Monday, April 25, 2011

Succeeding in Socially Beneficial Activities Requires Some Special Qualities

As I work my way through the final edits of my book on socially beneficial uses of computing I have been reviewing chapters one after another. Some of these chapters I had not looked at for several months. Reading them back to back like this I am struck by some common themes - technical and not technical.

First perhaps the least surprising: passion. Computing professionals working for social and environmental causes (and by no means assume none of these people are in traditional profit seeking corporations) are passionate about what they do. They get up in the morning ready to apply their computer science experience to something they truly care about beyond themselves.

Second: Many work on problems where there will never be (or is highly unlikely to ever be) "THE solution" or indisputable "proof" about the data and results they work with every day. These computing professionals have a flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity not often sufficiently lauded in curriculum I have experienced. When there is a monocular focus on proving things, using the scientific method to accept or reject hypotheses, it is possible to lose sight of the impact we can have on seemingly intractable real-world problems.

Third: I would be remiss not to include a technical / process issue. Perhaps this one will not surprise you so much; it didn't surprise me. However it did surprise me to learn, to experience, just how much achieving successful impact relies on this: not cutting corners. There are a million ways to cut corners in hardware, software and system development. It is true the culture of many institutions of learning doesn't sufficiently reward validation and verification. However, learning just how much it matters tells me we need to work harder at instilling the importance of these activities when future and new computer scientists are in their most formative stages.

These are just a few of the themes I have encountered; any one of them could make for a lengthy discussion. I must point out that the many projects I have investigated and researched all embody these themes; else they would not have succeeded in their socially beneficial activities and thus attracted my attention. 

I don't know what you think but I feel honored to have had the opportunity to meet (sometimes only over the phone, Skype or email) the people who have taught me so much about computing "doing good".

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