By Josh Wagner
Since its inception almost two years ago, CS+Social Good — a student group aimed at harnessing computer science for positive impact in underserved communities — has helped shift campus conversation about technology toward tech’s role in social change.
The group has expanded significantly since its founding by four current upperclassmen: Manu Chopra ’17, Edward Wang ’17, Vicki Niu ’18 and Lawrence Lin Murata ’17. This academic year, the group has taught four computer science (CS) classes on topics ranging from the impact of CS on society to a hands-on studio in which students build programs to help non-profit organizations. The group’s rapid growth has strained its resources: Interest in CS+Social Good surpasses the amount of students the group can include in its classes, talks, fellowships, student group and community outreach events.
“The goal is just to get Stanford students to realize that tech’s a decent way to help people — not the best or only way but a way,” vice president Chopra said.
With support from the CS department, CS+Social Good taught its first class last year, CS 90SI: “CS+Social Good: Using Web Technologies to Change the World.” Now, the group helps run four different student-taught classes — CS 50, CS 51, CS 52 and CS 106S — in which students explore the potential of technology for good. Partnering with local charities as well as foreign governments, CS+Social Good grants students a platform to make a tangible impact.
In the first course, CS 90SI, students worked on four projects that collectively reached 25 million people.
The class had 20 spaces but received 350 applications, which founders said demonstrates that social impact is important to Stanford students.
One CS 90SI project helped the government of New Delhi design a “manifesto tracking” application so that citizens could hold politicians accountable to their platform promises. The app also allowed citizens to ask questions to the New Delhi ministry during Question Hour, a time when the government must answer any and all questions asked.
Other projects included an initiative to improve the efficiency of a medical distributor who helps connect surplus supplies to clinics in need as well as an initiative to increase transparency in factory conditions in Bangladesh.
CS 90SI evolved into CS 50, a one-quarter, project-based class in which students are assigned specific goal based on an organization’s need. The course accommodates 50 students who complete 12 projects, more than doubling the previous year’s capacities. CS 50 is for students who have already taken introductory courses 106A and 106B and now want to use the skills they have developed to help with social issues such as sanitation in Kenya, tribal rights in India and global hunger.
“Just seeing the students come and go through that process is incredible,” Chopra said.
CS+Social Good brings in a number of speakers to talk to its students. One recent visitor was was Kentaro Toyama, who discussed different ways of approaching technology for good. One view holds that humans should focus solely on developing technology because of its power to change the world; Toyama’s view, which he calls the “tech realistic” view, holds that tech amplifies human good. CS 50 students decided for themselves which argument was more compelling.
“Our job is to make you think, not decide what you should think,” Chopra said.
An extension of CS 50, CS 51: “CS+Social Good Studio” and its continuation CS 52, gives students 20 weeks to brainstorm the best way to tackle an issue and build a product for a partner organization such as the American Civil Liberties Union. The class sequence is open to all, although students may not be able to choose a specific team.
“We … provide whatever support is necessary for these teams to dig into their projects,” said Gloria Chua ’17, leader of the studio program.
Other initiatives and plans
In contrast to its structured classes, CS+Social Good also has task forces that respond to real-world problems that need to be solved quickly. Task forces are open to anybody who would like to join. Last year, CS+Social Good worked with Google Ideas to help combat Middle East militant group ISIS’s online recruitment and to locate the bodies of drowned passengers on a capsized boat in the Pacific Ocean.
“If these people need help, they cannot wait until next April when we teach the class,” Chopra said. “This is urgent need.”
In addition, CS+Social Good offers summer fellowships to five students interested in working at nonprofits using technology to combat social issues. Funded by the University, these fellowships grant students a $5,000 stipend to pursue work with any organization that they want to help.
CS+Social Good also helps run discussions and community-building events in which members of the group can connect with students taking the classes. In the future, CS+Social Good wants to co-sponsor events with other activist groups on-campus and pursue research opportunities with Stanford’s Data Impact Lab.
“The biggest thing is reaching out to other organizations on campus in search of that community we want to define,” said Wang, the group’s financial officer. “That is the main thing we haven’t quite grasped at yet. There is a strong class community and … studio community but little crossover between the two.”
CS+Social Good hopes to expand to other universities across the country. Brown University will have its first CS+Social Good event at the end of this month to gauge interest from its students.
