Expanding To The University of Waterloo
Our vision of using tech for social good has resonated with students all over, inspiring some at The University of Waterloo to start their own Blueprint chapter. Read about the initial work in expanding Blueprint to a new campus — and some of the leadership challenges along the way.
The drive to use technology in a meaningful and beneficial way isn’t unique. Blueprint has been at UC Berkeley since 2012, but plenty of other campuses have started their own organizations: MIT’s Code for Good, UPenn’s Hack for Impact, and Stanford’s CS+Social Good, just to name a few.
Students across college campuses clearly recognize that there is a huge opportunity to make positive change— and giving them the inspiration and tools necessary to begin working in their own communities is crucial. At The University of Waterloo, students Katrina Crisostomo and Luisa San Martin had the motivation to begin their own Blueprint to fulfill this need at their own school.
For Katrina, the inspiration came while working at Watsi last summer. Despite the image of most nonprofits being slow-moving, Watsi makes significant impact using technology: over 11,000 patients have successfully received healthcare through Watsi’s donation platform. Working there showed Katrina the difference that the nonprofit and tech combination could make in a fast-moving startup pace.
The next step was seeing how students, not just startups, could take up this cause. After talking with Blueprint members Byron Zhang and Vivek Raghuram, both of whom worked at Watsi, Katrina recalls, “I kept thinking, ‘I wish we had this at Waterloo.’”
For Luisa, the story is quite similar. While working at Google last summer, Luisa met Jonathan Chu, a Blueprint member who told her about some of the development work the original chapter has done for nonprofits.
Luisa says that “after hearing about Blueprint’s incredible mission, I started thinking… what if we had Blueprint at Waterloo? The University of Waterloo has very strong technical talent, but so many students spend hours building hacks that don’t solve real problems or rehashing solutions for problems that have already been solved. I wanted to see our top talent working on something real; I wanted Waterloo students to see how tech can make the world a better place.”
Challenges of Implementation
Starting a new chapter can be hectic, and getting the club set up required lots of administrative work. Katrina recalls that the start of the term was pretty unorganized.
Finding interested students, building a website, reaching out to nonprofits, sourcing projects to work on , figuring out where to hold meetings — UW Blueprint had to move quickly in order to start operating. Because there was no strict timeline for them to follow, many of these key tasks were done reactively, as opposed to proactively
And once 13 new members joined, Luisa and Katrina also had to deal with leadership challenges as well: setting expectations for new members, defining necessary roles, helping students ramp up technically, and creating a sense of community.
But these normal tasks came along with unique concerns for them as well. Projects-based clubs are much harder to run at The University of Waterloo because of the different co-op schedule that the school follows. As opposed to having students stay continuously each semester, the school segments students into tracks — they stay on campus for a term and then leave to work for the next.
This means there’s a different batch of students on campus every 4 months. UW Blueprint had to be open to the possibility of doing some remote work. That opened up significant questions about feasibility, like ‘How can we work on projects remotely in different time zones?’ and ‘How can the culture thrive despite periods of not seeing each other at all?’.
These challenges forced UW Blueprint to be more adaptive, instead of simply following the original chapter’s model for every procedure. By communicating weekly with the original chapter, Luisa and Katrina could see how their own chapter could innovate.
Some examples include recruiting one track of students first before trying to reach off-campus peers simultaneously, experimenting with structures like a larger development team of 6 developers, and starting off with one project to test viability of their operating model.
Even now, the UW Blueprint team has major goals to accomplish, such as:
- integrating students from other term tracks into the organization
- sustainably partnering with nonprofits for future projects, and
- ensuring longevity of the chapter.
Despite the challenges, Blueprint’s cause fueled the team’s motivations to create a sustainable working structure. And for Luisa, the most rewarding experiences so far have been around the excitement they’ve generated. Even without outreach, students continue to express interest in joining, and nonprofits and professors from Waterloo have been receptive in terms of advising the club.
After setting up the infrastructure needed to run the chapter, UW Blueprint began working on their first project last term for The Somo Project. The Somo Project is a nonprofit that provides local entrepreneurs living in Kenya with business resources and grants to stimulate business in their communities.
The tool the team is building will help Somo Project staff get feedback about the training they provide so they can improve it for entrepreneurs. This is a crucial project because Somo Project needs these surveys to be entirely SMS-based in order to effectively reach their entrepreneur community.
Taking on this project required lots of coordination and planning between the Berkeley and Waterloo chapters. Instead of starting from scratch, the development process started with an existing codebase from a team of Cal Blueprint developers.
Contacting stakeholders from Somo Project, transitioning documentation, and reassigning roles were all done carefully. Despite it being a student-run, fast-paced build, starting with some foundation enabled the team to push for stretch features and work more on the design of the app.
Currently, most of the UW Blueprint team is off-term from school and is planning to work remotely. But the work with Somo Project has shown the UW Blueprint team just how much can be done with just one term. In the meantime, they are hoping to create connections with more nonprofits for future projects.
Vision for UW Blueprint’s Future
For Luisa and Katrina, the possibilities for UW Blueprint’s future are just beginning. From their perspective,
“there are two main things we would like to see UW Blueprint grow into:
- For it to be an organization that builds good software for social good, and
- For it to be a place for UW students to come together, do good work, and make real connections and friendships along the way
[We] would love for Blueprint to publicize the idea that tech can be built for social good. Hopefully Blueprint can help show that tech for social good is completely achievable, even in undergrad.
Ultimately, we don’t want other students to feel the way we did before, that the only kind of tech we can build on our own are superficial apps that have no real use. We want students in Waterloo to put their talent towards helping nonprofits tangibly.”