My Year as a Civic Innovator
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. 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.
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.
STEMconnector CEO Edie Fraser recently wrote:
STEM industries are found everywhere, spanning everything from biotech to humanitarian relief to robotics, gaming and sports and even the arts and culture. What other career path can claim the variety and flexibility of STEM? Our nation is not only poised to go over a “fiscal cliff,” we’re just about in freefall over a talent cliff to meet the growing need of STEM jobs. We need STEM leaders in industry to lead with the passion they bring to their businesses to help fill the talent gap!
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 to their day-to-day realities. Given the shifting demographics, it is an economic imperative that we increase interest in STEM subjects among black and Latino students.