Code4Romania – Getting Things Done With Tech

When daily life means dealing with more or less annoying issues, when bureaucracy is overwhelming, when things seem to be going worse, some people decide they’ve had enough. Some leave the country, some complain about it on Facebook and some others decide to do something about it.

Code for Romania was founded at the beginning of  2016. In the aftermath of the Colectiv disaster[1] a group of friends living in Diaspora sat down and started to put ideas together. At that point, they had been living abroad  for over 10 years and wanted to figure out how to help Romania, remotely,  by doing more than simply voting every four years and sending donations back home. And they also asked themselves: “what can you do, regardless of your geographical location?” The answer was: coding. After a lot of research, they reached the conclusion that the most efficient model would be an organization following the likeness of Code for America and other Code for groups around the world. This being decided, an NGO was set up,  mid-2016. By that time, organically, people had already started gathering around this movement. By July there were 50. By September – 300. Today: 1022 volunteers.

[1] on October 30th, 2015, a massive fire caused by indoor fireworks inside the club Colectiv led to the deaths of 65 young people. Corruption and administrative failures were mostly blamed for the tragedy

“Our mission statement was, and still remains, to build the necessary infrastructure for civic technology to become a reality in Romania. This being said, up until now we have developed two main programs – the Civic Labs and Tech for Social Good – where IT specialists (UX/UI designers, developers, testers, data scientists, communications experts) join forces, pro-bono, to deliver high-quality open source tools that help civil society and institutions have a greater impact in everyone’s lives. We have launched 10 civic apps so far in fields like transparency, civic engagement, administration and we are currently working on apps in education, disaster relief, access to legislation, and open data.” – explains Olivia Vereha, co-founder and COO of Code for Romania .

The results soon started to be seen, showing how a small group of doers can change mentalities held for decades:

“There have been many moments in our (relatively short) history when we felt we were indeed changing the world as we know it here in Romania. In 2016 we launched the first ever election monitoring app in Romania, turning a process that took 4-6 months of bureaucratic nightmare into real-time results. The vote monitoring app has also been redeployed in other countries and it is currently one of the very few apps in the world that can be used for this purpose. The second very impactful project we launched was which is an app that helps Romanian NGOs handle the 2%[1] tax collection forms more easily, thus enabling organizations that never managed to fundraise through this form before to collect money from citizens all around Romania, regardless of their location. In two years, this project has grown from 3000 forms collected, to over 10.000 and over 1.000 NGOs registered on the platform. Furthermore, we organized the first open doors civic technology summit in the world – Code for All Global Summit, in Bucharest in 2018, putting Romania on the world map of civic tech. We have managed to implement a unique methodology in Romania, designed entirely by our team, the Civic Labs, a program that aims to change the way funding is being allocated to technology in Romania. We won many awards, we spoke on hundreds of stages and we plan to do even more as we move further. It’s been a ride at a thousand miles per hour, our community has just hit 1.000 members all over Romania and in Diaspora and we have four active local city labs – Code for Timisoara, Cluj-Napoca, Iasi and Bucharest. Also, a National Geographic fellow has just finished filming a documentary about our community and the rapid growth of civic tech in our country, which makes us really excited.” – explains Olivia.

[1] In Romania, employees can direct 2% of their annual income tax to an NGO of their choice by filling in a form.

Unfortunately, apathy used to be a state of mind in Romania. But changes are always possible, as the community formed around Code for Romania has shown:

“The Code for Romania community is amazing. We initially assumed, back in 2016, that most of our members would be junior developers looking to engage in activities to help them in their IT careers. We were wrong. We discovered an immense thirst for giving back among the millennials, those who are now in their 30s, senior people in IT companies, academics and experts, who found in Code for Romania the right place to put their skills to good use, in a very well organized and strategic environment. We don’t just offer a place where you can join and write down some code. All our projects are researched, incubated, designed, tested and the impact they will have is carefully measured and bound to become reality. The big issue with the previous initiatives in developing pro-bono software in Romania was that there was no entity to connect the dots. That one entity had to be able to come up with (a) exactly those projects that would generate systemic change, (b) the mechanics and instruments that allow people to contribute easily and efficiently to large scale projects, and (c) the means to ensure that the projects would not die, but become sustainable after launch. This was our promise to all our volunteers and we strive to keep it every single day. The fact that we have volunteers that have been contributing over 10 hours of pro-bono work every single week, for over two or three years now, is proof that the system works. Right now, if you are a developer or any kind of other adjacent IT specialist, no matter if you have 2 hours or 3 days for volunteering per month, you will find something to do at Code for Romania. Our methodology incentivizes collaboration and strategic thinking so that we avoid wasting efforts, funding and skills in dead-ends. Both our programs’ mechanics are detailed in a short article here.” – says Olivia.

As you can probably expect after reading all of these amazing developments, the future plans are just as exciting

“Our future plans are very ambitious. We will continue to do research and incubation in six major areas – education, environment, healthcare, civic engagement, transparency, vulnerable groups- and we will grow our community in the Tech for Social Good program. We have six launches planned for this year, a lot of events and plans. We will launch a free consulting program for NGOs where they can book appointments and ask for tech help, we will get involved more in policy making in the area of digitization and continue to consolidate our local communities around the country. We are also paying a lot of attention to the international scene and we offer help as much as we can for new civic tech groups, in organizational design and strategic planning. We believe in open-sourcing all the knowledge, not just our code and data. Therefore, we constantly share everything we have learned over these years, both wins and fails, to help others have a smooth journey in civic technology.” – adds Olivia.

As for young people who want to join the effort:

“For those who want to get involved in shaping their communities for the better, we have a message we proudly wear on our T-shirts and laptops: we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. The Tech for Social Good program offers a lot of opportunities to learn a lot by also contributing to digital solutions that can help your community. So join a local HackDay, either in your city or exclusively online and someone will help you find your place in the Code for Romania family. The Civic Labs permanently feeds the public space with prototypes of solutions that can be implemented starting tomorrow. These solutions are documented, designed and measured to solve issues in all areas. If you are into design, ux, research or data science, drop us an email and start working on fixing the next pressing social issue in the country. And last but not least, build a habit of supporting causes financially also. A simple 5-dollar recurring donation can make a huge change for any NGO. The whole infrastructure for collaborative work, the software, the human resource, up to post-its and mailchimp are expensive, and we rely exclusively on grants, sponsorship and individual donations. Every contact inside a company, every share on social media, every 2% form, every vote of confidence and every dollar counts in the civic world. By donating 5 dollars a month, you enable a group of 1.000+ people code for the next solution that you and your community will benefit from, for free. It is that simple.” – concludes Olivia.

For more information, please check Code4Romania official webpage, and the social media channels Facebook and Twitter.

Photo credits: Code for Romania

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