Cal Poly students are building free software for nonprofits with the hope of recentering the technology community around social impact.

Hack4Impact is a national organization that connects students with nonprofits through software development. Students identify and create software solutions, such as building a website, for nonprofits who may not have sufficient resources to do so. 

Computer science senior and Hack4Impact Co-Director Ivonne Guzman-Lemuz said the mission of the club is to show students how their software skills can be used to help better the community.

“There is a big culture [around] getting to the biggest startup, making all this money and buying a mansion in San Francisco, and those things are fine,” Guzman-Lemuz said. “I think this [ideal] gives students a narrow view of what their skills can actually do.”

Part of the organization’s goal is to also push students to redefine what it means to be a software developer, according to computer science sophomore and other Hack4Impact Co-Director Eric Newcomer.

“It’s like the ‘golden path’ is to do your computer science degree and then become a software engineer at Google or Facebook,” Newcomer said. “I think people can redefine success in a way that serves their community and serves society in a beneficial way.”

Newcomer and Guzman-Lemuz founded the Cal Poly chapter of Hack4Impact in Spring 2018. The club has about 20 members and is mostly composed of computer science and software engineering students. However, the club is open to all majors in hopes of getting people from different backgrounds to engage with technology.

“I think Cal Poly glorifies engineering [majors] so much,” Guzman-Lemuz said. “But hopefully our club can encourage people from different majors to come together and to be more interdisciplinary.”

Before starting a project, the students first contact various nonprofit organizations. Once an organization expresses interest to work with the students, the students then determine what services the nonprofit needs through direct discussion with that organization.

By the end of Spring 2019, the students will have completed three separate projects. Although the students mainly work with local nonprofits, such as the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center, they have also worked with organizations outside of San Luis Obispo. Their first project was developed for Carelink, a mental health awareness nonprofit based in Pennsylvania.

Locally, the group has also worked with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of San Luis Obispo. Newcomer said the online tracking form used by CASA volunteers to record and submit their volunteer hours was complicated and time-consuming. Their solution was an improved web interface that streamlines the form submission process.

“The people we talked to at CASA don’t have a background in technology, but we both worked together to do this one thing for a big organization like CASA,” Newcomer said.

Guzman-Lemuz said she hopes their work for Hack4Impact will start a conversation about how big technology companies can also use their resources to help nonprofits and benefit their communities.

“We’re a small club and we’re helping small organizations, and I think that big companies have the potential to do great things,” Guzman-Lemuz said. “If they see us doing that, I think it’ll spark more conversation.”

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