Champions of Change Blog
- Posted byon August 14, 2013 at 4:32 PM EST
Christopher Whitaker is being honored as a Champion of Change for applying his tech skills for civic good.
In early 2009, I joined the Illinois Department of Employment Security as a program representative at a field office in Chicago. The bottom had dropped out in the economy and our office was packed to the brim with people who - through no fault of their own - had been laid off from their jobs.
So, on my first day of work I showed up, went to my desk, and booted up a system that was built in 1973. It was a DOS-based system that didn’t process anything that I entered in until evening. In order to learn if what you did the previous day worked, you had to go line by line through a report that printed out on a ream of paper every morning. Given the vast scope of the economic crisis and its impact on everyday residents, I was expecting to have the tools needed to help unemployed residents.
There’s a glaring gap in technology between the private and civic sectors. This is exceedingly frustrating as government and community non-profit organizations are tasked with solving big problems that affect residents on a daily basis. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a movement to help fix these problems in my role as both the Code for America Brigade Captain for Chicago and as a project manager for the Smart Chicago Collaborative.
There is a lot of work being done in Chicago to advance civic innovation. When Mayor Emanuel came into office in 2011, he hired John Tolva and Brett Goldstein to help release city data and to advance the city’s digital infrastructure. With the wealth of data now being released by the city, civic technologists are able to turn this data into civic apps like Schoolcuts.org, Chicago Councilmatic, and Clearstreets. Many of these apps are built at the weekly OpenGov Hack Nights hosted every Tuesday night by Derek Eder and Juan Pablo-Valez inside Chicago’s 1871 coworking space. Tom Schenk Jr, Director of Analytics at the City of Chicago, is a constant presence at the hack nights, helping civic developers with questions they have about city data. In the past few years, we’ve made tremendous progress at using open data to help our communities.. We’re taking the lessons that we’ve learned during these hack nights and spreading them to other cities through the Code for America Brigade program.
At Smart Chicago Collaborative, we’re accelerating this effort by collaborating with civic developers, government departments, and community organizations to produce more complex civic apps that will have a larger impact. The Smart Chicago Collaborative works to use the transformative power of technology to spur civic innovation in Chicago. These efforts include supporting apps like Foodborne Chicago, which listens to Twitter for cases of food poisoning in Chicago. We use those interactions to then submit a 311 request to the Chicago Health Department so that restaurant gets inspected - resulting in a healthier Chicago. We’re also testing these apps through our Civic User Testing group. The Civic User Testing Group has recruited testers all over the city to help ensure the civic apps developed here are both user-friendly and actually solving problems.
Civic problems are complex in nature. Given the drastic cuts to social services in the last few years, it will take more than a few cool apps to help solve these issues. However, by fostering collaborative partnerships between technologists and the civic sector, we can make a big impact in our communities.
Christopher Whitaker is a Project Management Consultant at the Smart Chicago Collaborative
- Posted byon August 14, 2013 at 4:06 PM EST
Steve Spiker is being honored as a Champion of Change for applying his tech skills for civic good.
I’m an immigrant. I may not look like it, but I came to the USA for love and I’ve grown to seriously love this country in spite of its flaws. I’ve been blessed to work for a social justice organization (Urban Strategies Council) in Oakland, California, and have loved serving the city and its residents. I’ve devoted myself to helping make data-driven decisions a reality but have realized the parallel need for more civic engagement on behalf of our city and our residents. I’m also a tech geek and have benefited from proximity to the amazing people of the Bay Area tech community.
Despite all the great efforts of many community-based organizations and government agencies, we haven’t made much of a dent in poverty and inequity in the Bay Area. My reaction to this failure is that we must do things differently and do them better if we want to see social change. A big piece of this change is that our cities must become more open, more engaged, and more agile. At the core of so much failure is the way we strategically use (or don’t use) data and technology in local government.
Being part of the civic innovation community has been an amazing and humbling experience. It has taught me that there are always others with ideas as good, or better, than my own. The diverse members of OpenOakland, our volunteer organization that I co-founded with Eddie Tejeda in 2012, represent a broad group of technologists, activists, researchers, designers, and residents who believe that our city can and must be better. We’re working to build better interfaces to government that make interaction with government simple and painless. We’re leading the way with effective public-private partnerships and with collaborations that gently move our government to a more accessible, more agile, future.
