Ina Fried

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Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist Wants to Get a Million Programmers to “Code for India”

Karl Mehta has spent years doing financial startups and more recently worked as a venture capitalist, helping other technology companies get their start.

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Now the Menlo Ventures partner is embarking on his boldest venture yet, though he isn’t expecting to make a dime. Mehta is announcing a venture dubbed “Code for India,” designed to get programmers to volunteer eight hours a month to develop mobile apps that can change lives.

“We are taking on real problems, hard problems,” Mehta said in an interview. Three apps have already been developed. One, done in partnership with an Indian nonprofit, is designed to help women escape violent situations by automatically texting five nearby friends who could offer aid.

“In a lot of places like India, you can only depend on your neighbors,” Mehta said. Calling the police, he said, might mean a wait of an hour or more. “The people who can help someone are the people who live right there and can just walk.”

The two other apps are crowdsourced reporting tools. One tracks civil issues like potholes or missed garbage collection, while the other tracks class size and teacher absenteeism in schools.

Though starting small, Mehta has huge ambitions. His audacious goal is to get a million programmers across the globe to donate their time. For now, Code for India has a few hundred engineers from Mehta’s personal network here, programmers from companies such as Google, Microsoft and Visa.

However, he sees a huge base of potential volunteers from India itself. The top 10 software outsourcing firms, Mehta said, employ a few million programmers.

“The million [programmer] goal is very achievable,” Mehta said.

Mehta is hoping to keep the organization lean so that it doesn’t need a lot of wealthy donors — just a lot of programmers. Mehta is funding the enterprise himself, along with Web hosting donated by Amazon.

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“I’ve been fortunate to have done quite well,” said Mehta, who in 2011 sold his financial start-up PlaySpan to Visa.

The Code for India name is actually something of a misnomer, Mehta said, since the organization is developing open-source code that has broad applications throughout the developing world.

“It could help hundreds of other countries who face similar challenges,” Mehta said.

The inspiration for the effort, Mehta said, came from work he saw in response to Hurricane Sandy while serving as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow. In quick response to Sandy, volunteers cobbled together mobile apps to collect data on where gas was available and for how much.

“I saw firsthand how you can use mobile capability and crowdsource,” he said.


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work