Software can create social impact, but only if it is sympathetic to the intricacies of our lives
Rich, tell us a little bit about yourself?
How do you take an idea that is in someone’s head and then get a computer to do it? I love this challenge.
Prior to becoming a freelance developer, I spent 13 years in the corporate world. In my last role, I was managing a team to develop cloud-based software for one of the world’s largest consumer security firms. It was a great learning experience, and it taught me about developing software at scale. For instance, some of our products had up to a million users.
I’m now at a point where I want to do something that can tangibly change the world and make a real difference to people’s lives. I know that sounds idealistic. But that’s a good place to start, right?
When you say you’re a software developer…
I describe myself as a full-stack developer. Full-stack refers to all the layers of a software ecosystem. This includes everything, from the actual machines themselves to the user interface. Within this ecosystem, I am particularly interested in the business logic layer. This is where we can get computers to do things that have never been done before. How do you take an idea that is in someone’s head and then get a computer to do it? I love this challenge.
From full-stack development to creating a software solution that can help victims of domestic violence, that is quite a leap, isn’t it?
I don’t think it’s that big a leap. No matter how complex a problem is, well-designed software can be part of the solution. But it’s important to remember that software, written by a human being, can introduce a bias by second guessing the nature of the problem. During this innovation lab, I have worked with people who have a lived experience of delivering frontline services, as well as victims of domestic violence.
What can you share about the solution?
It’s a simple development project, but a big step in terms of what can be achieved, if we get it right.
Not a lot as it’s been designed to be hidden. Sometimes, software is designed with the best of intentions. However, it requires the end user to make a quantum conceptual and operational leap. Our solution is for people in vulnerable situations. It mirrors established procedures for working with victims to collect evidence against the perpetrator. The innovation is that this solution makes it harder for the abuser to realise that evidence is being gathered, or that their victim is receiving support. In due course we will evaluate this application as part of ongoing support programmes across the city of Leeds.
What has been your biggest learning over the past few months?
When you’re working with frontline staff and vulnerable communities, as a software developer, you need really good listening skills. Your role is more of a facilitator in the first instance.
The inspiration for this solution has come from a victim of domestic violence. During the development day, several people thought this idea was too far fetched. My role was to shape a pragmatic iteration of this idea. It’s a simple development project, but a big step in terms of what can be achieved, if we get it right. In a very short space of time, we’ve gone from a paper prototype to a proof of concept that will be tested shortly.
What advice would you give to a technologists who wants to work on development projects that can create positive social impact?
I want to reference a recent post by Sunil D’Monte, Chief Technology Adviser at RangDe, if you’re looking for a good challenge, you’ll find plenty of them in the public and voluntary sector. Take some time to prepare yourself. You will need to be an excellent listener. You will work with people who operate in very different, often challenging, non-digital environments. Working on these projects won’t get you a big bank balance. At least in the early days, you will need to balance such work with commercial projects. But the rewards are absolutely fantastic.
The Sustainable Development Innovation Lab has been named as one of 2016’s New Radicals by Nesta and the Observer! We are one of 50 radical-thinking individuals and organisations changing the UK for the better. We build ethical solutions that are co-produced with residents and scaled by governments. For more information about our projects please visit our website.