Building tech solutions for social good
Tech for social good — that’s not just the motto of Berkeley’s Blueprint club, but an accurate description of the work they’re producing. Conceptualized in 2012 by Jay Ryoo (B.A.’13 CS), the club works pro bono with five nonprofit organizations each year to build technological solutions for their needs.
“During my time at UC Berkeley, especially in the CS169 class, I saw all of these students that were passionate about technology and wanted to utilize their skills to do something good,” said Ryoo. “And from my volunteer experiences with Cal’s Public Service Center, I saw that a lot of nonprofit organizations didn’t really have resources to build the technology that could solve their problems.”
To bridge this gap, Ryoo founded Blueprint during his senior year, in collaboration with Kenneth Gao (B.S. ’12 BioE), Noel Moldavi (B.S. ’13 EECS), Shirley Liu (B.S. ’13 BA) and Kevin Gong (B.A.’14 CS).
“I really wanted to build a mission-centric club where students are passionate about the solutions that they are building for nonprofit organizations,” said Ryoo.
Since its founding, this student club has worked with 15 different organizations. In 2014, they built a local crowdfunding platform to help Berkeley Unified School District teachers pay for extra classroom expenses, as well as an online app that provides a secure way for the homeless population to sign up for services. The online app remains in use today.
"We award our classroom grants once a year. This money goes to classroom supplies, field trips and allows teachers to supplement their curriculum through a wide variety of projects,” said Erin Rhoades, Executive Director of the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, a non-profit that distributes over $800,000 in direct grants and program support for every school in the Berkeley Unified School District. “But if teachers have a need or an idea during other times of the year, they don’t really have a way to act on those ides. So, we decided to create a crowdfunding site for teachers, so that parents and the community could help chip in. I officially started working with Blueprint in the fall of 2014 and launched the platform six months later.”
According to Rhoades, teachers have used the student-developed platform to raise money for classroom books, iPads and field trips, among other projects.
This year, the Blueprint club is building apps that allow San Francisco Art Institute students to sell their work and interact with buyers directly, enable the Free Software Foundation to distribute digital rights news and provide an efficient way for HomePointr, one of Scotland’s referral agencies, to connect homeless people with quality shelter.
The group is also developing technologies that connect skilled volunteers to help American Arctic Communities adapt to global warming and allow the Rocky Mountain Institute to collect large amounts of information about commercial buildings so they can make suggestions about how tenants can reduce energy consumption. At the end of May, the students will be handing off the finished products to the nonprofits.
“I feel like Blueprint is a great supplement to my EECS [electrical engineering and computer sciences] classes,” said Amy Shan (B.S.’19 EECS). “I joined Blueprint as a sophomore. At the time, my classes weren’t teaching me practical web development skills and industry knowledge. But the way my Blueprint project leader organized my workflow was just like professional companies, so when I got my first internship as a sophomore, I was very familiar with the process.”
Shan also noted that she appreciated the cultural and social aspects of Blueprint. “Because our club is on the smaller end of Berkeley clubs, everyone is friends with each other, we’re family. This is nice to have because computer science and EECS are such large majors,” she said.
Other members value the opportunity to make an impact. “I think one thing that makes Blueprint unique is that the nonprofits seek us out, instead of the other way around. What we are building, they actually need and will be using — that’s why I love being in this club,” said Melody Wei (B.S.’20 EECS).
“Blueprint is unique because when you think of tech companies, social good isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. And when you think of social good, people don’t really think of tech,” said Lois Chang (B.A.’19 CS), the club’s current president. “Everyone in this club is really passionate about the work they are doing and about helping others. We are not exactly changing the world, but we are helping people in our own capacity.”