Programming For Good: The Story Of Code For India

The idea came to the entrepreneur during a hurricane.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy churned through New York and New Jersey, killing hundreds and plowing a path of destruction through homes and infrastructure. In the hours and days that followed, responders on the ground were critical to saving lives and bringing basic services back to the stricken communities.

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Karl Mehta was online during the disaster, helping to do just that. As part of a White House fellowship focused on innovation, Mehta was coordinating part of the response in New York City, working with a digitally equipped team.

“We had college students on the streets feeding us data about gas stations that had power, or that had no power but gasoline, or power but no gasoline,” Mehta said. The push was on to map out where fuel and access to it could be had. Success depended on getting that information into one place, able to be disseminated and used.

As Mehta watched the data come back, the volunteers’ work began to suggest strategies. Not just strategies for New York, post-Sandy, but for any community — in any challenging circumstance.

In the network that he and the volunteers built so quickly, Mehta reasoned, was the basis for ways to create new solutions around the globe. And so, Code for India was born.

The Concept: Code for India

The idea is simple: to create a new kind of public service.

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The way to get there: put dozens of software engineers in contact with each other. Source them from some of the most respected tech companies on the planet, including Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. Next, give them a mission, and let them go at it. They don’t even have to be in the same room. The Internet solved that problem long ago.

Mehta is talking about a network of shared experience and expertise, the best of the best working quickly — all of them volunteers — making differences by dint of their pooled talent.

“This is a way to accelerate solutions,” he said. “Problems in India may have a solution based on work being done in Africa, or there may be solutions already underway in another country where we never would have been able to bring these all together, to glimpse what has been done and find ways to stitch all this together.”

He started with India, where he has witnessed NGOs striving to do good work without the technological know-how, he said, to do it efficiently.

“As much as they have so much goodness in their heart, they are the worst users of technology,” said Mehta. “We could be the backbone for many of these nonprofits who have great ideas, and who have people on the ground at the center of the problems, but they don’t know how to use technology to solve them.”

Before Code for India, Mehta spent 18 years starting for-profit companies, sourcing human resources, and managing new ideas. Drawing on tech-initiative and funding organizations such as TiE, The Morpheus Fund, professors at Stanford University, and more, he’s already created three apps for rollout in India.

Three Prongs: Code for India Begins

Since its founding in August 2013, Code for India has released two apps, and a third is right around the corner. The tools are brought to communities with the help of NGOs, and the initial results are already streaming back in. Here’s what’s been built, and what Code for India is doing right now.

1. Adopt-A-School
A mobile app for parents and teachers. The goal is to gather data and address attendance problems in schools.

“In India, there are hundreds of thousands of schools that are run by the government which have massive teacher-absenteeism problems,” Mehta said.

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With Adopt-A-School, a parent or teacher takes a picture on their mobile device and then uploads it to Code for India’s central server. On that end, volunteers collate the visual information and create a reference database of student attendance, teacher attendance, and student-to-teacher ratio. The app is already being used in a half dozen NGO-run classrooms.

Mehta wants to see it next move into the government-managed institutions. “We are starting to get a lot of good data that we have never seen before,” he said. “Some basic metrics, and this is helping us to plan to take it into those other schools.”

2. Spotter
With this app, road damage, garbage collection, and other civil-infrastructure issues can be tracked by the people who encounter them.

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The software is initially available in Bangalore, in partnership with an NGO. Again, it works on a visual basis: photos are uploaded to Code for India and then the data is used to open dialogues with leaders in the community about these civic issues.

“We have currently a few thousand users who are uploading the data,” Mehta said. “We would like to do an event to create awareness, a splash that gets the citizens even more involved.”

3. Bravehearts
An app addressing public-safety issues for women in India, which have been well reported in recent months.

Mehta sees the upcoming Bravehearts app as a way to empower women, among others, to take a stand against rape and other attacks. Users sign up as volunteers and the location-sensitive app then alerts them when a user presses his or her panic button during a threatening event.

The idea is that at least five people in any given community will be able to appear at the scene, hopefully stopping an incident before it starts — “before even the police or anyone arrive, which in India can take a long time,” Mehta said.

Rollout is projected for October, partnering with a women’s safety NGO in Mumbai.

One NGO that’s already working with Code for India is the Bangalore Political Action Committee, which is involved with the Spotter app in that community.

“The future of government is an involved and blended one, and this is a great way to start that transformation,” said Mohandas Pai, vice president of BPAC. “The complaints are easy to submit, and visible to all. Such ease and transparency puts the agencies under pressure to resolve the reported problems. The simplicity of this principle helps carry BPAC’s mission to improve the quality of citizens’ lives in a very direct and tangible manner.”

The Future: Hack-a-thons and Next Steps

The next leap for Code for India comes with new apps, and even more volunteers.

It’s an effort that Deep Kalra, president of TiE-New Delhi — one organization that helps to build ecosystems around entrepreneurship, policy, and academia, hopes to foster. Kalra described Code for India’s work as “a unique …  initiative, whereby the sharpest of computing minds can apply themselves to altruistic causes.”

And the future for that process? In Mehta’s estimation, it’s more engineers volunteering even more time. Code for India hack-a-thons are coming where developers will engage in app-building marathons. The next hack-a-thon is scheduled for Oct. 5 at Stanford University. After that: New York, London, and Bangalore.

Meanwhile, Mehta expects challenges to surface as the push for the apps picks up.

“I don’t have much doubt about their willingness, interest, and enthusiasm to do it,” he said of citizens and volunteers in a given locality to participate in these efforts. “But they may run into bureaucracy issues, which is very typical … We have seen that; we’re going to see implementation hurdles.”

Still, he said, he is heartened by what Code for India has accomplished so far, and by the template the work has set in place.

“What I’m learning is that when you demonstrate an idea, and you describe a problem, and you propose a solution — almost everybody on this planet wants to do good,” Mehta said. “Show them the tools, and a vision, and people come forward.”