• 9 minute Read

Pro-Social Software: Nine Examples Of Developers Doing Good

Who says developers are only in it for the money? This list of nine pieces of software can and have already had a positive impact on the world. They’re all shining examples of what can happen when software developers set their minds to solving social problems or providing a public service.


Ushahidi is a free and open source platform for crowdsourced mapping. It’s often been used for monitoring elections and tracking crises. It was initially developed to map reports of violence after the Kenyan elections in late 2007, in which over 1,000 people were killed. Ushahidi became a critical source of information for Kenyan citizens as well as relief workers who needed to know where the violence was at any given moment. After the platform took off with over 45,000 Kenyan users and citizen journalists in 2008, the developers opened up the platform to be used worldwide. Part of what makes Ushahidi an attractive platform is that it can collate information from a variety of sources, including SMS, email, and Twitter. Mobile phone integration is especially critical in the Global South or in crisis zones, where consistent internet access may not be readily available. Ushahidi has been used to track anti-immigrant violence in South Africa, relief needs and damaged infrastructure after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Missouri River floods of 2011, election rigging around the world, and much more. Today the team behind Ushahidi offers the open source platform to be installed on your own LAMP server, a hosted version of Ushahidi called Crowdmap, and the information-gathering and verification platform SwiftRiver, which can be used in conjunction with Ushahidi and could be an item on this list in its own right. The team also recently made their first foray into hardware with the BRCK, a rugged mobile Internet device designed to provide Internet access in areas with damaged or underdeveloped infrastructure.


There are plenty of straightforward reasons to avoid a particular company out of ethical concerns. Keeping track of all those reasons–not to mention any given brand’s parent and subsidiary companies–isn’t as simple. That’s where Buycott comes in. Available as Android and iOS apps, Buycott simplifies the situation by scanning a product’s barcode and alerting you if there are any conflicts with the issues you care about. The most innovative and useful feature of Buycott: It doesn’t force anyone’s politics on you as a user. Instead, users create campaigns for the issues that matter to them and other users join in on the campaigns. As a user you’re free to sign up for campaigns like Say No to Monsanto, Promote Sustainable Fishing, Boycott Israeli settlements, and Avoid Koch Industries. Because of the user-generated nature of the campaigns, two Buycott campaigns may be diametrically opposed to each other, like Support Reasonable Gun Control and Support Gun Rights and the Second Amendment. At present, the most popular campaign is Demand GMO labeling, which has just shy of 125k supporters. Another interesting feature is that Buycott doesn’t just let you avoid companies you disagree with, but also helps you seek out companies you support (hence the name “buycott”). Campaigns like B Corporations and Support the Cooperative economy list companies that are considered socially responsible and worth supporting.


The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Networked Computing is actually a framework that allows your computer to do research for scientific projects. By harnessing your processor’s power when you’re not using your computer, BOINC creates a massive network of volunteer “grid computing” that surpasses even the processing power of the world’s most powerful supercomputer. BOINC’s first incarnation was in 1999 as SETI@home, which analyzed radio signals as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project. In 2002 the technology was opened up to allow other projects to make use of the volunteer computing infrastructure. Today user can donate their processing power to projects doing medical research such as FightMalaria@Home or studying climate like climateprediction.net, as well as the original SETI@home. Other BOINC projects are entire networks of projects unto themselves. For instance, World Community Grid is a platform that contributes processing power to projects like FightAIDS@home, Computing for Clean Water, and the Clean Energy Project. BOINC has created a movement and a community around grid computing, in part by fostering the creation of “teams” and leaderboards, introducing a quasi-competitive element into a collaborative effort. The software’s impact is undeniable; several BOINC projects have published scientifically useful findings in major academic journals. Additionally, the team has just released an Android app, making it even easier to become part of the global grid.


Most advanced contact databases, often called client relationship management (CRM) systems, are prohibitively expensive for activist organizations and nonprofits. They are also tailored for marketing purposes, which may not mesh exactly with a nonprofit’s needs. CiviCRM, in contrast, is free, open source, and designed with nonprofits in mind. Civi boasts an impressive array of features to provide the communications backbone to any organization with a social mission: contact management, funding appeals, email blasts, event registration, and more. But the real beauty of CiviCRM is in having those features all in one place so that they talk to each other. You can send an end-of-the-year fundraising email to everyone in your contact database and anyone who donates will have that activity automagically entered into their individual record in your database. When the time comes to do more targeted fundraising, you’ll know exactly who has donated before and which campaigns inspired them to give. The same is true of event registrations, surveys, and petitions–the activity from each segment of CiviCRM gets tracked and recorded in the organization’s master contact list. However, setting up CiviCRM isn’t a trivial matter. You’ll first need a working WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla installation for Civi to live in. You also need to configure a payment processor and cron job to make the most of its features. If an organization has someone with some technical chops it won’t be too much of a challenge–the benefits provided by CiviCRM are well worth the initial hassle.


