Just a little over a year ago, I was starting my junior year of college at the University of Pennsylvania, not altogether very far along in my computer science degree, and even less far along in figuring out what I wanted to do with that degree. I knew vaguely that I had a passion for development work, and I also knew that few of my peers in computer science understood what I could possibly mean when I said that I wanted to combine the two. Realistically, I didn’t either; but I muddled along with this vague pie in the sky plan to use my newfound powers with a keyboard to save the world.
What I was looking for, I know now, was ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development), but I didn’t know to call it that yet. Dimagi, of course, lives and operates in that world, where technology and international development cohabitate quite nicely, and where developers get the chance, perhaps not to save the world, but to do their best to make a small corner of it a little better. That was more than enough for me.
I stumbled across Dimagi in as unlikely a way as any, and to my extremely pleasant surprise, found myself with a summer internship as a software engineer at the exact sort of place I had sworn to my parents must exist somewhere. This past summer was an enormous learning experience for me in the best of ways. I had all of the usual lessons of a software development intern, from what it’s like to work on big team with a bigger codebase, to learning new platforms as fast as you possibly can. But then I also got a window into what it means to take technology and apply it to real problems on a large scale across the world. That sort of exposure was more valuable to me than anything.
The first time that ICT4D was defined for me in a concrete way was actually not at Dimagi, however. Around that same time at the beginning of junior year, I also found a club at Penn with unique opportunities surrounding technology and development. The Penn Society for International Development (PennSID) has for the last three years been host to an annual international development-focused hackathon at Penn called Hack the Change. The goal of the event is two-fold: first, to provide organizations doing work in development and social impact with creative, innovative technology to aid their work, and second, to give student developers a chance to use their skills in new and more meaningful ways. In order to do this, the Hack the Change team compiles problem statements submitted by these sorts of organizations, which represent challenges that they believe could be solved or facilitated by a technology-based solution.
Last year, I joined PennSID just in time to jump into the planning process and see how the event played out, as well as participate as a hacker myself. It was the first time I got a glimpse of what using computer science in the way I had imagined could entail. There is undeniably a flaw in a hackathon-based approach to development-related work, where sustainability and careful, prolonged thought and attention are paramount. But it was a start, and it brought together a lot of people from different backgrounds – students, professional mentors, speakers, professors – who were all interested in this same cause. To all of us, that was a really cool place to be, and it definitely gave me the confidence to start more aggressively pursuing my goal.
Fast-forward to a year later, on the other side of my internship at Dimagi, and involved in Hack the Change again. This time, I was lucky enough to be able to bring the two experiences together. Dimagi sent two engineers, Nick and Ethan, to this year’s hackathon, which took place a few weeks ago at Penn. Joined by mentors from Google, IBM, the Peace Corps, and others, Dimagi helped teams work on what turned out to be some really awesome projects (you can check out details of all of the projects here). Dimagi’s presence at Hack the Change was especially cool because of how relevant our work is to the event. Even as social impact initiatives within the tech world grow in popularity and ICT4D becomes a more commonly used term every day, Dimagi is still incredibly unique in what we do and how we do it. Within the first few minutes of the event, one of our other mentors was scrambling to have me introduce him to Nick and Ethan so he could talk to them about Dimagi’s approach to mobile data collection, a problem he has been struggling with for quite some time.
It is the potential for this sort of knowledge sharing and growth that I think makes events like Hack the Change, and Dimagi’s involvement in them, so valuable.