Meet The Prize Winners
Nonprofit organizations typically use a variety of software systems and tools to advance their missions. Unfortunately, moving essential information between these systems and tools can be a resource-draining — and mission-frustrating — ordeal.
And that’s where Taylor Downs comes in. The 30-year-old has been the founder and core contributor of OpenFn, an innovative software package that teaches technologies to talk to one another.
For this contribution, Downs has become the 11th annual winner of the Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest. The $10,000 Pizzigati Prize honors software developers working to fashion open source applications that aid activists and nonprofits in their ongoing struggle for social change and renewal.
Tides, a partner to philanthropists and activists worldwide, hosts the prize selection process and will formally present this year’s honor later this month in Washington, D.C. at the annual National Technology Conference, the nonprofit sector’s signature technology event.
The software Taylor Downs and his OpenFn team have generated lets non-technical users create data-integration workflows between key technologies in minutes — with clicks, not code. This seemingly “mundane” software offers a welcome antidote to the chronic aggravations so many nonprofits face in our modern Information Age.
“We provide pipes and plumbing services,” Downs explains. “If an organization uses multiple technologies that all ‘speak different languages,’ we connect them with our pipes and provide on-the-fly ‘translation’ so that those technologies can work together.”
Thanks to OpenFn, organizations that used to expend countless hours manually moving data from one application to another can now shift information about in a timely and cost-effective basis.
“We believe that if higher quality data gets into the hands of the people who need it faster,” as Downs puts it, “an organization will make better decisions.”
OpenFn now stands “poised to make the entire ‘technology for development’ sector — hundreds of essential technologies across health, human rights, education, and poverty — simply work better,” says Cheryl Dorsey of Echoing Green, a nonprofit that provides seed funding for social entrepreneurs.
Organizations like Livelyhoods, a group creating jobs for youth and women in Kenyan slums, are already working better. With OpenFn, Livelyhoods has automated the flow of data and can now track trainings, meeting attendance, product sales, and much more in near real-time.
An open source ethos has guided OpenFn ever since the project’s inception. By making every key element easily accessible, Downs notes, we’ve “allowed the community to guide the development of the platform.” Community users “can extend the functionality of these tools themselves, whether they build their own applications with our code or use our hosted service.”
Downs sees his work on OpenFn in a broad social context that goes well beyond any one organization’s frustrations with software integration. Information technology, he believes, could and should be a catalyst for a more equitable global distribution of wealth and opportunity.
“Technology,” Downs notes, “has the potential to be such a wonderful leveling force in this ridiculous unequal world.”
But information technology, the 2017 Antonio Pizzigati Prize winner also points out, has so far not met that promise.
“Too much programming brainpower seems to be focused on making marginal improvements to already comfortable lives,” Downs feels. “If the best and brightest software developers continue to be swept up by high-margin, wealth-concentrating enterprises, they are only fueling our march towards greater inequality.”
If, on the other hand, software developers work for organizations that value social impacts and not just profits, work open-source wherever they can, and invest their time and money to help develop progressive policies at all levels, “we can absolutely,” concludes Downs, “become a force for a more equitable distribution of wealth.”
This year’s Pizzigati Prize judging panel included Joseph Mouzon and Amy Sample Ward, national leaders in public interest computing, as well as developer and investor Ben Wen, community computing expert Ed Cable, and 2015 Pizzigati Prize winner Vishwas Babu.
“We’re now into our second decade of honoring the world’s most socially conscious software developers,” observes Sonya Watson, the Antonio Pizzigati Prize coordinator for Tides. “The judges and I continue to marvel at the contributions — to a better world — these developers are making.”
Some software developers are making millions off the new high-tech frontier of virtual reality. Cristina Lopes is making social change.
Lopes has been the moving force behind OpenSimulator, the noncommercial software that’s opening the 3D virtual world to nonprofits all across the globe.
The decade-long effort behind OpenSimulator has involved hundreds of programmers, but no developer has been more central to that effort than Crista. She has personally designed much of OpenSimulator’s core architecture. Crista has also — as coach, mentor, and host of the first ever virtual OpenSimulator conference — nurtured the vibrant open source community that has evolved around the software.
OpenSimulator is advancing social change on a number of fronts. Crista’s work, notes her University of California Irvine informatics faculty colleague Andre van der Hoek, is helping the virtual world become accessible to “traditionally underrepresented groups.”
