations, selling a service has made the world (or at least a city/country) a better place.

Private cell phone service in many developing countries, for example. I know countries where, before they came in, people would have to wait years to get a landline (some in excess of 10 years). Private companies swooped in and gave people access (at least those who could afford it). Imagine how limited your life would be if you didn't have any phone (and that includes no Internet).

Sometimes giving to charity is better. At other times, it's non-sustaining and you need some kind of profit model. Both can benefit society.

...and that's why I wrote "usually".

Indeed. Go read the comments on the "My Family's Slave" article from a few days ago. A large proportion of them were supportive of slavery, or at least identified strongly with the slavers rather than their victim. Furthermore, the admins apparently disabled downvoting of comments, and detached strongly anti-slavery subthreads.

HN and the HN demographic are strongly interested in preserving/advancing a particular social order; one that is largely detrimental to most of humanity.

> Furthermore, the admins apparently disabled downvoting of comments, and detached strongly anti-slavery subthreads.

I checked that thread, and the detached subthreads appear to be either tangential or uncivil. I see little evidence of the pro-slavery agenda you allude to.

> Go read the comments on the "My Family's Slave" article from a few days ago. A large proportion of them were supportive of slavery, or at least identified strongly with the slavers rather than their victim. Furthermore, the admins apparently disabled downvoting of comments, and detached strongly anti-slavery subthreads.

Both of these are outright lies. You can dress them however you want if you dare to reply but these are lies.

And why bother? It's not as if everyone can go check the discussion and see that these are lies. Weird.

GP appears to use a very idiosyncratic metric of such interest.

In my opinion, the HN readership is far too diverse to accurately make any such narrow statements about.

I just took a quick look at these communities: how exactly are /r/socialistprogramm and /r/anarcho_hackers furthering the well being of humanity? For what i see its all about fringe politics (meaning that they keep themselves busy)

Disinterested or differently-interested?

I really like the UN's Sustainable Development Goals as a guide for "the world's biggest problems". See them here: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300

Luckily, these days there are an abundance of ways you can 1) make money, 2) work on interesting problems, 3) work with amazing people, and 4) do social good. You used to have to choose 2 or 3 of those things, but no longer. I run a nonprofit organization that highlights these opportunities: http://impact.tech/

I also run a VC fund that supports these sorts of startups. You can see an example of the companies we back here: http://www.fifty.vc/companies/

If anyone is considering jumping into the social impact startup space, feel free to drop me a line and I can help you navigate the opportunities. First name AT the URL of the nonprofit I mentioned.

Support the people already doing important work - get away from the egocentric "tech will save the world" attitude that is so endemic to our industry. Just get involved and see where you can help.

Get involved in what; where?

Unspecific suggestions like this are the reason people get lost and resume the attitude you're deriding.

That is an exercise left to the reader. Find groups that interest you and are effective in their mission. Ask how you can help and follow through with your commitments. Be humble and aware that initially you will be taking not giving as they expend resources to spin you up.

Or as mentioned above - just donate some of that sweet, sweet cash that tech workers are making hand over fist compared to nearly every other occupation.

> Unspecific suggestions like this are the reason people get lost and resume the attitude you're deriding.

Yes, surely those people bear no responsibility around their personal level of civic engagement.

> Yes, surely those people bear no responsibility around their personal level of civic engagement.

"Those people" started this thread and asked for specifics.

> Find groups that interest you and are effective in their mission.

That's what the poster is doing.

I don't disagree with your sentiment; the answer to "how do I do good?" isn't just going to be handed to you. I suppose I was prompted to jump in because I think somebody might otherwise confuse your comment for being a useful answer to the original topic.

> I suppose I was prompted to jump in because I think somebody might otherwise confuse your comment for being a useful answer to the original topic.

Doing the lord's work, right here ...

> Doing the lord's work

It's called "social good" nowadays.

This is going to sound pessimistic at first but hear me out: Unless you're extremely gifted in many ways and super resourceful, you're not likely to make any noticeable impact on the species.

However, you can still make a big difference for groups much smaller than the whole species (and I think that's actually preferable from a human point of view because it's more tangible). The world is full of problems that could easily be solved by good software. This is especially true in industries that are usually not very technological by themselves.

Depending on your current network you might have gotten to know an industry or two that is not strictly technological. If not, ask your friends who do not program software all day and ask them what problems they have at work that they find annoying and try to come up with a software solution for that.

Once you do that, convince their bosses that it saves them more money to pay for your software than to do things the old way.

I wouldn't be so pesimistic. We started an organisation that builds open source cloud data systems used among other things to track drinking water infrastructure and sustainable food production in Africa and Asia. We started from scratch and we now work with 20+ governments, 200+ NGOs and several UN organisations. We are probably not extremely gifted, but more like middle of the road startup geeks. Still we make an impact.

Something I recently heard on a podcast:

Teach Python to girls in Zimbabwe: https://www.zimbopy.com/become-a-mentor

Join the Democratic Socialists of America's tech committee! [0]

[0] http://www.dsausa.org/tech_committee

I would also like to mention the Humanitarian Toolbox www.htbox.org/

The goal is to help humanitarian organizations solve technology problems with open source solutions. This excellent group of people are developing solutions to common problems like logistical, and communication issues that help improve humanitarian aid.

You can see the source code on their github: https://github.com/htbox/

If you are interested, you can hear more about it by listening to Richard Campbell on this podcast and many others like it: http://www.podcastchart.com/podcasts/herding-code/episodes/h...

