Case Study

Humanitarian Toolbox: Visual Studio Online Used to Energize and Optimize Crowdsourced Development

  • Provided By: Microsoft
  • March 4, 2014

Software developers have a history of volunteer efforts to provide the solutions needed by relief organizations. To improve the productivity and long-term benefits of these efforts, Humanitarian Toolbox was formed in 2013. The non-profit organization aims to deliver open-source solutions to relief organizations by sustaining and amplifying the efforts made by developers during volunteer hackathon events. It has already developed three solutions that were requested by international response organizations and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The projects are maintained in the cloud using Visual Studio Online, which provides developers one place to access all code and work items and allows application development to continue as volunteers join and leave the project. Building on its early success at energizing and optimizing crowdsourced development efforts, Humanitarian Toolbox plans to develop twenty new applications in 2014.


Information technology plays an increasingly vital role in disaster relief operations including facilitating collection and dissemination of critical information and news. The response efforts to a powerful earthquake in Haiti in 2010— where the number of volunteers and the scope of work had overwhelmed the IT systems in place—sent a clear message to organizations that better technology was required to fully optimize the impact of disaster relief personnel and volunteers to natural disasters.

Humanitarian Toolbox was founded in 2013 to provide modern, open-source technology solutions to humanitarian organizations. Matt Nunn, Director of Marketing, US Development Tools at Microsoft explains the initial goals, “We had just released the beta version of Visual Studio Online and we believed that a cloud-based solution for developer collaboration could be a huge benefit to the crowdsourced development efforts commonly used by disaster relief organizations.”

The Microsoft Disaster Response organization quickly decided to support the effort. Tony Surma, CTO and Senior Director for Microsoft Disaster Response comments, “We saw this as a great opportunity to engage Microsoft talent and technology to provide scalable solutions for humanitarian organizations. By utilizing Microsoft’s engagement in both the developer and the response communities we are able deliver applications that can have a large and lasting impact.”

Existing efforts in this area had produced good results and there was a large interest in the developer community to support open-source projects for charitable organizations through hackathons or other gatherings. However, the efforts often fell short because the projects lost momentum and weren’t completed or were not being supported when a relief organization tried to use them. Gisli Olafsson, the Emergency Response Director for NetHope, describes some of the issues: “We might spend an entire day of an event characterizing the problems and requirements for developers and then only get one day of development effort. Then, the project would go dormant until the next event where again we had to spend time giving background. Getting traction and continuity this way was slow and difficult.”


Visual Studio Online provides a home for Humanitarian Toolbox project data in the cloud. The environment includes code repositories using Git or Microsoft Team Foundation Server, agile development templates, continuous integration, and the Microsoft Visual Studio integrated development environment (IDE).

Humanitarian Toolbox has worked on three applications to date all of which are ready for testing by NGOs. Prompted by lessons learned in Haiti, one is the Crisis Check-in application, which helps track and organize volunteers at a crisis site. Another project provides mobile access to training resources so that volunteers can download training videos and be up to speed before arriving at a disaster location. The third application is a browser toolbar which delivers curated news links to onsite volunteers so they can easily access the latest information about the crisis they are facing.

“Visual Studio Online is used for source code control on Humanitarian Toolbox projects. We can take advantage of Git or Team Foundation Server code repositories depending on the needs of the project,” says Bill Wagner, President of Humanitarian Toolbox. “But Visual Studio Online does a lot more than assist with code management, it allows us to effectively gather requirements and manage the backlog. There is clear direction for people joining the project when they see the sprint planning and can trace those work items back to requirements.”

Volunteers only need to supply an email address and they can get access to the projects on Visual Studio Online. The team also pushes the project code to GitHub and CodePlex to encourage participation by more casual volunteers who might only want to help for a few hours.

“Humanitarian Toolbox is trying a number of different scenarios to make crowdsourcing easy, which we believe will also have impact on the broader community of Visual Studio users,” says Nunn. “Working together, we’ve done things like ‘bug bashes’ where we have hundreds of testers at a conference finding bugs and developers around the world picking them up and immediately pushing back fixes,” explains Nunn. “Humanitarian Toolbox is proving that Visual Studio Online can boost developer and tester productivity and deliver great results.”

