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Trends in Civic Tech

16 Dec

My Year as a Civic Innovator

27 Nov

I’m a policy wonk and doer. This time last year, I didn’t have a clue what happened at a hackathon. I associated hackers with bad guys who stole identities and broke into websites. So you can imagine my delight to be introduced to a community of civic-minded hackers. Hackathons provide a platform for problem-solvers and do-gooders to collaborate and create interesting things.

My first hackathon was Random Hacks of Kindness in December 2011 at Drexel University. There, my team developed a prototype for the Cost of Freedom App to help users navigate their state’s voter ID application process. The app was reengineered by a hacker who works for Google at the Voting Information Project (VIP) Hackathon.

To date, I have participated in eight hackathons.

My teams addressed a wide range of issues, including LGBT rights, international election monitoring and crowdfunding. In six of the eight events, my team either won or placed second or third.

A lot of awesome prototypes are developed at hackathons. But to have an impact, the project must be sustained beyond the weekend. Like romance, a prototype without finance doesn’t stand a chance. So the team should include an evangelist who is passionate about the project. Someone who is willing to spend the time and energy it will take to get resources to build out the app. I was chief evangelist for the Cost of Freedom Project and Yo! Philly Votes.

If you build it, they will come. Right? Maybe. You have to market to your target audience. I partnered with national and local nonprofits to engage their members. I also used social networks and mainstream media to raise awareness of the civic apps.

A year later, I’m going back to where it all began — Random Hacks of Kindness, which will be held at Drexel’s new ExCITe Center. I’m, well, excited to give an update on Yo! Philly Votes and perhaps pitch a project.

I’m also excited about how the hackathon platform and collaborative mindset can spark interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). While a lot of serious coding takes place during hackathons, it’s not all work. They’re actually fun. Folks play games and banter back and forth. Truth be told, hackathons are cool. As Will.i.am observed:

Most kids are not dreaming of being programmers, scientists or engineers. The ones that are… are looked at as being geeks or uncool, when in actuality technology is the only thing that is cool today.

Hackathons or hackerspaces can help underrepresented minorities, particularly young black males, imagine a better future. They would be introduced to professionals who can connect STEM literacy to their day-to-day lives and career possibilities. Given the shifting demographics, it is an economic imperative that we inculcate interest in STEM subjects among black and Latino students.

This year, I underwent a professional makeover. In the coming year, I plan to organize hackerspaces, infused with a hip hop beat, to help give STEM a much-needed makeover.

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