I don’t know about you, but it drives me crazy when I’m stuck on an endless phone call with an automated system. Usually, I have a simple problem I’m trying to solve or service I’m trying to access, but it can feel like I’m trapped in an endless loop of pressing 1 or 2 to respond to questions rather than get answers myself.
Why is it that I can press a few buttons on my phone and, in minutes, have a car or food waiting for me, but I can’t figure out how to easily pay my water bill online? Or how to quickly find information on connecting someone to a homeless shelter?
The cloud powers everything these days. Or, at least, it powers everything that you enjoy using, usually because the tech it supports makes your day-to-day life easier in some way. But, oddly, the real-world problems that most people care about — problems around things like education, healthcare, and food security — don’t get nearly enough attention.
That’s not because we as a society don’t want people to succeed in those areas, but because the organizations committed to addressing those kinds of problems often have terrible tech. For groups dealing with meaningful social issues like this, tech can be the last thing on their list. There often just aren’t enough focus, energy, or resources available to make meaningful tech improvements, even though these issues impact all of us.
On a macro level, this speaks to a real gap in the market: there simply aren’t enough digital services firms focused on helping to support Civic Tech or “Cloud for Good.” It’s important to note here that focusing on Cloud for Good doesn’t mean sacrificing profit or success for the greater good. I founded Fearless in 2009 with the mission of building software with a soul. That means that we only take on projects that empower users and change lives.
One of the places we’re working to build software with a soul is the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), where we’re helping the agency modernize their technology. This work not only benefits the over 40 million people who receive insurance through Medicare, but also every American. When programs are inefficient, recipients don’t receive the best care, costs are high, and, at the end of the day, it’s American taxpayers who pay the price. Improving these technologies makes the healthcare system work better for everyone.
But don’t just take my word for it. Companies that make up organizations like the Digital Services Coalition (DSC) are living proof that it’s possible to run a successful tech company that is centered around doing good. The mission of the DSC is to focus on the long game of improving government through digital transformation.
The ideas that power Cloud for Good have been around for a long time — longer than the terms “Civic Tech” or Cloud for Good themselves. For me, Cloud for Good really came into the forefront of my mind when Healthcare.gov failed. Also when the government stood up USDS and 18F you could see a sort of awakening across the tech community. People wanted to help, and you saw a bunch of digital services firms come in to help course correct. This was a major inflection point for the movement.
But, while the DSC and companies like Fearless focus on Civic Tech in government spaces, not all “Tech for Good” has to be related to the government.
One example of Civic Tech in a non-government space is Black and Mobile. The service operates in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Detroit (as of July 2020), and is the country’s first Black-owned food delivery service that exclusively partners with Black-owned restaurants to give them more exposure and customers.
From Black and Mobile’s website:
Black and Mobile’s main focus is to highlight underrepresented businesses in the urban communities that are often overlooked, and provide them with the technology they need to not only expand their customer base but to stay competitive in this rapidly changing economy.
I’ve heard from more people who are asking, “How can I use my tech powers for good? I want to work on projects that solve problems.” I believe this speaks to the larger movement of people looking for meaning in the work that they do and wanting humanity and our world to be better.
But technologists and engineers don’t have to find like-minded companies to make a mark in the Cloud for Good space.
Get involved with local meetups, especially ones centered around solving problems in the Cloud for Good space in your community. Code for America brigades are a good place to start if you’re looking for outlets that you can work with. The local brigades are made up of volunteers who develop open-source projects focusing on open data, great design, and social good.
If there’s a non-profit organization in your area that you would like to support, donate your time to help them build software. Think of the needs of Civic Tech when you’re writing code. Open-source software allows more people to benefit and use software solutions. By building open-source, others can leverage your tech to support more projects.
Here in Baltimore, we have Hack Baltimore. The tech movement teams up community advocates, non-profits, technologists and city residents to design “sustainable” solutions for the challenges impacting our city. Find an organization like Hack Baltimore in your community, or start one.
The Cloud isn’t inherently good nor bad, it’s all based on the intent of the end-users and those of us who wield our “tech powers” to power applications around the world. We have the power to help power such amazing social missions that too often get left behind. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights just how connected we all are and has exposed the technical gaps of many organizations and missions. Those gaps provide opportunities for all of us to fill. So as you are off building “the Cloud”, consider using some of that energy to build the Cloud for Good.