Coding for the Greater Good

JumboCode student teams are having an impact on social issues by offering free technical support for nonprofits
three students looking at a laptop presentation
From left, Alex Johnson, a project manager with JumboCode, shares the new website his team built for Tufts’ Ears for Peers with his client Heather Mei, and her friend Avni Rajpal. Photo: Anna Miller
May 6, 2019

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When the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter needed an internal tracking system to manage resources and assist its clients, it didn’t seek out a technology firm for help—it turned to JumboCode. Now in its fourth year, the Tufts student group provided the solution needed, on time and for free.

The homeless shelter is one of eight nonprofit groups this year who now have improved web, app, and data solutions thanks to the computer science and design talents of undergraduate students involved with JumboCode, which provides technical solutions for nonprofits and charities. Among the clients this year were a Tufts textbook exchange program, a student support hotline, a Boston-based center for nationwide bisexual resources, a Worcester food bank—and even a debate team in Macedonia.

Take the case of Tufts student organization Ears for Peers, an anonymous student-run support helpline. “They wanted to offer a system where you could text them anonymously, without any signup process,” said JumboCode project manager Alex Johnson, A19. “You just enter a virtual waiting room and they will talk with you without you having to create an account. And after the conversation ends, it is automatically deleted—there is no trace of the record.”

The client’s response to final product? “JumboCode did an excellent job,” said Maddie Gupta, A19, of Ears for Peers. “They worked hard to create a platform that embodies all of our values and that will be a huge benefit to the entire Tufts community. We are grateful to be able to improve our service so that our organization can have a larger impact on campus, and we couldn’t have done it without JumboCode.”

For their part, JumboCode students benefit, too—the work offers valuable real-world experience in software development, which is critical for getting internships and jobs. “We try to embody the actual work experience they would get if they were in the workplace,” said Jacob Jaffe, A19, who was head of engineering for JumboCode this year. “Teams work throughout the year on all phases of a project, developing iterations, then testing, reworking, and deploying.”

Another benefit is the satisfaction of working with groups that are doing good things in the world. “One of the strongest parts of JumboCode is the range of the clients we have helped,” Jaffe said. “Having an impact like that, as part of being at Tufts, is an incredible experience.”

Lexi Walker, E20, agrees. She was an operations manager for a team that gave the nonprofit People Making a Difference a logo and an app to support an improved volunteer check-in process. “The ethical, moral, and civic responsibility that JumboCoders share is what motivated me get involved,” said Walker. “Our clients are all so passionate about the work they do, and we’re able to provide them with tools to further those dream. That’s an inspiring role we get to play.”

“I love our clients,” added Matthew Langen, A19, head of design this year and who previously redesigned the website for Sibling Connections, an organization that reconnects siblings separated by foster care. “We’re not just making these apps and websites for random startups who want to make a billion dollars—they’re for organizations that really need the help.”

Doing Well by Doing Good

Patrick Wolfe, a project manager with JumboCode, shares the website that he and his teammates worked on for the Worcester County Food Bank during a poster session in Breed Hall on April 26. With the help of JumboCode, the food bank now has a website that enables volunteers and employees to log their time digitally. Photo: Anna MillerOwen Elliott, A17, co-founded JumboCode four years ago with fellow COMP 40 classmates Daniel Baigel, A17, Brett Fouss, E17, Rebecca Cutler, A17, Hayley Cohen, E17, and Kabir Singh, E17. COMP 40 is a demanding computer science course on machine structure and assembly language programming, a rite of passage for those interested in computer science careers.

“I learned more in that class than maybe all my other comp classes combined,” said Elliott. “We spent close to forty hours per week there. We loved our time together, but then we wanted to follow up with internships to build on what we’d learned in the classroom.”

One morning at his kitchen table, the idea popped into Elliott’s head “that we could quell our internship worries by helping nonprofits with their technological woes,” he said. “I jumped up and texted the COMP 40 gang to ask what they thought. Hayley jumped on within seconds and everyone else came on board shortly thereafter. We got to work that very day, and that fall we hosted our first pitch night.”

Spencer Perry, A19, was among the first new recruits; he’s now president. It’s gratifying, he said, to volunteer for clients like the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. That project involved “a lot of testing and debugging” to get the functionality right, “but ultimately it worked exactly right” and helped the client, he said. “That’s the crowning jewel: our projects have an impact.”

The clients are certainly happy. Chris Faraone of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) talks about not just for the students’ computer skills, but their generosity. “JumboCode reached out to us cold and I was flattered they found us—we’re only two years old. So that says a lot about the group,” he said. “Once they found us, there was no way we were going to say no.”   

The student group earned extra respect, as well, he said because BINJ “is considered controversial in its coverage. JumboCode gave us a shot, though, and basically told us we could dream up anything we wanted for them to work on. The resulting story map is something that we have wanted for years, a resource that will soon help people all over greater Boston. JumboCode made it happen. They put their heads down and knocked it out.”

The best thing, he said, is that they left the code for people in other cities and regions to use and adapt. “People can look at the code and build something on their end,” Faraone said. “We like that open-minded approach.”

There are other intangibles, too. “JumboCode has been one of the most important experiences I’ve had at Tufts,” said Walker. “I think it’s helped me to grow and learn in many capacities, including leadership skills, coding skills, and generally working in a group. I’ve also gotten to know some non-CS majors who serve as designers. It’s also a cool opportunity to collaborate with students of a different academic background and perspective.”

As for its future, Johnson is optimistic the club will continue to thrive. “Every year we have a lot of interest in people joining, students who are really hungry for the opportunities to use the skills they learn in class on projects that are rewarding to them,” he said. “It is an exciting prospect to know you could put code to work in changing and improving the lives of others.”

Keep up with JumboCode and find out more about their work on Facebook or email tuftsjumbocode@gmail.com.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.