125 Stanford Stories

NO. 33
Stanford Today

CS + Social Good


Student-led group uses technology for positive social impact

Four Stanford undergraduates have launched an increasingly popular initiative that aims to channel the power of technology for social good, and in the process to change the very way computer science students think about their discipline.

CS+Social Good launched in fall 2015, founded by students Lawrence Lin Murata, Manu Chopra, Edward Wang and Vicki Niu, with computer science lecturer Keith Schwarz as faculty sponsor. Through summer service fellowships, courses, speaker series and other events, CS+Social Good aims, in Murata’s words, “to empower students and change the mindset of how technology is used.”

Murata was inspired by a remark Schwarz made in an introductory computer science class in fall 2014: No campus organizations existed that used computer science to make a positive social impact. He shared his idea of starting just such a group with Chopra, his roommate, whose own interest in tech’s altruistic power dated back to high school. They soon drew a core of 20 interested students, and their projects and initiatives have multiplied.

This year, CS+Social Good has partnered with the Haas Center for Public Service to launch the CS+Social Good Summer Fellowships in summer 2016. Up to three students will receive funding, support and mentoring to design their own summer experience with an organization using technology to address social issues in the United States or abroad.

“I am still amazed at just how much impact a single coder can have,” said Zak Whittington, ’16, who under CS+Social Good’s auspices built an automated postal mail distribution system for the healthcare nonprofit SIRUM, potentially saving it dozens of labor hours per month.

“Software developers have a unique way of thinking, and a unique and powerful set of tools to offer the world,” Whittington said. “I may literally have saved a life.

“And it was easy, fun and educational for me.”

The group’s initial effort, the team-taught course CS 90SI: Using Web Technologies to Change the World, drew more than 300 interested students for 20 slots. Initially partnering with three U.S. nonprofits and the Government of Delhi in India, the students built websites and software solutions. For example, they built a profile page for the open-source educational website Oppia.org that allows the site’s contributors to get a sense of their impact on others.

See demos of the class’ projects here.

In winter quarter 2016, special CS+Social Good sections in two of Stanford’s most popular introductory computer science courses exposed early-career undergraduates to the altruistic potential of technology.

Also in winter quarter, CS+Social Good launched Studio, a six-month program in which teams build products from scratch with help from the larger CS+Social Good framework and several Stanford academic departments.

This spring, Studio’s Global Health Team is working with the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department at Stanford School of Medicine to improve global access to Alzheimer’s research by placing data and methodologies on a mobile platform. Studio’s Civic/Government Team is designing a philanthropy platform to make it easier for millennials to donate to impactful organizations. Its Healthcare Team is working on the question “How do people with mental illnesses interact with mental health care providers?” Finally, the Education Team works with students at East San Jose’s Overfelt High School to provide role models and help lower barriers to college success.

Murata and his CS+Social Good co-founders want their student-run initiative to outlast their time at Stanford. They want its motivating principles to inspire students beyond those directly taking part in its programs. So they are working to involve freshmen and sophomores and to spread the word to the larger campus community through speaker series and other events.

Read updates about CS+Social Good on its Medium channel.