Star Phoenix on Whitespace
Originally published in The Star Phoenix on Thursday, April 26 2012.
Mobile software developer Dale Zak had an idea last summer while travelling in Nairobi. He came home and shared the idea with fellow developers and philanthropists Flavio Ishii and Krystian Olszanski. The three launched Whitespace Initiatives this month, a non-profit organization that aims to solve local problems and improve the community using technology. They’ve already started several projects, with Sherbrooke Community Centre, the College of Medicine and the Lighthouse. Here, Zak answers five questions from StarPhoenix business reporter Jenn Sharp.
Q: What’s the mission for Whitespace Initiatives?
A: The term Whitespace is the gaps, the space in the margin of a piece of foolscap. It’s also an economic term which refers to gaps that occur in the market because there’s either no revenue potential or no organizational structure. These gaps occur between groups that need help and the people with the skills and resources to solve the problems. Because there’s no way to make money, people often don’t do those things. Our mission is to basically connect those dots. We want to focus on solving local problems and bringing together the people with the skills to solve those problems. One of our strategies is to always think local and partner with local organizations but always develop things in a way that they can be reused elsewhere. The problems we’re facing in Saskatoon aren’t unique.
Q: Do you have an example of a project that you’re working to solve at the local level which can be reused in another city?
A: We partner with a local organization because they’re really the ones that understand the problem. Whitespace is a community of developers and designers so they have our technical expertise but it’s other organizations that understand the problem. One of the groups we’re working with is the Lighthouse, an assisted living shelter on 20th Street and 2nd Avenue. Jordon Cooper and Deeann Mercier at the Lighthouse understand the problems within the group they work with. They have a hard time communicating with that group, being able to receive information and broadcast information if people are not at the Lighthouse. They would like a way to be able to reach out to the community and say ‘hey, this is what the weather is going to be, this is the number of beds we have available, here’s the services we offer, if you need help contact us.’ They don’t have an easy way to do that right now. We developed an SMS system for them to be able to broadcast messages to a large group. Once they have those numbers in the system, it can become a two-way channel for communication. We try to reuse existing solutions when possible. We’re using open source software that’s been used around the world. We’re building additional functionality into it that meets the needs of the Lighthouse. To develop that system from scratch, it could take months or years. But because we’re developing a component for it, we can do it in a fraction of the time and cost. If we can develop it here and prove that it works here, it can easily be used elsewhere. We’re just applying for grants to get the funding to develop it. What makes Whitespace different from other organizations is that we’ll partner with organizations to help get funding for those projects. We’re not just a design firm or development shop with a bunch of employees we pay. We’re a tiny group that simply helps coordinate projects. For projects that don’t have funding, we’ll help go after the funding. The Lighthouse doesn’t have the resources to pay for the development of this but if we can get the grant, they benefit from having this tool to make them more effective. With the resources, we can pay developers to help us build this.
Q: So do you and your co-founders, Flavio Ishii and Krystian Olszanski, work on a volunteer basis?
A: We’re just getting this off the ground but because projects are funded, we’d be able to pay developers to contribute to them or to pay ourselves to help with development. There’s actually three kinds of projects: One is where projects are self-funded. Groups would come to us with the resources to pay for the development. The second case, like the Lighthouse, is where they don’t have the resources and we’ll help find funding. The third case is they don’t have funding but Whitespace as an organization will either volunteer or help provide funding for them.
Q: What’s your vision for the future?
A: We envision it being a community of developers across organizations and across geography. Think about the different companies in town — you can work for a company and be a member of Whitespace. If something comes up of interest to you, you have those skills and some spare time and want to contribute, you can. Most projects will be funded and developers will be paid for their time. We’re doing a project with the College of Medicine mapping health facilities in the province. We partnered with Bongo Hive in Lusaka (Zambia) and selected a developer to come to Saskatoon for four weeks to help us on the project. We’re developing a custom theme for this open source software, which will meet the needs of the College. When (the developer) goes back to Lusaka, he now has this skill he’s learned. He’s planning on sharing this with other developers in Lusaka and he’ll start to coordinate his own projects there.
Q: What will you do to attract other developers in Saskatoon?
A: We’re just getting started and really just doing this in our spare time right now. What we plan as we get these first few projects done is that there will be more opportunities for developers to contribute. Pairing developers with different backgrounds and skills allows for them to share knowledge. We really envision it being this collective of people that come together around problems. If projects are funded, we can pay people for their time and make it more sustainable. Always partnering with local organizations will allow us to really understand the problem and solve that problem.
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