Programmers Will Change The World

Don't wait for the world to change. Fix it.
Credit: flickr / giarose

On Tuesday, I went to an event at The Code Factory. Michelle Gauthier spoke for CapCHI on “User-Centered Design: A Cultural Challenge” (full details).

I found it fascinating. I’ve been thinking about programming as a force for good a lot lately so it was great to hear an example about that.

The talk was about her experience working for a non-profit, Digital Divide Data (DDD).

Digital Divide Data is an international, non-profit IT company that builds bridges to opportunity in the global economy.

Digital Divide Data was founded with the idea that the world’s poorest citizens can produce their own solutions to poverty in the new global economy if they have access to the knowledge, skills, and opportunities that power economic growth and lasting change around the world.

DDD bridges the divide that separates young people from opportunity through our unique social enterprise model. We recruit disadvantaged youth in Cambodia and Laos and provide them with the education and training they need to work in a world-class digitization and IT company, serving clients around the world. Our staff acquire essential business management skills and attend school part-time with our support — breaking the cycle of poverty as they develop meaningful and rewarding careers.

OK this is not just programmers changing the world, this is technology in general making it possible to build sustainable programs that will lift people out of poverty. The point is (to me, at least) – is that programmers are part of this. They’ve developed custom applications in order to process the huge amounts of data they go though – i.e. if you scan lots of documents in a series, you have to work out where each individual document begins and ends. The documents all need to be tagged as well, and have the title extracted.

What Michelle was doing, was HCI analysis, determining why the processes were taking so much longer than expected and fixing the UI so it made more sense.

It was interesting, because one of the things she said was “they have no mental model of a computer”. The concept of “save” in one application does not transfer to another. It’s really hard – probably impossible – for most of us to imagine not knowing how to use a computer. And, inevitably, when we try and write applications for people who don’t know how to use computers, we will make assumptions that will prove flawed.

I think programmers already have changed the world though improving connectivity, automating repetitive tasks and writing software that has changed, fundamentally, the music industry.

How will we change the world next? Tackling global warming though things like Smart Meters. Creating websites like Kiva which promote sustainable development through micro-loans. And I think we’ll write more pieces of software that help with outsourcing, education, and medical care in developing countries.

Programmers needed to change the world. I’m totally on board, are you?

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