The Software Agents - Episode 7: - Tess Gadwa, Product Architect - Connecting Donors to Doers

What if you could donate to a nonprofit whose boots are on the ground right where they’re most needed this week? You can, thanks to Tess Gadwa’s, whose software visualizes the latest John Hopkins geographic data on the pandemic, and links to Charity Navigator to identify and donate to reputable organizations.

Christina Noren: Welcome to "Software Agents," a new podcast on how software is helping the world survive and evolve right now as told by the people making it happen. I'm Christina Noren and my cohost is Paul Boutin.

Paul Boutin: Hello. Thanks for tuning in. 

Christina Noren: "The Software Agents" is sponsored by Cloudbees, the enterprise software delivery company. Cloudbees provides the industry's leading DevOps technology platform that enables developers to focus on what they do best, build stuff that matters. So today, we have Tess Gadwa on who is the program director for a new organization,, and the founder of as well as many other companies over the years. She's well known in both UX and software development circles, and she's bringing that background and passion to some interesting response around the pandemic and COVID-19. So we'll talk to her about that today. Welcome, Tess.

Tess Gadwa: Hi. 

Christina Noren: So can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and the world you work in and how you got there, and you can kind of start from the beginning or work backwards from the end?

Tess Gadwa: Certainly. Thanks for having me on. I guess the best way to describe my résumé which is maybe a little bit unusual is that I got my start in journalism and in business journalism in particular. And I've always been fascinated by the stories that are not told and how different stories sort of take front and center and how some stories may get more of a megaphone or less of a megaphone. That led me to start a web development company working primarily with artists, creatives, and professionals, working with small businesses, working throughout with nonprofits. We were in a rural area of Massachusetts so that was kind of our sweet spot. We managed to get a lot of national attention and just kind of kept on doing what we were good at doing. That company is named I sold it in 2017. They're still around. They're good friends, and we continue to partner on various projects.

For me, the really interesting question has always been you have all of these tools and how do you apply them? How do you build something new? And I guess for a lot of people, once there's a model out there, it's very easy just to kind of do rinse repeat. But I get excited at the point where something is just past the proof of concept phase, where we know that it works, whether it's augmented reality, whether it's cryptocurrency, whether it's data visualization and just sort of looking where is there a gap and how can this change the information ecosystem.

Christina Noren: That's interesting because I think, you know, coming from this sort of software infrastructure and hardcore development and tools where we're always trying to build the brand new technology and then it's the years of applying it and actually changing the world with it. I think it's an interesting thing and coming from a journalism angle. So I applaud that. I realize in talking to you that it's kind of a thread we're having on a few of these. It's like, okay, now it's time to go do real work with this thing we built. 

Tess Gadwa: Well, it's sort of all about finding the right opportunity and then being able to build out something that works very rapidly and scale as there is demand. So we were very lucky this spring to get the opportunity to pivot completely and start building a national portal for COVID-19 relief. And we can sort of revisit memory lane, but I'd love to talk about this because it is front and center to what we're doing right now. And again, prior to that, I had taken about a year and a half just to bootstrap and build something entirely from the ground up. I wanted to get more into the coding side of things. My background is UX, graphic design, interaction design; but I've always been very much on the technical side of things.

I don't know why nerds are my friends. I just seem to get along well with coders and developers. That's definitely been something that's helped us over the years and one of the reasons we're able to iterate as rapidly and as seamlessly as we do. So it was just kind of like, hey, three.js JavaScript, I know some. Let's see where this goes. It was more than a passion project, but it was one of those times where I was at a point in my life where I just felt like we're going to do this right. We're going to build something interesting. If there's demand and if there's value, we're going to look for investors at this point.

Christina Noren: That was, right?

Tess Gadwa: Yeah, it was and is.

Christina Noren: _____ before the pivot?

Tess Gadwa: Good question to ask. essentially, also a very similar toolset but more focused on music and content discovery. I don't think the need and the importance for content discovery has gone away at all. Do you understand what I'm talking about when I use that term?

Christina Noren: Oh, absolutely. So just for a little context, Paul is a former engineer, many years journalist around technology and culture. I have an art degree and spent the last 20-some years in technology, and I've built a lot of the same kind of things on the art side. So you're in like company. 