Great work has been done in other cities to make governments more open and effective and I’ve shamelessly sought to bring those great practices home to Oakland. I’m not the most creative person in the world. I’ve been called an innovator but really I just find great solutions that others have invented and apply them to our local problems. This is the heart of civic hacking for me: building new solutions and processes to replace broken ones, sharing our lessons and our successes and allowing others to benefit from our knowledge, failures, and shared technology. The way open-source technology is created lends itself incredibly well to the way we recreate our cities — openly, collaboratively, and for the good of all.
Through OpenOakland we’ve begun work reshaping civic engagement through our CityCamp Oakland and supported civic hacking efforts with our Open Data Day and Code for Oakland Hackathons. More recently we held an incredible collaborative event called ReWrite Oakland as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking where over 70 people worked together to build something new and creative for our city. In one day our community and the city together built a system called Oakland Answers- a new way of helping residents find the information they want. The system, built on open source technology first developed in Honolulu, gives people a Google style search interface that helps them find simply written content fast and painlessly.
I’m proud to be part of the Code For America family and to have such a strong network of leaders and doers across the country who are working to transform government to be truly by the people, for the people. We need to restore trust in government and respect for public service — to create a strong platform on which to build our future. I think we’re slowly moving the needle on this in Oakland.
Steve Spiker is the Director of Research & Technology at the Urban Strategies Council
- Posted byon August 14, 2013 at 3:40 PM EST
Scott Phillips is being honored as a Champion of Change for applying his tech skills for civic good.
Leading up to the National Day of Civic Hacking (NDoCH), the Code for Tulsa team worked hard to produce an amazing event. Twelve days before our event, a massive EF-5 Tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma leaving a trail of destruction over a mile wide and 17 miles long. In the wake of the disaster, we struggled with an appropriate response and even considered cancelling our event. Our concern turned to opportunity when Open FEMA contacted us and offered their resources. We realized we could build something at our hackathon that could help in future disasters. With this project we could honor those impacted by the tragedy and turn our sorrow into action.
Subsequent brain storming led me to the orange spray paint X’s that were used to identify searched buildings after a disaster. I remembered seeing the process repeated each time our country had a disaster and thinking how inefficient it was and how easily technology could improve this process. Code for Tulsa had developed a map project for the Tulsa Fire Department and I knew we could build something that could help in a disaster.
Based on this idea, we worked with Open FEMA, the Oklahoma All Hazard Incident Management Team, and Oklahoma Task Force 1, our state-run Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) Task Force, to develop a basic design spec that came together the morning of our hackathon. Both the Oklahoma Incident Management Team and Oklahoma Task Force 1 had just returned from their deployment to Moore, so they brought incredible real world perspective.
Shortly after our hackathon, Open FEMA also connected us with an NDoCH team in Rockaway Beach, NY that was working on disaster response challenges from Hurricane Sandy. As soon as we saw the incredible overlap in our visions both teams decided to collaborate
The Open Search & Rescue Map Project we subsequently built is an HTML5 mobile web app for use by First Responders and US&R personnel during all phases of a major disaster response. Its primary use is to augment the orange spray paint X’s with virtual X’s on geo-located maps that can be viewed on smart phones, tablets and other devices. The app allows search personnel to use any mobile device to virtually X the start of a search, the end of a search, and to document victim findings, hazardous conditions found, and building condition. The app also has advanced map layering features that allow search teams to turn on or off layers that include geo-located post disaster aerial imagery, previous search findings, and locations of other teams and search & rescue assets. The project also allows commanders at the Base of Operations (BOO) to track all of the US&R teams in the field simultaneously giving them real time map based situational awareness in addition to real time search progress monitoring. In aggregate all of the features allow US&R teams to deploy faster, and search more efficiently saving precious time and potentially even lives.
As inspiring as this project sounds, the real take away is how well it illustrates the story of Civic Hacking and hints at its true potential. Over the period of a few days a Federal agency was able to connect with a group of civic minded volunteers who then connected with two different state organizations and ultimately, a team half way across the country. The resulting collaboration led to a tool that actually has the potential to save lives.
