Charity challenges programmers to code for society

MySociety.org has launched a scheme to fund the kinds of IT projects normally overlooked by commercial software houses

Software programmers have a new opportunity to use their technical skills to develop socially beneficial IT projects through a scheme launched last week.

MySociety.org, a not-for-profit organisation, is an attempt to invent and create low-cost initiatives that benefit the wider community, and work across electronic networks such as the Internet or mobile phone networks.

The group behind mySociety.org hope to create valuable and socially beneficial projects -- in the mould of the popular FaxYourMP.com service -- and are keen to enlist the help of people with technical skills.

MySociety.org is currently inviting suggestions for its first two projects and said the early response has been encouraging.

"Since last Wednesday, when the site launched, I've received 153 submissions," Tom Steinberg, founder of mySociety.org, told ZDNet UK on Monday. "So, when we come to pick just two projects from this list, those two ideas ought to be very good," Steinberg added.

These proposals include the creation of a Web-based hitch-hiking system that would match passengers and drivers, thus enabling more efficient car-pooling and cutting down on costs and pollution; a database of people with programming and IT skills who would be prepared to give their time to charities; and an e-neighbourhood watch scheme.

As well as being socially beneficial and operating over an electronic network, a successful project will also have to be highly scalable. "We're interested in ideas that can serve one million users for virtually the same cost as serving 10," Steinberg said.

So far, mySociety.org is only financed by a single donation. Once two projects have been identified -- which should happen in just over a month -- the next stage is to look to charitable trusts, other benefactors and even government and private industry for funding to support these ideas.

If that is achieved, it's likely that a number of full-time staff will then be required, on top of an army of volunteers who would contribute their spare time.

Steinberg explained that although mySociety.org won't be able to compete with the salaries offered by commercial software houses, full-time employees would be paid "a living wage", as well as getting the satisfaction of working for a worthy cause.

People who aren't able or willing to take this step but want to get involved will be able to contribute via online communities, Steinberg expects, where they'll be welcome whether they contribute "five minutes of their time a week, or five hours a day".

It's likely that the source code for the projects developed by mySociety.org will be released under open-source licences. And, although it won't be clear which tech skills will be needed until the first projects have been chosen, experience and ability in interface design are likely to be crucial.

Click here to read the proposals that have already been submitted to mySociety.org, and to present your own idea.

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