Meanwhile, the Stanford group has just begun expanding into middle school CS education. In February, the group launched an experimental after-school program at Crystal Springs Middle School in Hillsborough focused on teaching coding and social responsibility at the same time. Students learn about basic coding principles in the context of building doorknobs for those with special needs.
“The idea is to design a socially responsible CS curriculum,” Chopra said. “These students are learning CS for the very first time using a system we created.”
One challenge CS+Social Good has faced is the limited number of students it can physically let into its classes. The entire teaching team is comprised of students who have their own classes and responsibilities to devote time to. Additionally, the project-based format limits class size. CS+Social Good is in the early stages of developing a speaker-based class that would accommodate more people.
“When I come back in 10 years, I want to see the organization be as active if not even more active than it is right now,” group president Murata said. “So we need to ensure that we have a sustainable structure.”
CS+Social Good also recognizes an industry-wide issue in the lack of visibility of many entry-level employees and underrepresented groups. To this end, CS+Social Good tries to foster inclusivity and diversity. Its classes are open to all students of majors as long as they have taken any prerequisite courses, and its 50-member board is comprised of all academic backgrounds and life experiences.
CS+Social Good has made seemingly small changes to its programs that have boosted diversity. When CS 51’s name changed from Garage to Studio, it received more female applicants. When Studio partnered with Black Lives Matter, it received more black applicants. The group wants to foster conversations about groups who are not as well represented in the tech community and people whose roles are under-appreciated and less visible.
“We want to be more welcoming to every single person,” Chopra said.
CS+Social Good is also focusing on sustaining group leadership in the coming years. To help ensure that the group will not disappear after the founders graduate, the organization uses “flat” leadership positions so that, effectively, no one person is in charge of everyone. Achieving sustainability, the founders said, involves selecting and training a teaching team in advance of graduation as well as striving to attract diverse members with varied interests.
“The biggest goal on all of our minds is that the change in leadership goes really well,” Chopra said.
In order to form next year’s teaching team, the leaders of CS+Social Good will select the top six students from this year’s classes. The selection system encourages students to perform to their best in class and gives them a sense of ownership over their work, group founders said.
CS+Social Good’s long-term aims are ambitious.
“Our high-level goal goes way beyond Stanford,” Murata said. “It’s to change the conversation in the entire technology industry to make people more aware of how their work is impacting society and how they can channel more talent into using our available resources into solving social problems.”
Chopra realizes how limited many of the group’s efforts can be. He believes that the best way to help people, especially those most in need, is to offer in-person support; In many cases, he said, technology’s impact is narrow because people do not have access to it or because a cultural stigma against accepting help interferes.
Manu also noted that, while projects from CS+Social Good’s classes were able to reach millions, they did not save lives in the same way that, for example, a malaria shot can.
Although the group’s founders are committed to the idea that technology can make a positive impact on the world, they argue that it cannot replace human volunteer work on the ground.
“My larger philosophy and the philosophy of most of our board is that technology is a great amplifier of human intent and capacity, not a substitute,” Chopra said.
In high school, Chopra began doing social impact work in India, where he helped create an anti-rape watch that could shock potential assailants. When he arrived at Stanford in 2013, he wanted to continue his social work but struggled to find other like-minded students and an outlet to do so. He became disillusioned with the CS conversation at Stanford and across America because it centered around how to make the most money rather than how to help people.
Other founders echoed Chopra’s disillusionment.
“We came to Stanford with so many dreams of using technology to solve big social problems,” Murata said. “And then we come here and see the most successful tech companies are more profit-oriented.”
“We wanted to shift the focus to expand to the needs of people outside the insular world where people are trying to distance themselves from the needs of the local community,” Wang added. “If you walk down a San Francisco street, it feels really disparate.”
In the past year and a half, CS+Social Good has developed from an idea that four friends had to a full-fledged student group with diverse programs aimed at making the greatest social impact possible.
“We want to show that CS is not just for making money, not just for kicking out homeless people and gentrifying people,” Chopra said. “There are a lot of undeniable negatives. But it is a medium that depends on how you use it.”
Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.
This article was written for Impact Journalism Day, an initiative spanning over 20 schools from the around the world that showcases college students’ work on social and environmental problems.