Tess Gadwa: Great. So it's really the question of how do emerging artists and how does great content get found. I live in the city of Portland, Oregon where we have a terrific, world-known music scene; but it's still very difficult for new artists to find and audience and then to grow that audience beyond the city limits. So that was kind of the business problem that I was looking to solve, and I just saw it as a real opportunity to build some new tools and literally to think outside the box and to think in three dimensions instead of two and just employ some interesting shapes and some trigonometry as opposed to just right angles and squares.

So we built this thing that we call the Lotus Content Discovery Tool. It's also called the Lotus Chart, and it's shaped like a flower. And essentially the way it works is you navigate through this three-dimensional flower is that when you're in the inner petals, you see the bigger names and the bigger artists and things you're more likely to know well. When you get to the outer edges of the petals, you can again very easily mouse over a certain section and a name and a photo and a video link comes up but it's more likely to be something emerging and unfamiliar.

So it's essentially just one way to recreate that experience of being in a record shop where you're surrounded on all sides by different artists, different labels. You know, imagine your favorite crowded bookstore, going to Powell's. You have in the real world because it's three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional space so many more options than when we're sort of looking at the entire internet through a phone or through a laptop screen. It's like trying to drink a fire hose through a straw. You only have space to see like that one or two or maybe five suggested artists come up on Spotify.

So that was sort of the problem that was interesting to me was just how do you create a really pleasant, really intuitive and seamless interface that would allow you to browse more with context and with hinting but also with this level of serendipity and spontaneity, something that would work well with AI filters but wouldn't be completely dependent on one single algorithm but could work with multiple algorithms. So we built that. It's available. You can test that out, the desktop version, at It's really basically a spreadsheet on steroids. You can use it analog, whether less glamorous, and less exciting ways. You can use it for stock research, analyzing sales data. One of the very first things that we did, and this I think brings the story back to COVID and back to the real world where we're at right now, was to use our same trends model for looking at COVID case data globally and in the United States.

Christina Noren: So let's get into that. So you built this thing that can visualize content relationships for music discovery and be applied to other things and you suddenly realize that, like everybody else, we've got this pandemic and people are desperate for useful information. So I'm assuming that that's what Greenslate is becoming. What exactly is this and who's gonna use it and how are people gonna benefit and where is it right now?

Tess Gadwa: Well, I'll tell you what we ended up building and then we can sort of go and trace a little more of the back story if you're curious. What Greenslate is today is an interactive, data-driven map. And what makes this chart different from some of the other visualizations you'll see, the information is updated every day. That's coming from the Johns Hopkins University data repository which is the absolute best out there. You can see it county by county, what are the red zones where there are the highest number of cases adjusted for population across the United States. What we've done, which is a little bit different, is we actually give users that information and then we give them a way to take action. 

So there's a donate button that's prominent throughout the map and as you browse around and as you see where there may be new cases and where there may be a change overtime, you can then very easily just click and bring up a list of donation categories and then through our partner Charity Navigator you can actually visit and donate in a secure e-commerce transaction with about two clicks. 

Christina Noren: It's not so much about donating to Greenslate as Greenslate is a portal for a data-driven way to decide where your dollars can be most effective right now. 

Tess Gadwa: Exactly. I have to be very clear about this, Greenslate right now is a passthrough organization. We do not take donations. If you want to donate to us, if you think we're a good cause, that's really too bad. We don't have a physical way to accept contributions at the moment. 

Christina Noren: One of our previous guests was Bob Bickel who is a board member and the COE of RunSignup, that runs running races around the country; and I didn't know until we did that, I've known him for a few years now we talk about it, but basically what RunSignup is is a massive way of funneling passthrough dollars to nonprofits where benefits of these running races. We're on board with that model and one of our other guests is kind of getting into that area as well. And even in putting this series together, it's been a challenge to figure out how to make this clear where the donations are going and just make this a way of getting the donations to people. So that's very interesting. 

It seems like this kind of visualization has utility beyond – so I have a curiosity about the world and I look at the updated map data in The Washington Post every morning. Like any educated person, I'm curious about where this is and at what rates. I have family and friends around the world so I wanna know where it's difficult and who to check in on. But I assume there's a benefit for people who are in an official or professional or frontline capacity trying to deal with this pandemic. 

