We are pretty good at sensing what’s out
there and have a pretty good grasp on new
approaches. For example, we have refused
to build a particular app over the past few
years because it would be too costly for us
to form another team coding in a different
language for mobile devices. But what we
can do is make the website responsive
and do a quality job. We are rather more
focused on our goal than on just following
whatever new comes along.
What would you like to see in the future
of social digital innovation?
CS: We aim for something social-service technologists dream about but
that is actually less technological itself. I
hope to see ownership of solutions move
from external forces like big corporations
and development agencies to the people
who are actually affected by the social
challenges. The best solutions are built by
the people actually living in the situation;
they know the problem inside out. All they
need is the technological help and the
What is your biggest motivation for
working in a nonprofit organization?
CS: The most important element is
the energy, because you often have an
innovative approach that attracts people
who are pioneers in their fields, and you
have a shared vision and purpose. So this
combination of experts from different
backgrounds, including social and tech,
linked to a common social purpose actually
gives this explosion of energy that allows
things to work.
Nidhi Rastogi is a Ph. D. candidate in the Computer Science
Department of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N Y,
where she is leading innovation in anomaly detection in
large networks using graph analytics. She holds a master’s
degree in computer science from the University of
Cincinnati and has extensive work experience in networks
at Verizon Wireless and GE Global Research. She is also
committed to social good by using her skills in securing
cyberspace, networks, graph analytics, machine learning,
Rahul R. Divekar is a Ph. D. student in the Department of
Computer Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,
Troy, N Y. His research focus is on the intersection of
computer and cognitive sciences, exploring areas of
group dynamics and emotive analysis in conversations
to enhance collective decision processes using AI. He
has a master’s degree in I T from Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute and a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering
from the University of Mumbai, India.
© 2017 ACM 1528-4972/17/03 $15.00
refugee welfare, the whole range of charity
work. Other examples are clean drinking
water in Uganda and educational support for
children in nomadic communities in Tibet.
How do the smaller organizations learn
CS: We do classic client outreach. We
invest in search-engine optimization. We
have a pretty strong brand so are quite well
known to the organizations that have been in
the social sector. But the ones just starting
out learn about us from local authorities,
because we cooperate with them in terms
of offering workshops, webinars, and
building kno wledge and expertise in, say,
digital campaigning and digital storytelling.
So people learn to do this right while also
getting to know about us.
How does betterplace determine which
organizations are most in need of its help?
CS: We check every project that adds
a profile to our platform. They need to
be recognized as charities in Germany
and pass our background check. They
also need a firm social issue or challenge
they’re working on. For example, if they
want fundraising to help publish a book, we
direct them to other platforms. We also do
an impact check to make sure the money
is used for what it was intended. We do
this by looking at the comments on their
profiles by the communities around the
projects vouching for project owners by,
say, uploading pictures. We also direct the
charities to present their causes in a way
that ensures everything is transparent.
What technological issues are you
CS: At the moment, we are working on
redefining the categories so people who
have just come to browse can be directed
to projects they might care about more.
Navigating through all 20,000 projects and
their stories is complicated so we focus on
this particular challenge.
What kind of data do you collect and
what do you do with it?
CS: The data we collect is mostly
donor data and from the people who surf
our website. We can judge how project
owners and charities use the portal, then
use that information to improve the user
experience. We harness the Internal data
we have on donors (which is anonymized)
and look at the broad-picture statistics like
what makes online fundraising successful
and the information donors need to feel
confident in supporting a cause. That’s
something that helps charities tailor what
they deliver to generate impact.
Tell us about betterplace lab, your
CS: Betterplace lab is seven years old.
We look into new technologies like the
Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and
open data and consider where their social
potential might lie and, of course, related
social risks as well. We travel a lot and speak
to social digital innovators. We have also
started to consult for public authorities and
large foundations here in Germany about
how to identify technological topics and
solutions. Tech is different; it is more agile
and needs a different development cycle
founders don’t often understand, as they
are more used to traditional methods of
project management. It is independent from
the platform, but we still learn a lot from
How quickly are you able to adapt new
CS: This is a pretty hard cost-value
evaluation for any charity or organization in
the not-for-profit sector. The costs and the
state of the art of tech are set by world-leading companies and investment-driven.
A for-profit company doing the same things
We are rather more
focused on our
goal than on just
new comes along.