Tech for effective charities – an interview with Ben Clifford from Good Code
What is Good Code?
Good code (https://tinyletter.com/goodcode) is a meetup in London of software developers who work on projects for effective charities.
How did good code get started? What are you trying to do?
I was interested in technology entrepreneurship and I wanted to do a lot of good. I thought a good potential customer for this would be poor people or charities that help them, especially as there is little incentive for other organisations to help them out. I didn’t know much about this area though, so I set up Good Code to explore what kinds of problems charities have that could be solved by tech. We approach charities that seem high impact (e.g. from GiveWell recommendations) and then find out what sort of problems they have that could be solved with software. It’s been a good way to start conversations with charities because we’re offering something of use to them.
Have the charities you’ve approached wanted the help?
Some charities who I’ve cold emailed haven’t got back to me. But there have been some who have been enthusiastic about getting help. We’ve done the most work with New Incentives, (https://www.newincentives.org/) who have been earmarked by GiveWell as having the potential to be recommended by them as a top charity in the future. They provide cash incentives to mothers who are at risk of transmitting HIV to their children to get health checks.
The projects we’ve done with them have helped improve the efficiency of operations they already do. One project was to automate the process of generating mobile money tokens from their bank account so that they can transfer money to the mothers. This used to be a really laborious manual process, so we helped them save time with that. Another example is that they use google spreadsheets for handling their data, and we’ve helped them out by making some google app scripts for that. It’s been really good that New Incentives have a good understanding of where technology could help out with what they’re doing. This helps a lot with working with them because they can provide good project specifications.
Because we’ve wanted to get stuck in quickly and build relationships with charities we’ve tried to go for easy wins where we don’t have to build everything from scratch or maintain it in the long run. It’s been a balancing act between getting the volunteers to commit the time and for the charities to commit the time. So we’ve been testing both sides with smaller projects.
A more ambitious project with New Incentives is a mobile app for field workers for randomising beneficiaries (if demand increases supply limits) and to conduct verification checks including HIV and pregnancy retests.
How do you find volunteers who will do things?
Some software developers are just addicted to coding and want to do more, so they can be more committed than other volunteers. But also I’ve tried to put as little time investment into new volunteers as possible and then if they’re keen enough they’ll keep coming back. So it’s more about selecting the right people than motivating people to be productive. Apart from myself, there’s 2 or 3 awesome people committed to doing Good Code projects.
Why don’t the charities do this work themselves?
Both GiveDirectly (https://www.givedirectly.org/) and Against Malaria Foundation (https://www.againstmalaria.com/) have in-house technical staff, so I don’t know what their reaction would be if we offered to help, although I know GiveDirectly sometimes take on technical volunteers.
My impression is that most of the charities don’t have technical staff because it’s not their core activity and they don’t feel it would be worth their while hiring a whole technical staff member to do the kind of small projects we’ve been doing. However, it would be would be worth asking the people at New Incentives whether it would be worth them hiring a software developer in the future. They do have a lot of problems they could solve with tech especially around their mobile money system and their data analysis.
Is anyone else doing tech for high impact charities?
There are a handful of organisations doing similar work, but not focussed on helping the highest impact charities.
How do you select charities?
We want to help GiveWell recommended charities, but there also could be promising opportunities elsewhere. There may be charities that don’t need funding so much, but would be able to increase their impact a lot if they had tech help.
It’s also really important to think about scale. For example, if you could improve the productivity across the whole of Oxfam the organisation it’s so big that you could have a large impact.
An interesting example is Segovia (https://www.thesegovia.com/). GiveDirectly thought that cash transfer technology wasn’t moving fast enough for them so they set up Segovia to work on this and then sell the technology to other organisations.
With the charities we’ve worked with, the solutions to their problems are out there, they just need help implementing them. So the model is closer to IT consulting than to software product development.
What are you going to do with Good Code in the medium term?
I’ve thought if we have the right set of people working on it and enough demand for it, we could set up an agency. And ideally we might be able to develop a product that would be useful for many charities and then scaling that up to have a big impact.
The meetup is also good because it brings together technologists who are interested in Effective Altruism. It’s a good recipe for finding a startup cofounder. I’ve met some really cool people through it and I’m excited about continuing this community.
It’s also great to understand these charities on a more intimate level, which normally wouldn’t be possible.
Do you have any needs? What would you like from the Good Technology Project?
It’s clear what the effective charities are from GiveWell’s list of giving opportunities. From that, you infer that if we ring them up and they say there’s a problem and we can solve that problem, then it seems like we have had a good amount of impact. But there are maybe other organisations that are high impact and tech constrained that aren’t on GiveWell’s list. So it would be good to have help finding these opportunities.