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.”
The deadline for next year’s Pizzigati Prize nominations will be November 15, 2017. Applications forms and background information will be available later this year at the Antonio Pizzigati Prize Web site.
About The Pizzigati Prize
The Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest goes annually to an open source software developer who is adding significant value to nonprofits and social change movements.
The prize honors the brief life of Tony Pizzigati, an early advocate of open source computing. Born in 1971, Tony spent his college years at MIT, where he worked at the world-famous MIT Media Lab. Tony died in 1995, in an auto accident on his way to work in Silicon Valley.
To learn more about Tony, the prize, and its judging criteria, visit www.pizzigatiprize.org.