One set of OpenSimulator users, for instance, is now using virtual reality to amplify the voices of marginalized youth caught up in the juvenile justice system. These young people are telling their stories, as life-like avatars, and hoping to raise public awareness of the plight of kids getting caught up and lost in an unresponsive system.
Three-dimensional virtual environments, Crista believes, can advance social change by helping people “visualize future reality like nothing else can.”
Urban planning offers one example. Suppose planners proposed replacing private cars in Los Angeles with fleets of autonomous on-demand vehicles. A change that sweeping would be almost impossible to visualize with standard media. But technologies like OpenSimulator make visualizing an L.A. without private cars conceivable and could actively involve the public in that visualization.
The virtual reality world, says Crista, can “give us the power of seeing possible futures before making important decisions.”
Read more about Cristina here.
Nonprofits across the world are striving to serve the financially excluded, and over recent years they have been able to significantly scale up their efforts – thanks in no small part tot he work of Vishwas Babu, the ninth annual winner of the Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest.
Babu led the development of Mifos X, an open technology platform that is helping nonprofits large and small offer a full range of financial services – from savings to credit and insurance – at reasonable cost. Over 100 organizations worldwide are using Mifos X. They are serving 2.5 million clients.
The 30-year-old Babu, a native of Bangalore who studied computing at the Visvesvaraya Technological University, first encountered what has become known as the micro finance movement six years ago. A friend starting a small financial services organization in his hometown was having technical trouble. Babu and some colleagues started exploring the available open source core banking alternatives and stumbled across Mifos, at that time a web-based package for micro credit organziations.
In short order, Babu was interacting with Mifos developers and users around the world and gaining, he notes, “insight into how financial services for the under-banked worked.” Out of this interacting would come Mifos X, an entirely rewritten platform for financial inclusion. Mifos X is reducing the technology barrier for entry into financial services, making available both cloud and mobile-ready products that can be rapidly adopted and a core underlying functionality that enables local communities to quickly build their own enterprise-grade financial inclusion products and apps.
Mifos X remains client-driven. Vishwas and his team listen to the features users request and then design and build them and make them available through the cloud.
Nonprofit organizations can work wonders, from empowering the marginalized to extending basic human rights. But nonprofits can’t achieve anything until they identify and mobilize members and supporters. In today’s online world, they have the tools to do just that, thanks in significant part to the leadership of Donald Lobo, the eighth annual winner of the Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest.
Lobo has been a key moving force behind CiviCRM, an open source constituent relationship management software package that offers nonprofits — at no cost — a set of powerful online tools for building and sustaining effective links with their core audiences and advocates. Nonprofits looking to build their supporter networks, notes Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Max Hunter, have had few software options outside the costly offerings available in the commercial market. Nearly a decade ago, in 2005, Donald Lobo moved to change that. He led a team of developers on the effort that evolved into today’s widely acclaimed CiviCRM.
Using this fully customizable software, nonprofits can do everything from fundraise and coordinate volunteers to run events and full-fledged advocacy campaigns. CiviCRM now comes in over 20 languages, and the huge and growing CiviCRM community — now over 15,000 members strong — helps generate the software’s development roadmap from the ground up. Those participants in the CiviCRM community hail from organizations that range from major NGOs like Amnesty International and the Wikimedia Foundation to the smallest of nonprofits.
“We see CiviCRM, the project and the software, as an important part of the movement for social change,” notes Lobo. “We aim to help organizers do their job more effectively and passionately, with tools they can love and share.”
The 46-year-old Lobo, an early Yahoo! software engineer who also helped create and fund the Yahoo! Employee Foundation, has been an active volunteer right from the start of his career. That volunteer work helped him understand the problems nonprofits face — and the sorts of software solutions that could solve those problems. For Lobo, watching organizations use the CiviCRM software on a daily basis — and interact with each other to keep the software regularly updated and responsive to nonprofit world — has been an “incredibly thrilling” experience. “We wanted to build a community and a self-sustaining ecosystem,” he notes, “and we’re well on our way of getting there.”
Lobo was awarded the latest annual Pizzigati Prize on March 15 in Washington, D.C., at the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference of the National Technology Network. This event ranks as the world’s largest gathering of nonprofit computing professionals. Lobo will be plowing his $10,000 prize award back into improving and refining the CiviCRM software.
Politicians have been gerrymandering legislative districts — and distorting democracy — for almost as long as the United States has been a nation. But average American citizens now have a powerful tool to challenge those distortions, thanks to the talent and vision of the seventh annual winner of the Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest.
