How Github, and open source software, helps solve social issues with code

In today’s news, technology is often maligned with stories of how the industry is driving racial and gender biases, eroding personal privacy, destabilising democracies and isolating communities. At the same time, technology such as open source software is bringing together people from all walks of life to address pressing social issues, one line of code at a time.

GitHub — a cloud based platform for developers — is at the centre of the open source movement, playing host to a community of 31 million programmers globally contributing their time and expertise to software projects.

Developers use GitHub to share the source code of their software for free so that others can take and modify for their own needs. It is also a platform where developers can come together and work collaboratively in teams to solve a particular problem through software. GitHub is used by everyone from individual developers and small startups to large companies like Microsoft (which acquired the site this year) and Google.

Recently, at the annual GitHub Universe event in San Francisco, the company made a concerted effort to share the stories of creators that used open source software to make a social impact.

GitHub’s user base grew the fastest this year in countries such as Egypt, Nigeria and Bangladesh; places where there is ongoing social and political unrest. They also rank among the highest when it comes to contributing new software and code on the GitHub platform.

One such developer was a Palestinian doctor, Dr Tarek Loubani, who created a low-cost stethoscope and other medical equipment using a 3D printer to help alleviate medical supply shortages caused by a decade-long blockade on the Gaza strip.

Dr Loubani’s product was recently clinically validated and is ready for mass deployment to war zones or low-income countries where medical equipment such as stethoscopes can be very difficult to come by. The 3D-printed stethoscope is printed using free, open-source software and a common plastic, meaning you can print one in less than three hours for $3; around one hundredth of the cost of a standard stethoscope used by medical professionals.

Dr Tarek Loubani, with one of his 3D-printed stethoscopes.
Dr Tarek Loubani, with one of his 3D-printed stethoscopes.

Earlier this year Dr Loubani was shot and wounded while delivering emergency supplies — including newly developed 3D-printed tourniquets — to protesters on the Gaza Strip. Like stethoscopes, tourniquets are in high demand because of the border blockade.

Elsewhere in the medical space, HospitalRun is an open source software system that enables hospitals in developing countries such as Kenya to manage the day-to-day operations of running a hospital. The open source community has contributed to all aspects of HosptialRun’s development from coding, design and user experience to project management and marketing.

GitHub’s director of social impact Admas Kanyagia says that social sector actors from foundations to non-profits are now looking at open source as a solution to solving some of the problems they see in the world.

“It’s quite inherent of a developer to look at the world around us to see some sort of intractable problem and try to find a solution to it using code and software. We see the social problems in the world are ever pervasive and persistent — climate change, poverty — these two seem like quite intractable problems.

A roundtable at the GitHub Universe event. From left: Github director of social impact Admas Kanyagia; Miller Able from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Tiffani Ashley Bell of the Human Unity Project, and; Julius Sweetland of Optikey.
A roundtable at the GitHub Universe event. From left: Github director of social impact Admas Kanyagia; Miller Able from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Tiffani Ashley Bell of the Human Unity Project, and; Julius Sweetland of Optikey.

“But open source can be a solution. It has power to drive collaboration and shared expertise to drive innovation and change and to build communities particularly with multiple and diverse perspectives.”

Women of colour are severely under-represented in the tech industry, however two African-American women took centre stage at Universe and shared how they used technology to make meaningful change within their communities; from giving people access to clean running water to safely resisting police brutality.

Tiffani Ashley Bell started The Human Utility Project after reading a story about water being shut off for 100,000 people in Detroit who were behind on their bills. Inspired to do something, she built a website on GitHub to connect donors with those in need. Since then, The Human Utility has helped nearly a thousand families, received philanthropic funding and expanded her advocacy efforts to other cities.

“When you’ve hit upon a solution that you’ve written some code for and people get behind it you kind of can’t stop it at that point,” she said.

“It was a community effort through and through.”

Using open source software, engineer Jamica El deconstructed old electronics and fashioned them into discreet wearable surveillance equipment after being inspired by the tragic death of activist Sandra Bland; an African-American woman who committed suicide in a jail cell three days after being arrested during a traffic stop.

With police brutality against black communities being widely documented, Jamica wanted to create a way for people to safely capture and share their own stories without having to resort to phones, which she noted can often escalate reactions.

“When we see social issues in the world, we all mobilise in different ways”, she says.

“For me, it was creating a tool for storytelling and hope that people use it in a way that impacts the community.”

Julius Sweetland, a software developer who writes financial software for hedge funds and investment banks as his day job, built an assistive technology in the form of an on-screen keyboard called OptiKey that allows the user to control a computer with their eyes. He developed the software after his aunt was diagnosed with motor neuron disease; a disorder that takes away people’s ability to move and speak.

The on-screen keyboard works with an eye-tracking device or webcam as an alternative to a physical keyboard, enabling people with motor and speech limitations to communicate with others using their computer.

There were other similar keyboards on the market but they were expensive, making them inaccessible to most. OptiKey is completely free and fully open source, ensuring that those who benefited from Sweetland’s work also shared what they developed in turn. As a result, OptiKey has evolved to include nineteen languages.