Tess Gadwa: It's set up in a way that there's information that's of value to decision makers; and that was actually what we really concentrated on first was just using our initial Lotus 3D visualization model to show graphically what counties had the highest growth trends; and I remember just running those numbers, in the middle of March, and being completely astounded realizing, wow, suburban Long Island, Westchester County New York, all of these places the numbers are off the charts. And just thinking, yeah, I've got to get this information to my friends and family in that part of the country so they know how serious it is. 

So that's one type of view that we provide. That's little bit more sophisticated. We also just want to give people a way to just immediately see where the flash points are and get involved. And that's been a core principle. It's what I call actionable data. So often we just completely drown in data. We're overwhelmed with it from all sides so giving people a way to interact with data that's being generated in real time and then actually take some sort of discernible path to have an impact and kind of change the narrative. Those are the tools that I'm most excited about building at the present time. 

Christina Noren: How are you publicizing this? I mean everybody's relying on these really static charts from the major new outlets. Like how are people going to start coming to Greenslate and making that the way that they're interacting with all this data?

Tess Gadwa: Well we've been doing a lot on Twitter. We're sort of ramping up over time trying to get more news articles in print, and I think we're definitely here for the long haul. One of the things that is wonderful about building tech for change is if you build it right, there's not a lot of overhead that's required and it's something where you can just sit back and see what the results are over time. So part of what underlies my approach to software development, I'm very much a perfectionist. It's a problem. There's something thing really addictive particularly if you're working with the actual code and you're debugging. It's hard to let things go; but at the same time you have to build and you have to launch what's called a minimum viable product, an MVP. That's a very standard industry term just to sort of see what your audience thinks and how users react in the real world. We use various tools to track in the aggregate. We don't track individual users down I wanna make that very clear. Privacy is important to us. But we do take feedback and we basically want to just kind of incrementally and iteratively build the most effective web app that we can.  

Christina Noren: So let's switch into just the back office of developing software for and Greenslate. So do you mind my asking how your team is structured and how you work together and I'd love to understand your software development and delivery process.

Tess Gadwa: Completely. Right now because this is a grant-funded project and shout out by the way to the Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund for making all of this possible. We are a small project. A lot of people are working at a discount compared to their normal market rates. But we have myself on board, as the UX designer and also the project lead. So that would typically be a project manager role, and I'm sort of doing double time. We have a web developer who's doing both the frontend and some of the backend integration. It's something like 90 percent of frontend web apps. So there's not an overwhelming amount to do on the backend, just making sure that the numbers that we're getting through our API remain accurate and raising as the foundation of our tech stack. We've been very happy with them so far.

We've also got a security engineer who I won't say too much about his job but his job is to just make sure this is stable and safe and that nobody sees this as an inviting target which they shouldn't. Again, we don't store or even collect any user data, financial data, credit card data on the site. Everything is handled through Charity Navigator. We don't take any percentage of transactions. We don't take any type of advertising. We're simply here to be a megaphone and just a very thin client, no pun intended, to be able to give users a better experience. 

Christina Noren: What about the data pipeline from Johns Hopkins, how much manipulation do you have to do to get it into whatever format drives your interface?

Tess Gadwa: At this point, not a lot. It was funny, I remember I was on there back when you could still download the individual CSV spreadsheets and open them up in Excel or whatever. So really at that point it was still early enough that you could still look at the data row by row, city by city, country by country and see what was happening and that's what we used to build our very initial prototype. At this point, it's much more automated.

Things change from time to time on the backend so we have to be aware of that. We have to be aware in particular sometimes reporting fields become deprecated, how counties and hospitals report and share their information is changing, and of course there's a conversation about data that's happening at the national and the global level as well. There's certain categories that we're not choosing to include such as the percentage of residents who have been tested just because that's a bit of a football and it's hard to get really reliable numbers that are nationwide on that as well. 

Christina Noren: I was going to ask is that just nationwide the Johns Hopkins data or are they supplying global data? 

Tess Gadwa: Global. So that's really interesting too. We don't have a current global visualization going. I would love to get that running again. We did that way back in the beginning when you had Italy sky high, when you were just seeing that first wave; and I think it would be interesting. It's not really in scope, but I'd love to see what that looks like. 

Christina Noren: It'd be interesting to see a timelapse visualization in some way. We see the charts that are the days since the fiftieth death by _____ but the timelapse visualization of how things have evolved, regionally and in different countries. It would be fascinating to see. 

Tess Gadwa: It's coming. Believe me, it's coming. 

