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Tech For Good: How individuals and the industry can drive positive social change

Novoda has a reputation of building the most desirable apps for Android and iOS. We believe living and sharing a hack-and-tell culture is one way to maintain top-shelf quality.

When your job doesn’t appear to have any immediately world-changing effect, it can be easy to feel powerless in an increasingly complex world. But everyone has the potential to do good for their community and beyond, and working in technology, that’s particularly true.

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At Novoda, we’ve believed in making positive social and environmental change part of our mission since day one, which means we’ve been faced with many of the challenges that this presents any business trying to scale. That’s one of the reasons we co-hosted an event with banking start-up, Monzo, around Tech for Good. The idea was to both inspire individuals to take action, as well as to provide some ideas as to how businesses at different stages could do so.

Doing good: as an individual

It was apparent right from the beginning of the evening that there’s something about the tech community that breeds side hustle. Perhaps it’s because it suits the inquisitive mindset of Novodans that most of us have at least one side project going on at any one time.

Ryan Bateman, Novoda’s Head of Product, recently spent a weekend on a hack project to nudge users towards offsetting their carbon emissions when they bought a flight through Monzo. He used flight data from the API to work out the length of a flight, the resulting emissions and how much you’d need to donate to offset that - which would appear in your Monzo feed as ‘Offset your flight to X?’.

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What comes next is still up for discussion: enabling donations from within the app, creating a ‘Pot’ within someone’s account to store charitable donations, or something else entirely. There’s a lesson for us all in not being intimidated by the task of building a complete solution - it took just two days to build something significant, which now has the potential to be built upon by someone else.

Working in the tech industry means that we’ve all got skills that can seem like witchcraft to the uninitiated, and those are skills that most charities would love to take advantage of. Take chatbots: This Guardian article discusses how they could transform how charities interact with people - in everything from educating people to soliciting donations - but smaller charities often don’t have the skills needed to make these kinds of projects a reality (and even the bigger ones will find it difficult to prioritise these kinds of projects). Volunteering your time to build something efficient for a charity close to your heart can have a real impact for the people they help.

Novoda CEO, Kevin McDonagh, has himself worked with Apps for Good, teaching children as young as seven how to code. The resulting apps truly changed lives - Cattle Manager went on to win awards, and was made by a group of school children who lived in a rural farming community, who wanted to help the farmers manage their herd digitally rather than via mountains of paperwork.

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Kevin shared his main lesson from his time with Apps for Good: that the real purpose of mentoring or teaching isn’t just about teaching someone a new skill - it’s about giving them the confidence to try something new. Whether they go on to become a master coder or not is a secondary concern to teaching them what it’s like to experiment, fail, iterate and try again.

Hackathons are something we’re all familiar with, and it’s becoming more common to make sure the resulting hacks have social or community value. We worked on a hackathon with RNIB, a charity that helps people affected by sight loss, and it was one of the best we’ve ever run. One of the teams hacked the Sky listings to make them accessible to those with limited sight, which RNIB then took to Sky and had integrated - so, that one weekend has had a positive effect on partially sighted people all over the UK.

(A side benefit for the Novodans that attended was to see the different ways that partially sighted people use technology. It gave us all a much greater appreciation of accessibility, and, as a result, it’s something that we consider in our projects much more today.)

Doing good: as a company

Whether you’re a start-up looking for funding, or years into running a company, focussing entirely on the business side of things is always tempting. But we’ve found through experience that embedding a desire to do good right from the very start means that your social impact grows as your business does.

Any business with resources has the ability to offer them to others. Community groups will often be looking for space to hold events, and sometimes, lending your time to organise something can have the largest impact of all. Providing a place for human connections to be made is as an incredibly important social endeavour. At Novoda, we organise Londroid, Europe’s biggest Android meet-up, which provides anyone in the developer community with a chance to connect with likeminded people.

Providing truly flexible working can feel like a risk for a business with ambitious targets, but we’ve found that the pay off can be huge. By allowing sabbaticals and offering proper flexible working, businesses create a structure that allows employees to do things to support their own mental health, whether that’s spending three months volunteering abroad, taking Fridays off to work with a local charity or just sharing the childcare burden with a partner. Not only does this make you an attractive employer when it comes to finding the very best talent, that person’s return is likely to come with the kind of renewed enthusiasm that only comes from stepping away from the office environment for a while.

Alex Curran is an iOS and Android lead at Novoda, who recently took a one month sabbatical to build an app called Aid. He knew that there were people like him who wanted to give to charity, but who found it difficult to quickly find a suitable charity to donate to.

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The resulting app made it easy for people to find out about a charity that aligned with their interests, and to pay them in just two clicks, reducing the friction between that moment of wanting to do something good, and the actual donation. He’s now in the process of testing Beta versions for both Android and iOS - if you’re interested in trying them out, you can message him here.

Monzo themselves have a social mission as part of their business: making banking accessible for everyone. There are two million people in the UK without a bank account, often because they don’t have the documents that banks require. Without a bank account you can’t rent somewhere to live. Don’t have somewhere to live? You won’t have the necessary documents to open a bank account. It’s catch 22.

Monzo believe technology can improve that situation, and so fundamental to their product has been building the technology to let people open an account without a wealth of documents - in fact, it takes people just a photo of their ID and a short five second video of them to open one.

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So while it’s certainly in Monzo’s interest to have as many customers as possible, they can also have a profound effect on those two million people without a bank account, who will be able to access services and function in society as never before.

It’s this kind of social mission integrated into a broader, more commercial, business plan that is increasingly common in today’s start-ups. People, whether they’re consumers or employees, want to know about how a company is giving back, and it’s those that have a degree of formalised thinking around this that will attract the best talent. And on a personal level, giving back is a way of offsetting what might feel like a 9-5 spent decidedly not changing the world.

Because realistically? We can’t all work for the Red Cross - and that’s ok!

If you’d like to learn even more about what those in the industry have been doing to change the world, check out the entire evening’s presentation:

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We plan, design, and develop the world’s most desirable software products. Our team’s expertise helps brands like Sony, Motorola, Tesco, Channel4, BBC, and News Corp build fully customized Android devices or simply make their mobile experiences the best on the market. Since 2008, our full in-house teams work from London, Liverpool, Berlin, Barcelona, and NYC.

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