The rise of the activist developer

The last few months have put technology and its role in society, especially in the United States, in the spotlight.

We need a serious conversation on the equitable and ethical use of tech, what can be done to combat the spread of misinformation and more. As we work to solve these problems, however, I hope this dialogue doesn’t overshadow one silver lining of the past year: The rise of the developer activists who are using tech for good.

They stepped up like never before to tackle numerous global issues, demonstrating they not only love solving incredibly hard problems, but can do it well and at scale.

We need a serious conversation on the equitable and ethical use of tech, what can be done to combat the spread of misinformation and more.

The responsibility lies with all of us to empower this community to unleash their entrepreneurial growth mindset and ensure more people have the opportunity to create a sustainable future for all. I’m calling on my colleagues, our industry, our governments and more to join me in supporting a new wave of developer-led activism and renew efforts to collectively close the skills gap that exists today.

From the COVID-19 pandemic, to climate change, to racial injustice, developers are playing a crucial role in creating new technologies to help people navigate today’s volatile world. Many of these developers are working on social problems on their own time, using open-source software that they can share globally. This work is helping to save lives and going forward, will help millions more.

The international research community acted early to share data and genetic sequences with one another in open-source projects that helped advance our early understanding of coronavirus and how to mobilize efforts to stop it. The ability for researchers to track genetic codes around the world in near real-time is crucial to our response.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was able to digitize its contract signature process in just 10 days during this critical time. A team of four developers hailing from Taiwan, Brazil, Mongolia and India helped farmers navigate climate change by using weather data to make more informed crop management decisions.

From the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1950s and 1960s through the recent rallies supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, people have used passion and protests to shape the conversations that lead to a better future. Now, this rich history of people-powered action has an important new set of tools: The data, software and tech know-how that’s needed to mount a coordinated global and local response to our greatest challenges.

Today’s software developers are akin to civil engineers in the 1940s and 1950s who designed bridges and roads, creating an infrastructure that paved the path for enormous widespread progress.

The open-source code community already collaborates and shares, producing innovations that belong to everyone, focusing on progress over perfection. If a hurricane is about to create havoc in your community, don’t just fill sandbags, hit your keyboard and use open-source technologies to not only help your community, but to scale solutions to help others. DroneAID, for example, is an open-source tool that uses visual recognition to detect and count SOS icons on the ground from drones flying overhead, and then automatically plots emergency needs on a map for first responders.

A recent GitHub study shows that open-source project creation is up 25% since April of last year. Developers are signing on to contribute to open-source communities and virtual hackathons during their downtime, using their skills to create a more sustainable world.

In 2018, I helped found Call for Code with IBM, David Clark Cause and United Nations Human Rights to empower the global developer community, and a big part of our mission was to create the infrastructure needed to shepherd big ideas into real-world deployments. For our part, IBM provides the 24-million-person developer community access to the same technology being used by our enterprise clients, including our open hybrid cloud platform, AI, blockchain and quantum computing.

One winner, Prometeo, with a team including a firefighter, nurse and developers, created a system that uses artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things to safeguard firefighters as they battle blazes and has been tested in multiple regions in Spain. We’ve seen developers help teachers share virtual information for homeschooling; measure the carbon footprint impact of consumer purchases; update small businesses with COVID-19 policies; help farmers navigate climate change; and improve the way businesses manage lines amid the pandemic.

This past year, Devpost partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) and challenged developers to create COVID-19 mitigation solutions in categories including health, vulnerable populations and education. The Ford Foundation and Mozilla led a fellowship program to connect technologists, activists, journalists and scientists, and strengthen organizations working at the convergence of technology and social justice. The U.S. Digital Response (USDR) connected pro-bono technologists to work with government and organizations responding to crisis.

The most complex global and societal issues can be broken down into smaller solvable tech challenges. But to solve our most complex problems, we need the brains of every country, every class, every gender. The skills-gap crisis is a global phenomenon, making it critical that we equip the next generation of problem solvers with the training and resources they need to turn great ideas into impactful solutions.

This year, we can expect to see a newly energized community of developers working across the boundaries of companies, states and countries to take on some of the world’s biggest problems.

But they can’t do it alone. These developer activists need our support, encouragement and help pinpointing the most crucial problems to address, and they need the tools to bring solutions to every corner of the world.

The true power of technology lies with those who want to change the world for good. To ensure anyone who wants to create change has the tools, resources and skillsets to do so, we must renew our focus on closing the skills gap and addressing deep inequalities in our society.

Our future depends on getting this right.

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