Contribute to http://freecodecamp.com

FSF's High Priority Free Software Projects list:


• Free phone operating system: https://www.fsf.org/campaigns/priority-projects/free-phone

• Decentralization, federation, and self-hosting: https://www.fsf.org/campaigns/priority-projects/decentraliza...

• Free drivers, firmware, and hardware designs: https://www.fsf.org/campaigns/priority-projects/hardware-fir...

• Real-time voice and video chat: https://www.fsf.org/campaigns/priority-projects/voicevideoch...

• Encourage contribution by people underrepresented in the community: https://www.fsf.org/campaigns/priority-projects/contribute

• Free software and accessibility: https://www.fsf.org/campaigns/priority-projects/accessibilit...

• Internationalization of free software: https://www.fsf.org/campaigns/priority-projects/internationa...

• Security by and for free software: https://www.fsf.org/campaigns/priority-projects/security-by-...

• Intelligent personal assistant: https://www.fsf.org/campaigns/priority-projects/personalassi...

• Help GNU/Linux distributions be committed to freedom: https://www.fsf.org/campaigns/priority-projects/help-gnu-lin...

• Free software adoption by governments: http://www.fsf.org/campaigns/priority-projects/free-software...

If you want to do social good on your own, pick a cause you can get excited about and look for meetings in your town around that cause. Go to those meetings for six months and get to know people. Talk to them and find out what problems they're facing, and brainstorm with them ways tech can solve those problems. Find the most curmudgeonly people in that community and work with them until you've won them over. Now you have an idea! Make it, refine it, and when you launch, your local community around that cause will be able to promote it to like-minded folks elsewhere.

Simple, but takes a lot of time, patience, listening, and humility. You can't go in thinking you have the answers, it's got to be a collaborative process.

Social utility is not easy to define. The main problem is that it's impossible to speak for all timescales at once. Particularly when you take some sort of norm on all the individual utilities. This sounds overly technical, but I have a point.

Don't work towards maximizing the utility of everyone, it's nonsense. People aren't that cooperative, even. Work towards bounding the minimum utility. There's lots of social and physical extinction events that humanity faces. Even if you have nothing directly to contribute to these problems, perhaps you can realistically contribute to the welfare of other people who are contributing to these problems.

Check out one of Data for Democracy's projects and see if you'd like to contribute to any of their open source work: http://datafordemocracy.org/

I've volunteered technology skills for a long time for social and community causes. Tech assistance ends up often starting as a secondary way to assist and first beginning with non-tech volunteering as a way to learn about problems. It's interesting how much more we can get done if a social enterprise/cause had the right tools and I invariably end up helping with something if I just get involved as a volunteer.

There's some important things that can make a lasting difference, beginning with ensuring there's something you care about, possibly obscure, but important, for possibly a long time. A big part of this is learning about what the issues are and their impacts.

To help pick a problem or area you care about.. there are things that you are naturally drawn to and can't help yourself with.

It's not a bad place to start looking for problems (and other people trying to make a difference) you care about and want to add value to is an important consideration.

Why? The most important thing I experience is the importance of always adding value first, and finding a way to do it. It simply opens more doors and opportunities than anything else I've ever experienced.

From a tech perspective, many social enterprises, groups can benefit from basic mobile apps or tools for the people they work with. The skillset here isn't the hard thing to find, it's a willingness to learn and only then solve problems even if they aren't new or interesting but deliver great value.

If you can help someone save a few hours a week with 10-15 minutes of making an excel sheet, it is a greater help and a start.

All big problems begin as and consist of a lot of smaller problems.

A secret of finding interesting projects that can grow, is that the willingness to solve small problems, because small problems leads to large problems on their own. Almost all of my multi-industry experience is due to the transferability of solving similar problems.

With this in mind, social good can happen independently, with a group, from an initiative at work, and not just exclusively from working with non-profits. Help where no one's helping and you'll find lots of opportunities to add value.

Join the Progressive Coders Network: https://www.progcode.org

There are a ton of projects you can jump on aimed at helping to get progressives elected and enact progressive policies. For those not familiar with progressive politics (or at least not beyond Bernie or whatever), the basic idea is to make it easier for people to get involved with government. For example, making it easier to to figure out which elections you're eligible to participate in as a candidate and/or as a voter.

Our non-profit builds Councilmatic - https://www.councilmatic.org/ - free & open-source tech for city-level civic engagement. Closing the feedback loop with local government, accessible tools for community dialogue.

But in my ten years' experience, here's what I see as the biggest potential for tech for social good: open data standards for constituent communications. Breaking public messages out of the current silo's of individual e-mails, e-petitions, social media, civic tech apps, and issue advocacy platforms. Making possible open structured data on real public priorities and policy preferences in every Congressional district. This never took off because government offices haven't wanted such a level of participatory democracy, and because existing advocacy groups haven't wanted to share membership lists and enable peer-to-peer organizing - it would undercut the business models of e-petition companies and legacy advocacy vendors and VC-backed civic startups. But making public opinion info more free and open for analysis could push forward reforms that have wide support, and are stymied by the current U.S. two-party system: http://www.participatorypolitics.org/open-data-infrastructur...

Blue Ridge Labs @ Robinhood.

We have a yearly, paid, 5 month long fellowship in Brooklyn for mid-career engineers, designs, and product managers that combines human centered design and Lean Startup to build tech ventures that fight poverty.

https://joinpropel.com came out of our fellowship and just raised a seed round from Andreesen Horowitz.

Our website: https://labs.robinhood.org

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