This year’s Pizzigati Prize winner, Micah Altman, has teamed with political scientist Michael McDonald to develop the first software that empowers average Americans to impact the process that determines how legislative districts get drawn.
The drawing of legislative districts has always been one of the least transparent — and most easily manipulated — steps toward democratic governance. Altman and McDonald set out seven years ago to break this political insider lockgrip on the electoral mapping process.
The initiative the two activist scholars went on to launch, the Public Mapping Project, would involve “good government” and other nonprofits across the country in a drive to develop redistricting software that any concerned citizen could use.
The software that eventually emerged out of this effort, DistrictBuilder, runs on ordinary Web browsers. Anyone with a computer can access DistrictBuilder and use it to both create legislative maps that fairly divide political power and evaluate the maps that legislators create, usually with their own partisan outcomes in mind.
DistrictBuilder, notes Midwest Democracy Network Executive Director Janice Thompson, “takes the map-making process out of the political backrooms.”
Before DistrictBuilder, few community advocacy groups ever dared dive into the redistricting process, partly because lawmakers kept the process opaque, but also because the groups simply lacked the capacity and ability to draw redistricting maps themselves.
But DistrictBuilder has changed everything. In the redistricting that followed the release of the 2010 Census data, citizen groups submitted about 100 times as many redistricting plans as they submitted ten years earlier.
All this activity has had a direct impact on the politics of redistricting. Citizen plans have won widespread media attention and reframed redistricting from a problem citizens can only complain about to an activity that citizens can engage and affect.
In the post-2010 Census redistricting cycle — for the first time ever in American history — citizen groups have had their plans submitted as bills in state legislatures, recognized as legitimate by courts, and even, in part, been incorporated into new legal districts.
Micah Altman credits this success to the broad partnership the Public Mapping Project has been able to forge. National groups ranging from Common Cause to the League of Women Voters have worked side by side with the Sloan and other foundations that have provided the resources to help along the software development work. And Azavea, the firm involved in that development, has also contributed significant pro bono support.
Altman himself has been programming for social change since, as a 19-year-old, he helped the Washington, D.C.-based Clean Water Action better handle its data in the late 1980s.
“I was originally hired to do phone canvassing,” he remembers with a smile, “but we soon discovered I had much more of a comparative advantage for programming and database administration.”
Altman, now 45, earned his doctorate at Caltech and spent some years working in Silicon Valley. But he has spent most of his professional career deeply engaged with research and open-source software projects, with an ongoing interest on how technology can help open up the political process to greater levels of citizen involvement.
The team leader of a two-year-old project that’s enhancing the safety, security, and effectiveness of activists and human rights defenders from Syria and Tibet to Afghanistan and Burma has become the sixth annual winner of the Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest.
This year’s Pizzigati Prize winner, Nathan Freitas, leads the Guardian Project, a team of software developers working to address what may be the cruelest irony of our mobile technology era. On the one hand, mobile phones have become absolutely essential to struggles for political and economic justice all across the world. On the other, as Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has noted, mobile devices can be “profoundly unsafe” for the activists who use them. The world’s most repressive governments can exploit mobile technology to monitor and track down protestors and their organizations.
That reality first struck Nathan Freitas when he started working to support Tibetan human rights activists who would regularly be risking their freedom—and even lives—on trips into China and Tibet. Mobile phones would be the activists’ only tether to the outside world.
“I felt that if we could make those phones more tuned to their needs, both from a security and functionality perspective,” says the 36-year-old Freitas, “that would help bolster their cause and make their sacrifices count.”
The Guardian Project that Freitas leads has released a suite of privacy and security-minded mobile applications for Android phones. All the apps come free and, notes Freitas, “can run just as well on $100 smartphones available in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia as they do on higher-end models popular in the United States and Europe.”
Over 100,000 users have already downloaded the new apps that Freitas and his team have developed. One of these apps shields the safety and privacy on instant messages sent via mobile phones. Another lets users access blocked and censored Web content.
For more information about The Guardian Project read the full announcement here.
Ken Banks accepted the fifth annual Pizzigati Prize for his creation of FrontlineSMS, a simple yet powerful program that speaks directly to a harsh global reality: Millions of people in remote areas have no access to the Internet, but many do have simple mobile phones. Banks’s software enables grassroots groups to reach these millions using only a laptop computer, a USB cable, and a plain mobile phone — and the constituents of these groups can use their own mobile phones to communicate back.
