in charities, open source

the cost of developing software

I had the opportunity (or misfortune!) to visit an organisation recently whose computer systems are somewhat shambolic. They understand that their systems are not in a good shape, but as this is not their core business, spending money on it is really not what they want to be doing. In fact, it wasn’t a business at all, it was a charity.

This is a real dilemma for such an organisation. Vast sums of money tend to be hard to come by for most charities, and explaining to donators that you spent their cash on an IT system probably doesn’t look great either! But boy, do they need a new system.

The current system is essentially an old school Access database and nothing much else. This would not be a problem if it actually worked OK, but it doesn’t. The system was created around 10 years ago and no longer fits the “business” model. Sure, you eventually get what you need from it, but everything takes around 10 clicks, it doesn’t work with the latest MS Office, forms take 30s to 1 minute to load, the output frequently has to be adapted manually and frustration with the system is high.

Understandably, they are frightened of change though. Not change induced by moving away from their old system, but change as in how much change will they get from £10k to get a new system developed. Nothing I would suspect.

This is not good. But hey, we programmers need to eat, so we can’t expect to do stuff like this for nothing, right?. Maybe charities just need to get real with this situation. You either pay up and get the system you need, or you don’t have a system at all. Screw the inefficiencies created by the absence of such systems and also to the people who are affected. This is just the world that we live in. Eat or be eaten. I mean who wants to sit and develop software and not get paid for it?

Mmmmmm, well loads of people. We must be one of the only industries that give away our time for nothing, and for no reason other that we love doing it so much. So maybe instead of wasting our time developing another new open source web framework in whatever language, it might just be a great idea to develop the software for these charities. Sure, it ain’t going to be as exciting, but it may be much more rewarding.

Has this been done before? I dunno. I can’t find much after a quick search. However, if it has been attempted, I certainly don’t know about it and I suspect neither do lots of other developers. If someone has heard of something similar please leave a comment with the details.

The undertaking of such a task would by no means be plain sailing. It would require lots of input from the staff at charities and their volunteers – because as the software developers we ultimately need to know what to develop. This is achievable though, right? And in the era of open communication afforded to us by the internet, there may never have been a better time. If open source projects can work, then I see no reason why this idea should not be possible, it just needs momentum.

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  1. Hey,

    I did something like this in order to try out Ruby on Rails and JQuery:

    We had loads of fun in the process and I got to speak at Scotland on Rails as a result (search for Glasgow):

    The other big event was Social Innovation camp Scotland earlier this year:

    I’m helping a charity from that event too. Though not all entries for sicamp were charities.

  2. Hi Joe,

    The stuff looks good. Some nice design into the bargain.

    There are probably loads of ways that we developers could help with this kind of stuff. And in actual fact the charity that I visited was looking for an application to allocate helpers to the people in need. Unfortunately this kind of thing is not as straightforward as the admin system that they were looking to replace – algorithmically it can actually get pretty complicated depending on what you are trying to optimize for. However, as it happens, this subject is closely related to the area I worked in as PhD student. Since I still maintain pretty close contact with the guys at Glasgow University that specialise in this, we are looking to propose something that can be done as part of a fourth year student project next year. So this just shows that open source is not the only way to make something like this work.

    I hadn’t heard of that Social Innovation camp thing before. It looks very much like the idea they have in the US called Startup Weekends ( )