Tor is a tool for achieving anonymity online. It essentially functions by sending your connections through a series of volunteer “nodes” that make up the Tor network–not unlike daisy chaining a series of proxies. Doing so separates your initiating connection from the destination server you are trying to reach. Anyone monitoring your Internet traffic will have a much harder time discovering where you are browsing. This level of anonymity can be especially useful for citizen bloggers operating under authoritarian regimes who wish to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. Although Tor was originally designed and implemented for the U.S. Navy, it is widely used today by journalists and activists around the world. Tor exists in many forms, including as a bundled browser that can live on a USB stick and an Android app. It’s important to remember that Tor, like any privacy safeguard, is not a magic bullet. Wikipedia has a lengthy section devoted to weaknesses in Tor. The most well-known potential exploit in Tor is what is known as exit node monitoring, in which the last node between the Tor network and the destination server is watched by someone to snoop sensitive data. Because the exit node is, by design, the only unencrypted portion of the network, it is the most vulnerable to attack. Using HTTPS instead of HTTP can remedy this particular shortcoming. Despite its imperfections, Tor is still recommended by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as useful tool for personal privacy.

Gnu Privacy Guard

Gnu Privacy Guard–or GPG for short–is an open source implementation of the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) protocol, which encrypts and authenticates email communications. PGP is almost as old as the Internet itself, but still hasn’t come into mainstream adoption. The major obstacle to widespread use is that sender and receiver both need to use GPG/PGP in order for it to function. But that obstacle is also what makes GPG so powerful. The building blocks of GPG are that each user has a public key and a private key–the public key is posted somewhere readily available while the private key is kept, predictably, private. When someone wants to send you an email, they encrypt it with your public key. That email can then only be decrypted with your private key. This ensures that only the intended recipient is able to read and decrypt an email. An email is authenticated by using the sender’s private key, which allows for the recipient to easily tell if a message has been intercepted and modified in-transport. There is no denying the efficacy of GPG/PGP. When Edward Snowden wanted to email the NSA leaks to journalist Glenn Greenwald, he insisted that Greenwald use PGP for their communications. Getting set up with GPG can take some time and figuring out, but if you want to communicate securely with someone, there are many helpful tutorials available.


Thunderclap is a simple but powerful tool that does one thing and does it well. It’s designed to counter the black hole that can be social media advocacy. Rather than be one voice shouting into the void, Thunderclap helps users amplify their voices through collective action. Users create campaigns, which are essentially just premade Twitter and Facebook posts. Other users then pledge their social media accounts to the campaign. If the campaign hits its target for pledged accounts, a simultaneous tweet/post is sent out. The result is a magnified social media presence that creates a sense of urgency due to the sheer numbers of people promoting a topic at once. This is especially useful for getting a hashtag trending on Twitter. Although Thunderclap doesn’t explicitly have to be used for activist campaigns, that seems to be the audience that has primarily adopted the platform.


Drones+ isn’t actually a piece of software you can use: Apple won’t let it into the App Store. Despite that, it’s already had more than its share of media attention. Created by an NYU grad student, Drones+ is a simple news aggregation tool that sends iPhone users a push notification whenever a new drone strike is reported by the U.K.’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It also geotags the location of the strike onto a map accessed within the app. Apple, to much criticism, has rejected the app three times. Developer Josh Begley this month told Fast Company he plans to soon try a fourth time. If Apple still won’t budge, he plans to move the app over to Android. Regardless of one’s opinions about drone strikes, there’s no denying that Begley’s app does a social service by making information more readily accessible.

Frontline SMS

Frontline SMS is a useful open source piece of software that runs on a computer connected to a cell phone and turns it into a two-way group messaging hub. It can be used, without Internet, to send mass SMS messages and to set up automated responses to SMS codes. It has seen widespread use in disaster situations, where it can be used to collect information and then mass-distribute that information. Public health workers, especially in rural and understaffed areas, have made use of it to remotely diagnose and follow up with patients, saving invaluable travel time. It can also integrate with Ushahidi, the crowdmapping system also featured on this list, amplifying the efficacy of both.

[Plant and Mouse: Winnond via Shutterstock]

About the author

Jay is a freelance journalist, formerly a staff writer for Fast Company. He writes about technology, inequality, and the Middle East.