At the Kapor Center, we often say “Silicon Valley is losing out on untapped talent,” and “when the community of tech CREATORS more accurately reflects the demographics of the nation, we will see the kind of innovations our country needs.” We truly believe that those living with the most pressing challenges in society are those who will also find the answers to those problems.
So you can imagine my excitement when, last weekend, I had the honor of witnessing these ideas in action. I wanted to climb up on the roof of the Computer History Museum and shout “HERE! IT’S HAPPENING! IT’S WORKING! COME LOOK!”
On Oct 26-27, 100 young people from under-resourced schools and from backgrounds under-represented in tech came together for two full days to participate in their first-ever hackathon. For most of them, it was the first time they had ever been exposed to the world of tech creation. We called it “Level the Coding Field” a nod to our partner in this endeavor, Level Playing Field Institute. It also reflects our belief that the field of tech creation needs a major “leveling” as well. So we worked with a format Silicon Valley knows well: the hackathon.
In teams of five, participants in grades 6-12 were tasked with designing a mobile app focusing on Education, Health or the Environment. With the help of adult volunteers as facilitators and technical mentors, students were encouraged to tackle some part of a solution to a big, pressing challenge.
Two grand prize winners were selected by a panel of judges well-versed in the world of tech innovation. What the winning teams decided to tackle was inspiring.
One team focused on teen depression and suicide prevention. In their app, users who record “positive actions,” (writing in a journal, getting exercise, talking to a friend) would be rewarded with a “seed.” For each subsequent positive action the user records, the seed would be watered, receive sunlight, and grow. Interspersed with the game of making your flower “grow” are inspiring quotes, information about who to call for help, suicide hotline information, and the like.
The other winning team focused on teen obesity. With a BMI calculator, food tracker, and encouragement to exercise and make healthy choices, the app also has a social function. Users can connect with others struggling with similar health issues. Despite having only two days for design and creation, this team demo’d a highly-functioning app that they loaded onto an android-platform phone. This far exceeded even our high expectations of what students would be able to do at the end of two days.
Other teams tackled issues ranging from educational success to preventing texting and driving. As “market research” was loosely defined, my favorite factoid by a team working on homework organization was “100% of students said they have lost a completed assignment before turning it in. Source: today’s hackathon.”
During the event, while monitoring our Twitter feed, we realized that our friends at Black Girls Code were simultaneously hosting workshops in Oakland, doing what they do best–teaching girls to code. Watching our reports from the field side-by-side caused Dr. Kortney Ziegler (Founder of Trans*H4ck) to Tweet “So cool to see @LPFI and @BlackGirlsCode’s timelines filled with pics of brown kids creating technology today. The future!”
If you want to witness this future, please join us at the next “Level the Coding Field” Hackathon, November 16-17, in Oakland. Details can be found at lpfi.org/hackathon.