Some 6 months ago I found myself in a meeting where I had no clue what the topic was going to be or any prior knowledge to give away why I was there. Halfway through the meeting I found myself in complete awe at what was presented. The meeting was with the Norwegian Red Cross, the topic was how they wanted to take advantage of technology to gain insight into potential epidemics. The Norwegian Red Cross team had already done a couple of iterations on a software for dealing with this, trying out different technologies. They now had the real world experience from the versions they’ve been running and wanted to take it to the next level; professionalize the software – making something maintainable and sustainable. Red Cross does not have a software development branch within their organization and reached out to Microsoft for assistance and see how we could help. With Norwegian Red Cross being a nonprofit organization, they already get assistance from Microsoft through the Microsoft Philantropies. I was on Channel9 talking about the project, you can watch it here.
Taking the lead
With software there aren’t that many opportunities to really do good for mankind by applying the skillsets we already have(?). With what was presented and my position @ Microsoft, I started thinking about how there could be synergies and how it could all be brought together. My day to day work is an advisory type of role were I engage with ISVs around Norway and helping them move to the cloud or get the most out of Azure in general. With this work I get to meet a lot of people and I started thinking about opportunities of combining it all. In addition, I also felt that the most natural way for any of this software to be built would be to do it in the open with volunteers. Since Red Cross does not have any in-house developers and the cost of hiring consultants are very high. Besides, having external resources to do the work is not the best sustainable model for living software – ideally you’d want to do it in-house. With volunteers however, one would apply one of the core principles of Red Cross itself, that of volunteerism, as the Red Cross bases its work more than 17 million volunteers worldwide.
Understanding and getting the word out
We’ve had the dialog going the last 6 months on how it could be done – both from a process perspective, but also whether or not to base it on volunteer work and even go open source or not. I reached out to Richard Campbell to hear how they’ve been running the Humanitarian Toolbox for American Red Cross in the U.S.. He put me in contact with the product owner they’ve been having for the allReady project. From this, I gained even more confidence that the choice was right to do this on a volunteer basis as they’ve had 132 contributors pitch in on that particular project (@ the time of writing this post). As large organizations come, Red Cross also relies on a certain amount of red-tape and in general internal processes to make decisions.
In middle of June 2017 the NDC developer conference was held in Oslo. We were lucky to get a slot to talk about the project, what Norwegian Red Cross had done and our plans for the architecture for the new implementation. Richard Campbell joined Tonje Tingberg from Norwegian Red Cross and myself on stage (you can watch it on Vimeo here). I was really nervous whether or not there would be anyone coming to the talk, as we didn’t pitch it from a technology perspective – but was super glad and proud of my colleagues in the development community that wanted to learn more. We close to filled the room and the response from people was enormous, we got into good conversations right after and also good mail dialogs after NDC as well. This reinforced the belief that this could be done with volunteers. A couple of weeks ago I got a call from Tonje Tingberg bringing the happy news – Red Cross wants to move forward with the proposed model.
Codeathon – first call to action
The downside to basing everything on volunteer work is of course the fact that you have less control over when things get done. In order to get condensed and focused work done one needs a mechanism where you gather people in the same room for a couple of days.Building on the experience from Humanitarian Toolbox, Red Cross will be hosting a codeathon – not a hackathon or a hackfest – but more like a marathon for coding. The first of these will be held the weekend of 29 September – 1 October at the Norwegian Red Cross in Oslo. If you’re interested in joining and helping out; please sign up here. We will establish a core team that will be putting in place the framework for how we’re going to be building it and making sure we get as much work done as possible during the codeathon. Once you’re signed up, we will follow up with you to make sure you get to do what you want to do.
One of the opportunities with this is learn. Not only from the project itself, but working together with others. In a room filled with developers and architects you’re bound to pick up a thing or two that can be brought back to your daily work. The solution will be built using modern techniques, state of the art architecture and utilizing the cloud as much as we can. It is also a great way to learn more about how to work in the open source community if you haven’t already got experience with doing open source.
Seeing the impact of the work that Red Cross is doing really puts things in perspective. Bringing knowledge to the table is vital in helping others that don’t have the resources we are accustomed to. With the type of technical know-how we have as software developers, we can really make a difference. In our line of work, we focus on being problem solvers – trying to make smarter, more efficient systems. Imagine transferring this and saving lives by just using the power of our brains; this is what we as a community can bring to the table. I’m so glad I was asked to join that meeting months ago – finally I can help in a way I know how to.
Red Cross Norway has also put out a post on this with all the details as well. You can find it here.