Pivotal to that success was a culture of people feeling they had enough ownership to inspire meaningful action. Government in America can feel so large and distant that people often do not feel that they can make a difference. The Civic Hacking movement not only shows people that they can, it actually lets them.
The ultimate potential for this is seen when we extrapolate this story to all facets of government. The easiest way to consider this is to view it in three steps; give citizens transparency, give citizens a voice, then give citizens ownership. I can only imagine the possibilities.
Scott Phillips is the Co-Founder and CEO of Isocentric Networks
- Posted byon August 14, 2013 at 3:19 PM EST
George Luc is being honored as a Champion of Change for applying his tech skills for civic good.
I believe that if you show people the problems and you show them the solutions they will be moved to act. - Bill Gates
Eleven months ago I set out to build a platform that would encourage everyone in the world to volunteer. Together with my co-founder, James McGirr, we created GivePulse, a social network that matches people in our community with causes they care about while enabling easy organization, management and mobilization of volunteers and supporters. From day one our mission has been to solve tough social problems through the use of technology. Keeping true to our mission, today our civic engagement platform supports hundreds of causes and universities such as the University of Texas at Austin and St. Edwards University.
Through our partnership with St. Edwards University, I was introduced to David Waldron, VP of IT at St. Edwards University, and Claire Dunn, Coordinator of IT Communications. Our discussions led to many collaborative opportunities that sought to improve the Austin community. One prominent opportunity ignited our excitement, a civic hackathon hosted by St. Edwards University to enable local technologists to hack for Austin causes.
The National Day of Civic Hacking provides the ideal atmosphere for connecting people with technological needs (for nonprofits and for social good) with programmers and hackers that can provide solutions. At the ATX Hackathon for Change 2013 a passionate social activist explained his problem and inspired us to act.
To kick off the event, representatives from local groups and causes started pitching their technical challenges. Hackers, social entrepreneurs, volunteers, supporters, reporters -- everyone was there. On one of the last pitches, James and I looked at each other and we knew we had found our match. The person pitching was Randy Rosens, founder of Keep Austin Fed. He gave a compelling and passionate 60-second pitch about ending hunger and food waste. Randy explained how he wanted a better online calendar for scheduling volunteers to rescue fresh healthy food and deliver it to specific charities. However, it immediately occurred to us that it wasn’t just a calendar that would solve the problem, it had to be a simple way for food donors to contact volunteers to rescue food before it was thrown away and wasted.
After learning more about Keep Austin Fed’s needs we realized that what he had proposed as the hack was only a small piece of the whole solution. It was time to bring his organization into the 21st century.
The ideal solution required a number of moving parts. We would need to create a website for Keep Austin Fed, a texting service for restaurants to communicate with volunteers, and a backend reporting system for Keep Austin Fed to manage and keep track of all of the transactions, volunteers and donations.
During the two day event we built and designed the website (hosted by Rackspace, one of the event sponsors) enabling food donors, such as restaurants and bakeries, recipients, such as shelters and charities, and volunteers to join a Mobile Texting Food Rescue Service that we built using Twilio (another of the event sponsors). The way our solution works is that after food donors are approved, they are given a unique donor code and are told to text a phone number with their code, followed with a brief description of the food they need rescued. Keep Austin Fed then mobilizes available volunteers to deliver the meals to those in hunger. All the data about donors, volunteers, recipients, and the communication of how much food is rescued, where it was delivered, and who delivered it, is tracked automatically with the integrations between the website, Twilio and the backend system (SugarCRM).
After spending countless hours coding and drinking coffee interspersed with energy drinks you would think that our mental and emotional state would have begun to decline. That just wasn’t the case. As we saw our efforts and hard work begin to coalesce into a fully functional solution for Keep Austin Fed, our energy levels and excitement continued to grow. As a matter of fact, during the hackathon Keep Austin Fed and the service we created was able to help rescue over 500 meals to provide hunger relief for hundreds of Austinites in those two days alone.
