Writing Software to Save the World and Make Money

by Tom Worthington

For the Canberra Java Users Group, 9th November 2005, Canberra


Software developers can get a bit too fancy for their own good, and that of their clients. Simple web based interfaces and simple business models can be used to produce flexible and profitable applications. These can also contribute to improving the world. Examples are a humanitarian disaster management system with a simple web interface for the Pakistan earthquake relief operation and web advertising used to support an Australian non-for profit web site. These type of applications could be extended to provide disaster proof on-line services to the world.


It would be a good application if I could see it!

As an independent IT consultant, I have to sit through a lot of presentations on new IT applications. The usual format is a slide show and then a live demonstration. Often I can't see the demonstration. Java programmers seem to be particularly prone to this problem. The developer can't see their application from the user's point of view and therefore their customers, quite literally, can't see the application.

What frequently happens is I am given a slide presentation about the wonders of some new software then a live demonstration. The slides have good large graphics but then the demo has tiny little text, which I can't read. This has happened recently with a major application from a large multinational telecommunications company. They said "Tom what do you think?". I said "I can't see it the text is to small, can you make it bigger?". They said "no, we would have to rewrite the application".

Apart from demonstrations, there are other reasons for being able to adapt the user interface of an application. An application might be used in group environment, on a big screen for a groups of workers (such as in a call centre, board room or emergency centre). An individual may be using a small hand held device to run the application in the field or they may have poor eyesight.

There are ways to program a flexible user interface into software. But this takes effort and skill. A simpler way is to use a web based interface to the application, so that the flexibility built into the web can be used.

When I suggest a web based interface to Java developers, the response often is "but that will severely limit the design". My response is that I would rather have a limited design which is usable than a sophisticated one which is useless.

Built it and they will come; but will they bring money?

Both commercial and free software developers share a common problem: they need to get someone to pay them. Commercial developers traditionally sold their software by the copy and academics got paid by the public. In both cases developers have tended to assume that as long as they do a good job someone will pay some time. But an alternative is now available: advertising.

Popularized by Google, it is now possible to cover some of the cost of a web site by having paid advertising on it. A software application with a web interface is a web site and can the same advertising.


The Sahana humanitarian disaster management system was developed at short notice for the Asian Tsunami. This uses a simple web based interface for running refugee camps. It is now being deployed for the Pakistan earthquake relief operation. I proposed a accessible web interface for Sahana This is designed make the application available from a PDA, mobile phone as well as a laptop PC or a low speed Internet connection at a relief camp. A new version of Sahana with some of these features has just been released for testing.

Web advertising can be used to support commercial web sites (such as Tomw Communications) and non-for profit web sites, such as On Line Opinion "Australia's free Internet journal of social and political opinion". This can cover the cost of providing the web site.

  1. Sahana humanitarian disaster management system
    1. accessible web design
    2. New test version
    3. New test version via Google Mobile
  2. Web advertising
    1. how web advertising works
    2. On Line Opinion, with ads

The World's On-line Museum with Ads?

In July 2005 I conducted a five day workshop for staff from museums around the South Pacific on the use of computer and telecommunications technologies. This was at the request of the International Council of Museums (ICOM).The workshop showed that small museums would benefit from having their own web sites, but they did not have the resources to support these.

The web could be used to provide an on-line system to be shared by smaller museums. On return from Samoa I had an ANU student do a prototype using the Semantic Web. This may be further developed by other students in conjunction with the new W3C Australian Office, located at the CSIRO ICT Centre at ANU.

A project to build a cultural facility is likely to attract funding from international bodies such as UNESCO. But such grants tend to be for implementation and do not cover ongoing maintenance. Instead I propose that web based advertising could be used to support the system.

  1. IT for museums of workshop
  2. Semantic Web for museums
  3. W3C Australian Office
Copyright © Tom Worthington 2005.

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