Christina Noren: Since you are such a collaboration of people who are half donating their time and are just doing it for the importance of it, let me ask you how can people listening to this podcast help?

Tess Gadwa: Well, I'd say number one visit Just go to your web browser, type in that address Greenslate like cleanslate but Greenslate. From there you will find the experience to be very straightforward. Click on the map graphic. Look around. If you find an area and if you find a nonprofit that's a fit, make a donation. And share this, tell your friends. It is important, important work. We've got a great marketing team behind us, but again we are doing this on a not-for-profit budget not on a seed stage startup budget. And we just recognize there's a lot of worthwhile causes right now. We would love to actually build out our interface and include different maps for other issues such as economic justice and such as racial justice. That's something that's on the horizon. 

Christina Noren: At some point this particular pandemic will be behind us. We can debate as to when; but we're also interested in, in this show, is how the things we're doing in a rush right now to respond are going to help the world evolve in other ways because _____ people are seeing things they can't unsee anymore. 

Tess Gadwa: As far as Greenslate is concerned, we have sort of our narrow mission is COVID relief in particular just structuring what we offer in such a way that it's sustainable. We're using carbon neutral hosting through Microsoft Azure. That's important to us. Our broader mission is building tools that can be deployed easily whether by individuals or by nonprofits and just to use to mobilize around social change. As I'm sure you're aware, there's kind of a technology gap. So much of the pace of innovation is driven by the investment community and by – I don't know it's funny. The idea of profitability whether the reality of it ever materializes for most startups is another question.

But it's a very strange set of values that drives change in technology. Technology is really it's value neutral you can use it for anything; and I think there's so many opportunities to build tools that make it easier for change makers to stay in contact with each other and also, just not to put too fine a point on it, to redistribute wealth to make it easier for people who are interested in helping originations that maybe don't have a huge budget, maybe don't have a fulltime grant writer on staff but are doing really important and high value work. We want to help the NGOs and the nonprofits who don't have a fulltime presence for marketing. We sort of want to fill that niche because stories oftentimes don't get told. So kind of using technology to fill that gap and in particular using data-driven technology. 

Christina Noren: I visited _____ _____ in the last few months and I have no idea where to start and you're giving us a place to start. On that point about how funding for technology projects gets made and also how technology that already exists gets distributed across problems and causes.

It's funny one of our guests just a couple of weeks ago is someone I've known for a long time, you maybe know him as well Jim Fruchterman of Benetech, now Tech Matters. He sold a few companies 30 years ago and decided that the for profit for tech was soul sucking and not for him. He saw that there were all of these worthy causes such as secure human rights data collection in the field and accessibility for books. He started a company he's been calling for years the only intentional nonprofit in Silicon Valley. You're of a piece with his thinking; and his current project is to try to distribute technologies to nonprofits that don't have access to them, just adapting standard technologies like CRM to case management for kids, for children _____ around the world. 

Tess Gadwa: That's great. There are a few pioneers out there but they're scattered. I think sort of when we joined the conversation is trying to make it really, really easy for stakeholders to benefit because we know that it's hard if you're working fulltime at a small organization to take an afternoon or a day for a training session or to add one more thing to your plate. So we want to basically create systems that do a lot of the heavy lifting and just deliver benefits to where nonprofits are going to be engaged and see the immediate appeal of continuing. 

Christina Noren: Paul, what's your summary of the conversation we've had today?

Paul Boutin: Well, I had two things. One is a theme that came up before and will come up again and that is even when the people who fund technology want to do things that they feel would be of a big benefit, they're often not allowed to because the only focus is ROYN dollars in large amounts and that doesn't play well in a lot of the spaces we're talking about with the nonprofits and with a lot of the NGO work. And the tech here can also unite people who can't find each other. I did a little communications work for a company called Flux Labs in San Francisco and they said the first fact of the matter is that often in the middle of a crisis the people with the foundations don't know who the people on the ground at that spot are who would be the right person to fund. And the other thing I heard was that Tess sounds like me that I really love it when there's a technology and there's a situation and you can see, man, if you had just stretched that tech or modify it a little bit we could actually do this. And it sounds like that's what you're doing. 

Tess Gadwa: That's what we aim to do for sure.

Christina Noren: So Tess, you were gonna take us through what a donation process, what a navigation process looks like on Greenslate. You're gonna do the vocal demo, right?