Since 2005, nonprofits have downloaded the totally free — and easy to use — FrontlineSMS software almost 13,000 times, for use in a varied assortment of projects across the globe. The first independent news agency in Iraq, for instance, is using the software to send updates to readers in eight different countries. In Zimbabwe, the software is enabling groups to monitor human rights violations. One group serving overseas Filipino workers is using FrontlineSMS as an emergency help line.
A number of groups and organizations, ranging from National Geographic to the MacArthur Foundation, have noted the wide and positive impact that Banks has had with FrontlineSMS. Banks himself hopes that his work will have an equally positive impact on the next generation of software developers. “Stories like mine — developing FrontlineSMS with very limited resources over a five week period — can inspire younger developers,” he points out. “They prove that anyone with an idea can make a real difference if they stick with it.”
Yaw Anokwa accepted the fourth annual Pizzigati Prize on behalf of a team of University of Washington doctoral students who crafted an open source application called Open Data Kit (ODK) that unleashes the mobile phone’s social change potential. Anokwa and his fellow developers Carl Hartung and Waylon Brunette developed software that turns cell phones into tools for collecting date ‘in the field’ and moving that data, with just a few finger swipes, to central Web-based servers or local computers.
With Open Data Kit, grassroots activists can capture and export text, photos, video, audio, barcodes, and even location. “At the heart of ODK,” notes Anokwa, “is a simple idea: make data collection easier.” The software makes that collection easy by letting grassroots groups replace a variety of traditional tools—paper survey forms, cameras, audio recorders, GPS units—with a mobile phone technology that operates independently of any particular mobile phone model. Several groups currently employ ODK, including D-Tree International, the Boston-based nonprofit that nominated Anokwa for the Pizzigati Prize. D-Tree has put ODK to work on a project in Tanzania that helps health aides reduce the high rates of serious illness and premature death from preventable and treatable diseases.
Darius accepted the third annual Pizzigati Prize for his creation of OpenMRS, an open source software application that health clinics and hospitals on five continents are using to keep, share, and track medical record data. Thanks to Jazayeri’s application, resource-poor communities around the globe have seen significant improvements to the medical care they can offer.
Jazayeri began work on OpenMRS four years ago as the lead software developer at Partners in Health, a Boston nonprofit working globally to provide a preferential option for the poor in health care. Partners in Health, teaming up with the South African Medical Research council and the University of Indiana Regenstrief Institute, aimed to create a free, flexible medical records system that health providers could customize and operate without the help of expert programmers. With Jazayeri taking the lead, that vision for an easily accessible, user-friendly electronic medical record (EMR) system became a reality.
OpenMRS can be run on anything form a larger server to a laptop computer. Non-programmers can easily add new items to the system and find them within a suite of easy-to-use tools for data analysis and reporting. Health providers in the United States and around the world use the system,which has impacted actual patient care. One hospital in Rwanda was able to use OpenMRS to identify HIV-positive children who had not been picked up by the pediatric program to get them on life-saving treatment.
Barry Warsaw accepted the second annual Pizzigati Prize as the lead developer of GNU Mailman, an open source application that hundreds of nonprofits around the world are using to manage electronic mail discussions and e-newsletter lists. Warsaw’s free application has built up a large, experienced base of users who have been more than willing to help new users make the best possible use of the software. And Mailman’s design and development team actively listens to and interacts with everyday users.
GNU Mailman is free software licensed under the GNU Public License, and is a mailing list management application that provides an easy-to-use Web interface for managing mailing lists. Since its unveiling in 1996, GNU Mailman has become the online world’s most popular free mailing list manager. Hundreds of nonprofit sites, from software development projects and community outreach efforts to advocacy organizations and religious groups, currently use Mailman.
George Hotelling accepted the inaugural Pizzigati Prize for his development work on CitizenSpeak, a free email advocacy service for grassroots organizations and an open source module on the Drupal content management system. Hotelling’s work on the CitizenSpeak project began when he realized that local groups needed a tool that could help them impact local decisions and decision-makers. He soon discovered that CitzenSpeak.org, a free online service founded in 2002 by Jo Lee and Pablo Calamera, shared the same vision. With over a decade of experience of working with open source tools, Hotelling rebuilt CitizenSpeak and made the code available as open source software.
Community groups have been putting the revamped CitizenSpeak to work in a wide range of campaigns, from a Rhode Island effort to stop the siting of new schools on contaminated land to a multi-denominational offensive against religious intolerance in Indian River, Delaware.