How To Help With A Big Global Problem As A Technologist - Part 2

This is the second in a trilogy of posts on how you, as a technologist, can help address the global problem of climate change. For more background read the first post.

The idea is to apply the lessons, techniques and methodologies of startups and agile software development to help speed up fixing this big issue. Old systems work too slowly and we need to act fast.

Steps

These posts each address one of three steps:

  1. Understand
  2. Organise
  3. Amplify

Step 2 - Organise

The second step is to organise into groups. Small cross-functional teams have a much better chance than individuals and open source projects provide a good collaboration model for this.

The key to success in any tech project is to get the right people and the team members need to have complementary skills. Clearly you need deep technical talents but even free and open source products need marketing to get users and attract additional help. It’s important to have people that understand UX, design and psychology too.

So, how do you find the right people? How do you meet future collaborators?

In short, founder dating, or to use the conventional term, community events.

Events

I used to help organise Cleanweb London meetup events and two like-minded guys met at one of our gatherings. They founded Open Utility (now known as Piclo), a smart sustainable energy trading startup.

As another example, Monzo bank (formerly Mondo) was started when the founders met at an HN London meetup. I don’t believe it was the one I talked at but the CTO has since come back to present, creating a virtuous circle.

Take the time to speak to people after events. You may find someone that you want to start a project with.

You can start an endeavour on your own but you need to get others excited about your project. One way of doing this is by giving talks. You don’t have to do things that can scale, at least in the beginning.

Writing

Clearly online marketing, for example content blogging, is also useful but it is harder to get attention and the feedback cycle is slower than directly fostering engagement in-person, where feedback is immediate.

Writing has a larger reach and scales more easily but it takes longer to iterate on (particularly in print media). It is a great way of learning but teaching in person is even better.

There is a trait in tech to try and solve a problem in the most general case but it is more valuable to solve something locally than fail to solve it in general. If a problem appears intractable and complex then start with something simple that doesn’t scale and iterate on it.

Open Source

Open source software is a good way of collaborating on projects. You can set up a repository and then try to find contributors. However, be prepared to do the majority of the work.

If you want people to pitch-in then you need to make it easy and welcoming. You need to market and sell it, particularly if you ever plan on stepping down as a maintainer.

It’s a great feeling to receive a considered pull request or issue report from a helpful stranger. However, if you are so ambitious that the project is unlikely to succeed if you are the only one doing the work then you may want to reduce the scope to something more manageable, at least initially. Start small so you can ship something sooner.

Communities

Communities can be offline or online, or both. You could attend (or even start) a local meetup for a topic that interests you and then extend the group online for communication in-between events. Socials from political parties that share your values can also be good places to meet like-minded people. For example, your local green party may run events that you could attend. Build a network and use it.

As a technologist, you could offer valuable tech help. Many groups are in need of this and if you teach others then they can spread the knowledge.

To quote the sci-fi writer William Gibson:

The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

You can help distribute technology skills to those who want to make a difference and empower them to enact positive change.

For example, in the build-up to an election there are many needs for help in collecting, analysing and communication campaign data. You could assist with the coordination of a progressive party and disrupt a complacent incumbent.

Actions

Pick a climate change related tech topic that you are interested in and start talking about it. This could be presenting on stage, writing a blog or guide (e.g. Open Energy Monitor Learn), hosting a podcast or running an event. An event could be a small local gathering or even something as ambitious as the EVRT (Electric Vehicle Road Trip).

Find other people to collaborate with. Look for projects that could use your help (there are many). Explore GitHub issues (e.g. github.com/openenergymonitor/learn/issues) for anything up for grabs or raise new ones if you find problems. You don’t need to be a developer as you could help with documentation. Get involved in forums and in real life.

The law of averages applies to everything. If you take enough chances then some will pay off. You just need to give it a go and not be put off. There may be many failures but if you define success as simply having tried your best then you can always succeed.

The problem may be large but don’t let that stop you starting small. Start making a difference today.

Next Time

In the final post in this series I will cover how to use the amplifying power of technology to help people make the best decisions and nudge them in the right direction.