Last weekend was the National Day of Civic Hacking, a two-day event that brought together technologists and subject matter experts “to create tools that make our city better.” I participated in the hackathon organized by TechnicallyPhilly.com and the City of Philadelphia at Drexel’s ExCITe Center.
I worked on a Code for Philly project with Chris Alfano and Jim Connor. We addressed the problem of the lack of a central source for information about after school and summer programs. There are a number of databases that compile information about out-of-school-time (OST) programs, but the information is not current. The demand for such programs will increase in the wake of the “doomsday” school budget recently approved by the School Reform Commission.
There’s no money and in nearly half of Philly households, no Internet access. So many parents and students will try to find out what’s going on at their local library or Keyspot public computer center. While Internet access is free, users are not free to sit there as long as it takes to find a suitable program.
So we built a mobile web app that empowers parents and students to quickly access current information about after school and summer programs.
Users are able to search for programs by grade level, season (summer or year-round) and subject. What’s Going On is at the intersection of technology, education and civic engagement. The public is invited to submit a program. We will verify the information before adding the program to our community wiki, Wikidelphia.
An asset map of OST programs in Philadelphia,
What’s Going On won first place. The project can serve as a national model for how developers, advocates, parents and community members can collaborate to expand access to programs that promote year-round learning and engagement.
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.
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 bridge the gap in teacher training and 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.
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 and interests. Given the shifting demographics, it is an economic imperative that we inculcate interest in STEM subjects among black and Latino students.
I will blog about the forum on STEM education that I attended yesterday at the Brookings Institution, at which Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank unveiled a report, “Education Supports Racial and Ethnic Equality in STEM.”
But right now, I want to focus on a national initiative to stem the high school drop crisis among black boys, Too Important to Fail.
Tonight at 8:00 p.m. EDT, PBS will air Tavis Smiley Reports’ “Too Important to Fail,” an investigation of the root causes of education crisis.
I had a visceral reaction to this headline, “Education is the next startup Gold Rush, Silicon Valley will be at its heart”:
Already the epicenter of tech innovation and venture capital investment, San Francisco is poised to become heart of a new industry that will be powered by the Internet. And unlike me-too food apps and daily deals websites, education is more than a hot fad. American taxpayers invested more than $536 billion on K-12 education between 2005 and 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Education, with an additional $373 billion in taxes going to fund higher education nationwide. The educational pie is enormous, and anyone who can get his or her hands on even a small slice can expect to reap huge returns.
As an advocate for diversity, the report that venture capitalists hope to “reap huge returns” with taxpayer funds – our money – was a call to action. Indeed, without vigilance there is little chance minority-led startups will share in the huge returns.
The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council’s newly released report, “Minorities and High Tech Employment,” found that in Silicon Valley, African Americans and Hispanics represent 1.5 percent and 4.7 percent respectively of the workforce.
The lack of diversity impacts minority-led startups’ access to capital. A study by CB Insights found that VCs invest in startups led by founders with high tech experience. So it comes as no surprise that black founders received one percent of VC funds.
Three of the top six Silicon Valley companies – Apple, Oracle and Google – refuse to file reports on the demographic makeup of their employees. They claim release of EEO data “would cause ‘commercial harm’ by potentially revealing the company’s business strategy to competitors.”
Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Cisco Systems filed their EEO-1 reports kicking and screaming.
All six companies are major players in the educational technology sector. At ISTE 2011, their business strategies were on display for all to see.
Tellingly, there was a notable lack of diversity among the exhibitors.
Now along come VC-backed education startups. Their “trade secret” business strategy has slipped out from under their iPad Smart Cover.
As ed tech companies feed at the public trough, they will learn there is no free lunch. Advocates and activists will leverage relationships with school superintendents, school boards, community leaders and other stakeholders to ensure compliance with EEO reporting requirements.
An investigation conducted by the San Jose Mercury News in 2010 revealed significant disparities in the employment of African Americans, Hispanics, and women in ten of the 15 largest firms located in Silicon Valley, the leading high tech region in the country. Similar data indicate that such disparities exist across the national high tech sector. Collecting and analyzing this type of data is essential to calibrating policies aimed at altering these trends, which, if left alone, could become intractable in a sector that thrives on secrecy, relative insularity, and non-transparent business practices. As such, the reluctance of some of the leading Silicon Valley technology companies to release data regarding the composition of their workforces only contributes to existing uncertainty regarding the true extent of minority underrepresentation in the high-tech sector.
The U.S Commerce Department Economics and Statistics Administration’s report, “STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future,” found that growth in STEM jobs has been three times greater than that of non-STEM jobs over the past 10 years. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
Some key findings:
In 2010, 7.6 million people or 5.5 percent of the labor force worked in STEM occupations.
In the coming decade, STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17 percent, compared to 9.8 percent growth for other occupations.
STEM workers earn 26 percent more than non-STEM workers.
STEM workers are less likely to experience joblessness.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke wrote that STEM jobs will help the U.S. win the future:
Expanding the participation of students in the STEM fields – including girls, minorities and students with disabilities – is not just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.
Investments in basic research and the people who can make great discoveries with new ideas will help drive our technological innovation and global competitiveness. STEM jobs are the jobs of the future, and they are essential to growth in America.
And if you’re still not convinced that STEM matters, check out this piece in TechCrunch:
In a similar vein, many of the companies in Silicon Valley are succeeding precisely because they’re disrupting existing players in their industries. Amazon is doing really well right now (almost $10 billion in revenue in the last quarter alone). Borders…not so much. Go iTunes and Spotify. RIP Tower Records. Creative destruction is alive and well but how many people in Silicon Valley are thinking about what happens to that displaced worker at the record store or bookstore?