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Youth ‘Hackathon’ Offers Glimpse of Tech Industry’s Future

Above: Young app developers work with an adult mentor at Level the Coding Field Hackathon in Oakland. // photo: Jay Rooney

OAKLAND -- Have you ever looked at your smartphone and wished you could use it to find a safe route home? How about to find a mentor, or where to go for help when you're being bullied? Those were just some of the ideas brought forward by a group of youth entrepreneurs who converged in Oakland last weekend at “Level the Coding Field Hackathon,” a two-day event designed to teach middle and high school students how to conceptualize, design and build software applications.

Winners received cash prizes and an opportunity to further develop their apps, but everyone – participants came from all over the Bay Area and were mostly low-income and youth of color – left with skills that are increasingly in demand in the global economy.

“Hackathons” -- tech industry jargon for marathon programming sessions -- are usually staged for the purpose of building apps for new platforms, or are organized around a particular concept. But "cause hackathons,” like the one hosted in Oakland, have become increasingly popular as affluent techies look for ways to “give back” to communities that most often find themselves on the outside looking in at the emerging tech economy.

Grand prize winners at the Level the Coding Field Hackathon in Oakland // photo: Allen Meyer

"This is teaching students how to be producers of technology, rather than just consumers," said Sumaiya Talukdar, director of strategic partnerships at the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI), the Bay Area nonprofit that staged the hackathon. LPFI helps students of color pursue a college education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through a variety of research and educational programs.

Over the course of two days, 140 hackathon participants formed 25 teams - each with a mentor - and got to work developing their concepts. At the end of the competition, teams presented their apps to a panel of judges – software developers, academics, and venture capitalists -- who selected two winning teams out of seven finalists. Each winning team received $2,500, or $500 per member, and each student who made it to the finals received a tablet and two months of free data.

Hackathon Finalists’ Apps

(WINNER) Mentor Match: Built to help connect STEM students to mentors based on compatibility, and also provides a contained social network for students to help each other evaluate mentors. Compatibility factors include location, availability, professional interests and hobbies.

(WINNER) SafeBlok: A mapping app built to improve safety. Crowdsources crime data in real-time and sends notifications to users if an incident occurs nearby.

Bee Safe: Mapping app that improves safety by suggesting safer routes, avoiding unlit areas, as well as areas with high gang activity and robbery incidents, also crowdsources crime reports.

Stand Up: An anti-bullying app, provides access to a help hotline, a "confessions" section for both bullies and bullied, a "help" button to push when being bullied, and a “random acts of kindness” suggestion section.

Fast Trash: Built to address littering by putting pressure on fast food restaurants to give out less trash. Users take a geotagged picture, note the company it came from, and upload it to the site, which will track the worst offending companies.

CA Penal Code: Built to improve the Oakland Police Department's response time. Primarily for law enforcement, though available to all, it summarizes the California Penal Code to create faster and more reliable police response times by streamlining the research process.

As the teams brainstormed, ideas started bubbling up, each one designed to solve specific problems in their communities. Nadia, a 6th grader from Oakland, worked on an anti-bullying app. "[Our team] did a vote, and the results were that bullying was the biggest problem in education," she said. "So we're trying to create an app that will help the bullies not bully people, and also help the targets not feel so bad about being bullied."

Meanwhile, Deniece and Sergio, both high school seniors from Oakland, built an app to help high school students find volunteering and job opportunities. "It's an app that pertains to a need that we have," said Deniece. "Sometimes it's a struggle to find ways to volunteer, because of your age."

Sergio concurred, adding that relevance was also a big factor. "It wouldn't necessarily be a list of opportunities," he said. "Instead, it would say, 'here are some that we think you would like,' and you'd be able to narrow it down based on interest."

One group of 6th graders asked themselves, "Why don't the Oakland police respond to our communities?" They then proceeded, with a mentor in tow, to Oakland Police Headquarters to ask questions as part of the process to conceptualize their app. Based partly on the answers they received, they built an app that would allow law enforcement to quickly research the California Penal Code, with the aim of reducing response times.

One of the mentors, Timothy Wong, is a seasoned developer and entrepreneur. The founder of Cardpool, a gift card exchange marketplace, Wong said he now volunteers at events like the youth hackathon because he sees it as a good way to use his expertise to help others, and do it in a way that will eventually strengthen the tech sector.

"In the [tech] industry, we totally see it's a homogenous talent pool, and yet there's a huge supply and demand gap, as far as that talent goes." he said. "And on the student side, a lot of them weren't even aware of STEM as a field; they didn't know it was an option for them. It's cool to let them know that it's available."

Wong also pointed out the societal benefits of involving more underrepresented ethnic minorities in tech. "The people building these services and products should be representative of the consumers, otherwise they're building stuff for people they don't have a shared cultural context for," he said.

bullying-app2 (1).jpg
This team developed an app to guide bullying victims to resources. // photo: Allen Meyer

Talukdar echoed that sentiment. "Until you see the problem, you can't be a part of a solution, and our students come from a different background than their affluent white peers," she said. "So take problems like homelessness, or [access to] internships - these are problems that our students are going to be equipped to solve, because of their experiences."

However, significant barriers -- structural, psychological and emotional -- remain in place, and there's a lot of catching up to do: Silicon Valley’s ethnic and gender homogeneity is an often discussed topic in the Bay Area, yet in 2012, only 45 African-American students in California took the AP Computer Science exam.

But in Oakland, looking at the students gathered around whiteboards, post-it notes, and laptops -- a healthy mix of African-American, Latino, Asian and Middle Eastern students, with an even gender balance -- gives an idea of how different the field could look.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who stopped by the hackathon, seemed similarly impressed as she addressed the students. "Fifty years ago, we changed a lot of laws, but we didn't necessarily change a lot of hearts, and we didn't change a lot of economic opportunities," she said, referencing the March on Washington. "So to me, this hackathon is you being given a window into another world, to create apps, to take part in this business, to take down those barriers."

The individual success stories are no less inspiring. "One of our students spent years living in his car, and he went on to major in biomedical engineering at USC," said Talukdar.

"The kids have the potential. You just need to foster it, and give them the opportunities to go far.”

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