Tess Gadwa: Yes, we are going to go through together the process of choosing how this $500.00 gift to charity will be allocated. This is a tough decision for me because there's so many worthwhile and deserving organizations. I can think of several in Portland, Oregon. I can think of several back in my hometown, my home state of western Massachusetts, I should say of Massachusetts, of that whole region.

But at the same time just to sort us examine how you would use this tool if you really want to make change and you really want to see where the hotspots are without further ado, let's open up the site that we are calling In reference to you see a giant map, "Help us in the fight against COVID-19." We're going to click this interactive giving map for any instructions and from there we see in real time where the hotspots are population adjusted for this particular day.

And the first thing that really strikes me is I like, whoa, in the American south. Whoa Nelly, there's just a lot happening there. It's bright orange and bright red. So I'm gonna click around and start to get a sense of particular areas and counties in that region. And I'm clicking here just on the county of Mississippi, Arkansas which is close to the Mississippi River. You can see they've had 480 cases in the past 14 days out of the total of a1,000 confirmed cases so really cases are up. This is happening in real time.

So what can be done? I'm gonna click the How You Can Help button. We see a few different categories. We see the hospitals and primary care category. We see the mental health, the education and training, the food and security category. I'm gonna go straight to food and security because just knowing that anytime you start to get a spike in cases that means things are likely to shut down, peoples jobs who are at risk. It's a really great concrete way to donate and know where your dollar is going. 

The first link that comes up is Arkansas Food Bank on Charity Navigator. I can see here that it's a four-star charity. It has that rating. I can click through, see a few more details and we read down and it says it's the largest food in Arkansas. It's providing food and other resources for more than 453 pantries, serves 33 counties in central and southern Arkansas. All of this sounds good so far.

Before I make up my mind, I'd like to find out a little bit more so we're gonna go to the Arkansas Food Bank website and there you can see there's actually a popup that comes up about COVID-19. It gives you various statistics about how the organization needs have changed and what they're doing in response to COVID-19. This is really interesting reading. They distributed 9.6 million pounds of food. If you want to donate now every $1.00 help us provide food for five meals to Arkansans in need, $500.00 donation, that means 2,500 meals. It's a very clean, streamlined, easy, safe, and secure checkout process. And literally you might not have $500.00 to give every day to a random charity in Arkansas but if you're working from home, you're saving $15.00 to $20.00 a week just on gas. 

Christina Noren: Well, I was just actually thinking people who are cooking for yourselves at home and you're spending less on groceries than you were spending on nice meals out and maybe you went out to a restaurant twice a week, maybe the night you would've gone you go check out and you give that much to someone else. 

Tess Gadwa: Completely. Give early, give often, follow different organizations, found out what they're doing. But also it's a very risk-free, worry-free to give $10.00 to a new organization and it might be a Native American reservation in New Mexico or in Montana. It might be somewhere in the central valley of California. They're also getting really hard hit right now especially the migrant worker population. But this is just a way in any amount that feels comfortable, your $5.00 or your $10.00 can go a long way to a deserving cause. And we make it really easy for you to do the research and find new organizations in a timely manner. 

Christina Noren: Okay, well, thanks for that verbal demo test. That's really powerful, and I have to say that the first one of these where we've left listeners with some way they can use the software we're talking about to help other people. 

Paul Boutin: And I'll put in a plug from my friends who work with nonprofits is that when you're not paying for urban office space or high-rating software engineers, we can do a lot with $50.00 they say. So your money does go somewhere. 

Tess Gadwa: And that's also another thing where as we get more of an audience and as this networks effects come into play, I mean imagine if you are that community and you show up this one day in the red zone and 10,000 people give $10.00. Just imagine what that does for that community. 

Christina Noren: Actually, Tess, on that point which is are you going to building in a social share capability or does Charity Navigator already have that so then you can publicize with your friends with one click on Twitter or whatever that you just chose that Arkansas Food Bank?

Tess Gadwa: Oh yeah, it's already there. There's probably more that we can do to make it streamlined and to make it pretty, but that's a big part of the site also is being able to share across media.

Christina Noren: Okay well we've learned a lot, thanks very much, Tess. I'm gonna let Paul wrap it up and I hope to speak with you again soon. 

Tess Gadwa: Terrific. Thank you. It's been fun. 

Christina Noren

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