The digital agency Futurice and Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences have recently experimented doing digital creation projects together for non-profits as pro bono. This articles describes the rationale, the process, and the results. 

The challenge with student software project courses

Software project courses for students can be a very beneficial form of cooperation between universities and companies, but they often face challenges finding meaningful projects; ones that create value both to the students, and the mentoring company. The project should build something real, something that the customer really needs. The students should efficiently learn both technology and methodology. The students should also gain a public work reference that helps them find employment.

We at Futurice have faced these challenges before. It has been quite difficult for us to come up with good and relevant digital creation projects that we could implement together with the students. In the past we have mainly concentrated on making it a decent learning experience for the students, and not cared too much about the actual digital outcome.

Our solution

Recently we have found an elegant solution for this dilemma. Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences and Futurice have been experimenting with implementing charity projects together. We have a strong social impact program at Futurice, and we already support many non-profits with our expertise. Haaga-Helia also sponsors similar organisations in various ways.

By finding a non-profit with a worthy cause and an actual need to be the end customer for the software project course, we find the meaningfulness for the project. We also get an active customer with a keen interest in getting the most out of the project.

The first project

We tried this out with Haaga-Helia’s Softalaprojekti III in the second half of 2016. Our customer was Nice Tuesday Ry, a Finnish non-profit network of professional women in IT. They organise the annual Super-Ada event that encourages young women to study technology, by representing the IT industry now and in the future.

The new look and feel for the Super-Ada event, designed by Alena Parshina.

The theme of the event is a fun competition track consisting of different technology related tasks. The participants compete in teams of four. There are multiple company stations, each with a different task. The companies grade the performance of each team.  The winning team will be rewarded with summer jobs and the companies supply other rewards as well.

After the previous 2016 event Nice Tuesday member and Super-Ada founder Suvi Erjanti had come to a conclusion that the event would benefit of having mobile apps for the teams and the companies. The event had grown in popularity. This being an IT event, it would also give it a more professional feel. Furthermore some international parties have expressed their interest towards the concept. Having supporting apps would make it easier for others to implement the concept, scaling up the Super-Ada impact and hopefully make it an international movement.

When Suvi approached us we decided that Super-Ada apps are a perfect candidate for the Softalaprojekti III course project. Haaga-Helia agreed, and we set out to work. Futurice created the initial design for the apps. Futurice senior designer Annina Antinranta kicked off the design together with Super-Ada founder Suvi Erjanti. Several sessions later the basic functionality for the app was ready, and Futurice UX designer Alena Parshina created the graphical design.

Screenshots from an actual phone. The teams got extra points by completing the quiz.

Softala lecturer and software development teacher Juha Hinkula introduced us to the student group, and we got the project underway. Our student group consisting of Haaga-Helia students Markus Mäkelä, Sari Nuolivirta, Miika Mäkiniemi, Kai Lehto, Juha Paavola, Petri Kortelainen, Jere Vilkkula, and Tuuli Tiilikainen implemented the apps with support by our open source engineer Rasmus Eskola. In practise Rasmus worked one day per week with the team, while the team worked two days each week. The team was very committed and we noticed some of the work got done outside the official time windows.

The solution we built together is based on very modern technology called React Native. The students had no prior experience with the technology stack, but with our active mentoring and the examples we provided, after several weeks they were performing very well. Finalising the apps was our responsibility as the course ended two months before the event. We did not need to expend a lot of effort to get that done. All things considered the course was a very positive experience for Futurice, and based on the feedback we received, also for the students. Our customer is very happy, and the apps worked well at the event held on February 11th.

The event was a fun experience for both the attendees and the companies alike.

What next?

For this spring we booked two student groups from the Softalaprojekti III and are building digital solutions to the non-profit Startup Refugees and the social enterprise SCOOL. Based on our learnings from the autumn we are now also involving both our project methodology expert, Peter Tennekes, and the end customers more in the daily project work. Both projects are on to a good start.

As an additional element we are providing interesting work for the Helsinki Youth Work Digitalents media people by ordering promotional videos for our co-creation projects. The young professionals from Digitalents interview our project teams and customers, script the videos, and shoot video footage of the various project phases. The videos will help us raise awareness of the work done together and the open source solutions we create. It would be great to get some of them in wider use around the world. The Super-Ada video will be released soon.

I strongly believe that companies need to take a more active role in society. Concentrating solely on growth and shareholder revenues is not a good long-term strategy, if your business relies on a healthy and increasingly wealthy society. Companies can’t fix everything, but since the nature and availability of work is changing, and the society has challenges adapting to the pace of that change, we can certainly make a difference.

NGOs and charity organisations are playing an increasingly important role in society. Not only the work they do, but as a channel for people to contribute to the common good and find meaning in their lives. Companies should find new ways to aid and increase the impact non-profits have in the world. Doing it together with academe, while doing our part in improving the education the students receive, makes perfect sense. This is a rare case where everybody truly wins.

Teemu Turunen is Futurice’s Corporate Hippie. He leads the open source powered world impact program by talking with people, taking their ideas forward, facilitating initiatives, negotiating budgets, arranging events, and writing a lot. He has 20 years of industry experience and earlier held the position of Services Director at Futurice.
teemu.turunen [ät]