Stanford students put computer science skills to social good

Four undergraduates have co-founded CS+Social Good, an organization that utilizes technology to make a positive social impact.

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Video by Kurt Hickman

Four Stanford undergraduates have co-founded an organization that uses computer science to make the world a better place.

Last fall, Lawrence Lin Murata was sitting in CS 103: Mathematical Foundations of Computing, when he heard Keith Schwarz, lecturer in computer science, say something that would change the course of his path at Stanford: No campus organizations existed that used computer science to make a positive social impact. It struck a chord.

“I began to wonder,” Murata said, “if I could start an organization to empower students and change the mindset of how technology is used.”

That night, Murata, then a sophomore, shared his idea with his roommate, Manu Chopra, and a spark grew into a flame. The roommates began asking friends from other social organizations, “How can we use technology to make the world a better place?”

After a year of planning and strategizing, CS+Social Good launched this fall, founded by Murata, Chopra, Edward Wang and Vicki Niu, with Schwarz on board as their faculty sponsor. CS+Social Good focuses on the intersection of computer science and efforts to make positive social impacts.

It started with a mixer in the basement of Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Center. “We needed to see if there was an interest,” Chopra said. Two hundred and sixteen people signed up for the first event.

CS+Social Good’s team has since grown from four to 20 members, and they are tackling everything from biweekly speaker discussions to an actual campus class that pairs student groups with nonprofit partners.

This fall, Murata and Chopra are leading CS+Social Good’s first course, CS 90SI: Using Web Technologies to Change The World. The extensive application process whittled down more than 300 interested Stanford students to a fortunate 20.

“The projects these 20 students are working on will reach over 25 million people by the end of the year,” Chopra said.

Web technologies to change the world

The course offers lessons in web development and the opportunity to work with real world partners, and hosts philanthropic speakers, including Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, also a lecturer at the Graduate School of Business.

CS 90SI has four project partners: the Oppia Foundation, the Government of Delhi, LaborVoices and SIRUM. Each external partner is paired with a team of five students for a specific project.

Among the 20 dedicated students is sophomore Michelle Guo from Fremont, California, who is a member of the Government of Delhi team. Guo and her classmates are building a website to help promote political accountability and foster a better relationship between the citizens and their representatives.

During elections in India, political parties provide a manifesto to the people. But according to Chopra, politicians in India are notorious for empty promises, which has led to an overall lack of trust in the government. So how do you create trust? You let citizens track whether or not the politicians follow through on their promises, said Chopra, who grew up in India and witnessed this lack of accountability firsthand.

Guo and her team are building a website, similar to PolitiFact in the United States, that will inform citizens of project progress. Users can also provide feedback to the government on finished projects. The Government of Delhi plans to launch the website mid-December.

Guo is excited to be working on a computer science project that isn’t geared toward entertainment or profit. “Tech is a powerful tool that people take for granted,” she said.

Students are also working with SIRUM, co-founded by Stanford alumnus Adam Kircher. SIRUM is a nonprofit that has built a practical platform to transfer the $5 billion worth of unopened, unexpired and surplus medications primarily from nursing homes and pharmacies to safety-net clinics that treat underserved and uninsured populations.

“It’s like the Match.com of unused medicine,” Kircher said.

In order for the concept to do its best, however, SIRUM must make it easier to donate the medicine than to destroy it. The CS+Social Good students are working to refine the matching system and improve the shipping process.

Future directions

CS 90SI finishes this fall quarter, but the team is staying busy.

This winter, senior Vinamrata Singal will lead CS+Social Good’s newest project, Studio. Studio is a six-month program where students build a project from scratch with the help and resources of the larger CS+Social Good framework.

During Studio, four student teams will each be assigned to cover a particular social topic: health care, education, human rights or civic engagement. They must then find a need and develop a solution using technology.

From an early age, Singal country-hopped with her parents, who worked as doctors, and witnessed poverty and poor living conditions around the world. Singal entered Stanford with a pre-med major in mind to eventually help people as a doctor, like her parents. But she changed her major to computer science after recognizing the larger scale of impact with technology.

Like other members of CS+Social Good, Singal felt a need for computer science classes with a social impact focus.

“I want to create real social impact,” Singal said. “CS+Social Good is a place at Stanford where I can achieve that.”

CS+Social Good will also introduce an all-new section for CS 106X – a major introductory computer science course at Stanford – that is focused on social good, and will continue monthly discussion events on campus, Chopra said.

If it seems like these young adults are juggling school and a full-time job, that’s because they are. Chopra said he puts in around 30 to 40 hours a week toward CS+Social Good. Those involved are dedicated and passionate, bringing a diversity of experiences from around the world.

Murata, originally from Brazil, led an online language exchange program to teach languages to hundreds of people from all over the world when he was just 15 years old. After high school, he started a project to make educational opportunities in the United States affordable to everyone in Brazil. He began a crowdfunding project and raised over $200,000 in four months, one of the country’s most successful crowdfunding campaigns, Murata said.

As president of CS+Social Good, Murata has learned new leadership and planning skills.

“CS+Social Good is unique because we are building a mindset, not a product,” he said.

No stranger to technology projects with a social impact, Chopra’s drive also comes from profound experience. In high school in India, he built and patented an anti-molestation device for women, in response to the increasing cases of rape in India, up 18 percent from 2004 to 2008. He was awarded the Innovator of the Year award by former president of India A. P. J. Abdul Kalam.

After Stanford, Chopra plans to start his own social impact nonprofit. Despite his early success, Chopra came to Stanford shy and afraid to express his vision to make a difference in the world, he said.

“Because of this incredible community of CS+Social Good and the support and resources from Stanford, I’ve found confidence in my decision to pursue using the power of technology to create impact,” Chopra said. “I’m not afraid to create and work on new bold ventures.”

Many of the CS+Social Good board members are seniors and juniors, but they have no intention of letting the group disappear with their graduation. The team recently recruited nine more students for the board, including several freshmen.

The organization is also partnering with other groups on campus. CS+Social Good is hosting a discussion in collaboration with Students for a Sustainable Stanford to discuss the role of technology in environmental sustainability.

Though CS+Social Good is rapidly growing, it remains focused one thing – to have impact.

“Technology is one of the best ways to create social good simply because of the scale of impact,” Chopra said. “If we don’t use it for social good, it will divide the world between the haves and have-nots.”

Media Contacts

Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944, bccarey@stanford.edu