Another Visual Studio Online capability that has helped Humanitarian Toolbox development efforts are the Team Rooms, which enable online chat between team members from within Visual Studio. “I typically keep a window open to a Team Room and anyone working on a project can ask me a question immediately,” says Wagner. “They don’t have to search for my contact information and go out to Skype or Twitter. It’s a lot more efficient.”

Since Visual Studio Online is a cloud-based service, it is frequently updated by Microsoft with new capabilities. The distributed teams working on Humanitarian Toolbox projects are excited about the ability for online code editing. “Having developers contributing from around the world, across time zones, collaborating as though they were sitting next to me and looking at the same screen will be huge,” adds Wagner.

Humanitarian Toolbox has three applications that are ready to be tested by NGOs. The use of Visual Studio Online to produce these applications has proven to be a huge success by providing the structure to efficiently utilize volunteer resources.

Expand Pool of Volunteers

Using Visual Studio has helped get more Visual Studio developers involved in the process because they are able to use the tools and processes they are familiar with. “We are making traction in our outreach to developers who have not contributed to open-source projects in the past because they weren’t familiar with those tools. Visual Studio provides a familiar environment and the agile development processes that are so common in business today,” says Wagner.

Humanitarian Toolbox has also been able to connect with businesses of all sizes to take on projects within their organizations. “Businesses are seeing this is a great way to fulfil charitable giving goals while training their people on the latest Visual Studio technologies at the same time,” says Nunn. “We’re also finding that new developers are volunteering their time in order to enhance their Visual Studio skills.”

Provide Traceability and Maintainability

Visual Studio Online provides a single place to completely document the project from requirements to testing. “We have a full archive of everything that happened during project development so someone just joining the project can pick up a work item and see what needs to be done,” says Wagner. “In the past crowdsourced projects may have had their information distributed across many tools making it much more difficult for a new developer to get up to speed.”

Olafsson notes, “From the end-user perspective we are able to clearly document the requirements for the solution and then create use cases or stories for the developers. By enabling this detailed documentation up front we end up with better outcomes.” The structure provided by Visual Studio Online also allows Olafsson to review the work items in progress and provide input to the developers.

“Visual Studio Online enables us to bring developers into a Humanitarian Toolbox project without significant configuration and set up times. We're able to have all of our source code right there and ready so that we can start coding without delay. These efficiencies allow us to focus our time and energy on building meaningful software,” comments Philip Japikse, project lead and developer.

Focused Project Management

Visual Studio Online helps project managers make headway. “We have better control over what is being worked on. The NGO can set the priorities and we can focus on what needs to get done to get the app into beta testing,” says Wagner. “We can do sprint planning and then create reports that we can put on CodePlex or send out in an email so that our volunteers know what needs to be done.”

Extend Support Beyond Hackathons

The organization is sustaining project momentum in between the large events that have traditionally been the primary source of volunteer effort. “Now everything can be done in the cloud so developers can continue to contribute after a hackathon,” says Nunn. “Everything a developer needs is available online.”

“We’re excited by the new dynamics—the evolutionary process—introduced by Humanitarian Toolbox. Visual Studio Online allows us to have people continue to work on bugs and updates anytime so that progress continues between events,” says Olafsson. “We are creating solutions that will be used in very difficult environments and they require effort to keep them useful over time.”

Manage and Foster Growth

Humanitarian Toolbox is concentrating on adopting infrastructure and tools that will help the organization achieve its goals of having a major impact on the ability of disaster relief organizations to respond to emergencies. “Using Visual Studio Online to host projects is critical to executing our forward strategies, including our plan to deliver twenty needed solutions in 2014,” says Wagner.

This post was republished from Microsoft as part of NetHope's effort to facilitate collaborative learning and community knowledge-sharing. Please click here to read the post in its original form.

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