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Greg Brown
Greg Brown

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A simple idea, automation and a deep social impact

I know, it sounds like a click bait but I promise you it is not.

Some background

We all have been living through tough times lately. The pandemic is tearing through countries and continents and leaving a horrid trail of death and suffering. One of the hardest hit countries now, is Brazil. Things are particularly ugly for the less privileged part of our society. Unemployment rates soar, informal workers have lost their sources of income and, sadly, things don seem to be getting any better.
The government issued a social assistance plan with the idea of helping these families financially during a period of three months (the time they expect things to start getting back into gear here). If your family earned less than X amount of Reais, you were eligible for the assistance. Over 50 million families applied in a matter of days. When the first payment came through, people were queuing by the hundreds outside of bank agencies. It is clear that the risk of catching Covid-19 was clearly outweighed by the need to feed their family.

Making the money accessible

I work at the R&D department of a company from the financial sector and one of the lines of work they have is with regards to facilitating payments. The office has all sort of products, from simple credit card machines all the way to digital wallets.
Some bright soul at our company saw this mayhem and decided to try and make things better.
For a percentage of the people being assisted, the money was transferred to virtual account that could be accessed through an App on the phone. Payments could be done by reading QR codes.
The problem - not many retails had equipment that could generate these QR codes.
The solution - We created a simple app that could be installed on these terminals that basically would generate a QR code for the price of the purchase.
Obviously, if life could only be that simple...
For each client, due to security issues, we had to build a custom version of this app - and that is a lot of apps to build.
Over a weekend, a team was able to produce about 32 apps - no where near enough.

The power of automation

The thing that has always drawn me to computers is the capacity they have for doing, repeatedly, a specific task ad nauseam with few or no problems.

We were tasked to help out with the coding of the apps, we were told what and where to change, where to get the data we needed from. After a couple of apps, I felt that a good solid couple of hours of proper programming, could be much better applied.

Shell scripts & node scripts, some clever use of template files, and a sleepless night later, I had built a simple, nevertheless, effective little robot.

When produced manually, besides the "human factor" of mistakes being made (it was quite an error prone task if you lost concentration), the average developer could kick out 6 or 7 apps a day. My little robot allowed for a much higher output, actually churning out about an app a minute.

Social impact

After a couple of days later, we got a first report on how much our apps had helped the population, the number of transactions registered through our apps.
Through our calculations based on these numbers, we estimate that between 150K -> 300K people were able to use their social benefit for purchases without the need to stand in a crowded line at a bank door.

When you see the social impact that a simple idea and some good old fashion automation can have, it makes you wonder what else is just within your grasp that can help make the lives of people around you just that little safer and better.

Header Photo by Hello I'm Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

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