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A Must Share: Why I Started Doing Pro Bono in Tech

Featured A Must Share: Why I Started Doing Pro Bono in Tech

It was not the kind of conversation one might expect to be having at a glamorous hotel in Las Vegas. But there I was, sipping a cocktail at the Hotel Cosmopolitan bar, listening to a fellow conference attendee, Chris Manton, describe the abject poverty and suffering he had witnessed during his time as a journalist in Africa. Reprinted from Makah Encarnacao’s LinkedIn Pulse article.

I came to Las Vegas to attend the FileMaker Developer Conference, an annual event held by FileMaker, Inc., hoping I might make some contacts and hear from other people like me who develop custom apps for businesses. Instead, at that moment, I found myself transfixed by Chris’s description of his experiences during the time in his life before he was a software developer.

I knew that there was suffering in the world, but listening to Chris tell me about his experiences put me there in the middle of it; I was able to actually witness it through his words.

The conversation hit home when he told me about an 18-month old child who died in his arms. As he told me the circumstances around her tragic death, my thoughts went directly to my 18-month old baby girl at home.

Towards the end of the conversation, I resolved to really take action to help improve the lives of people less fortunate than myself. But what could I do? How could a FileMaker developer help change the lives of people living half a world away?

Developers in Search of a Cause

I work for Soliant Consulting, a company that built its reputation on helping organizations of all sizes simplify and automate business processes by creating custom apps for desktop and mobile devices. Maybe, I thought, we might be able to donate our development skills to a nonprofit organization in need. The same night I was inspired by Chris, I brought this idea to one of my closest colleagues and one of our Senior Project Managers at Soliant, Josie Graham. She was on board, and the next day we proposed the idea to our CEO, Bob Bowers. Our management team likewise immediately approved a trial run.

Together, Josie, Bob and I set three initial goals: 1) research how to do pro bono work, 2) determine how these projects will be structured within the company, and 3) find a “trial run” project.

Sharing the Vision

After a few months of research and discussions, Bob received an email from Tiffany Schlueter, an employee at a nonprofit mobile health organization in Swaziland called The Luke Commission, asking if we ever did any pro bono work. The Luke Commission takes free healthcare to the most isolated and underserved populations, in partnership with the Swazi people and the Ministry of Health. Tiffany had some FileMaker development knowledge but, as she was trying to build an app that would track over 2,100 patients, she quickly realized that she needed assistance. We were trilled to have The Luke Commission as our first pro bono client.

In addition to the patients’ appointments, surgeries, and post-op records, the app also needed to include before and after photos as well as functionality that would give medical personnel reminders about each patient and allow them to search by name, birthdate, and phone number. This last piece was especially important.  In a country where no one has unique identifiers such as social security numbers, and many people have the same first and last names, doctors needed to be able to cross-reference additional data in order to be confident they are not inadvertently looking at the wrong patient’s medical records.

The Internet situation in Swaziland added another level of complexity. The country has limited internet providers, and the 3G service is very expensive and sometimes spotty. For the solution to work properly, we needed to build a custom app that would work offline and then sync when the user could connect their device to a 3G network or a closed Wi-Fi network and FileMaker Server.

It took me a month to build the app, spending a lot of time working on it over the December holidays, and I finished it in January. Tiffany work was vital to the project. In addition to providing the information I needed to build the system, she helped me with some of the initial layouts and screens that would make up the final app. She also provided me with re-organized Excel spreadsheets so that I could import all the existing records into the app.

To solve the Internet issue, I reached out to another FileMaker development firm, 360Works. They have a product called MirrorSync that allows offline users to make changes and sync data to and from FileMaker Server when the users can connect. 360Works was very generous to donate a license to the cause!

Making an Impact

The Luke Commission put the app to work in mid-January 2016. As you can see in the video above, the app is already at work, helping thousands. I’m proud of the work I did with The Luke Commission. Less than a year after my conversation with Chris at the FileMaker Developer Conference, I developed an app that helps doctors and nurses in rural Swaziland track the medical records of patients who have been provided with free cataract and other sight-restoring eye surgeries.

My only regret is that Chris, the inspiration behind the project, wasn’t able to see the impact he had on me, and on thousands of people in Swaziland. Shortly after our conversation at the hotel bar, Chris was diagnosed with cancer, and the cancer took his life less than a year later.

Chris, you lived a very heroic life and you will be deeply missed. Thank you for your inspiration.

Future Projects

There are a few projects that we’re working on next. Josie and I are partnering up to head up Soliant’s Humanitarian Committee. I’ll be the technical lead for more FileMaker-based custom apps, and Josie will manage the projects. Together, we can make a huge difference. After our successful trial run with The Luke Commission, we announced the committee to the other employees at Soliant. I was so encouraged by their positive response to the initiative, and I was grateful for all of my colleagues who signed up to join the committee. We are about to start another project with Air Shepard, a company that flies drones over wildlife preserves in South Africa to protect them from poachers. We also are starting a dialog with another clinic in Africa that also provides quality medical care.

If Your Nonprofit Organization is in Need of Help

I am very happy to announce that we are now taking inquiries for new pro-bono project work. If you work for a nonprofit organization that you think may benefit from our services, please take a look at our philanthropy page on our company website.

How You Can Help Make a Difference

Does your company want to partner with a nonprofit organization for humanitarian aid? A great place to start is TapRoot Foundation, an organization that connects nonprofit organizations with professionals who are willing to offer help creating business solutions of all sorts on a pro bono basis. It’s a great way to help the world by doing what you already know!

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Donna Ellis

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