As we reflect upon the hackathon, our mission to promote works of social good through technology was fulfilled. Every week, we directly and indirectly feed hundreds of hungry Austinites and save tons of food from the dumpster. If two hackers are able to make such an impact in just 48 hours, think how powerful it could be with an army of hackers!
Thank you, White House, for making this possible. Thank you, St. Edwards University, for bringing the National Day of Civic Hacking to Austin. Thank you, Randy and the Keep Austin Fed family, for believing in us. And thank you, Austin, for providing a home and platform to end hunger and food waste here in the Lone Star State and beyond.
The Civic Hackathon is over. But to end hunger, food waste and empower social good at a massive scale, our hacking must continue. Hack On!
George Luc is the Co-Founder and CEO of GivePulse
- Posted byon August 14, 2013 at 3:04 PM EST
Craig Michael Lie Njie is being honored as a Champion of Change for applying his tech skills for civic good.
It is an incredible honor to be recognized as a White House Champion of Change. I hope that my story inspires others to work to solve the world's hard problems through sustainable technology solutions.
I believe deeply in the idea that technology, even basic technology, can be built and deployed to help with some of the most pressing needs of the developing world. I also believe that for those like myself that have been given incredible opportunities, we also have deep responsibilities to give back to lose less fortunate whenever and wherever possible -- to constantly strive to leave the world a better place than we found it.
However, technology solutions alone are not enough -- those solutions must also be long-term sustainable.
I was given the name Lie Njie as an honorarium for my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in The Gambia, West Africa, from 2005-2008. When I arrived, those seeking advanced technology education had no options other than to leave the country. Most of those who were lucky enough to leave never came back, a terrible example of "Brain Drain". So I designed, deployed, and taught the first two years of The Gambia's first Bachelor's in Computer Science at the University of The Gambia (UTG).
The success story isn't about my initial efforts -- the real success is that, eight years later, the Bachelor's in CS program is still sustainable—a direct result of the work of The Gambians who took ownership of the program. I was merely the initial catalyst.
It was in The Gambia when I met Amran Gaye -- one of the smartest people I've ever known. He is a brilliant high school graduate who had taught himself programming, networking, and system administration over a brutally slow internet connection. He remains my daily reminder that intelligence and ability are born everywhere, the only geographic differences are in the opportunities available.
I began mentoring Amran and appointed him as the first Teaching Assistant for my new BS in CS major. Amran leveraged that experience to win a CS scholarship to the University of Maryland.
In May of 2013, I told Amran about the Peace Corps Innovation Challenge, and the June 1-2 National Day of Civic Hacking. Amran eagerly offered to help with the hackathon as a way to give back to the Peace Corps, and help solve a problem endemic to developing countries worldwide, including The Gambia, his homeland. We chose a Peace Corps Innovation Challenge posted by Aimee, a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa. We call it MedLink.
MedLink is more than just a good innovation challenge: Amran's sister, Jatou, is currently a nurse in a rural area in Gambia who struggles daily with medical inventory control and distribution of supplies and services to the people who need them. Because delivery of medicines to health centers are irregular and unpredictable, people in need currently have to travel daily for many hours just to check if the medicines they need have arrived. Often they are told to come back the next day, or to try another health center that might be hours or days travel away. This puts those in need at risk when they are unable to get the urgent medical supplies they need, when they need them.
Amran and I linked up with Daniel, Nancy, Suri, and Mikhail at the San Francisco hackathon, where we designed the initial architecture for MedLink, a tool for those in need of medical supplies in rural areas of developing countries, saving time, money, and travel distance - in some cases literally saving lives. MedLink's SMS, Web, and Email tools enable those in need who have nothing more than a simple cellphone to make requests for what they need. SMS -- Simple Messaging Service -- is available on nearly every cellphone in the developing world. In the developing world, SMS-enabled cellphones are nearly everywhere: some developing countries have more active SMS-enabled cellphones than people!
After the San Francisco hackathon, Amran then recruited Latirr, Serign, Rachel, Ala, and Fatou to help further develop MedLink during the June 18-19 Random Hacks of Kindness hackathon event in The Gambia. It was this follow-on step that was the key to MedLink's sustainability: this became more than just a weekend hackathon project, this was now the start of a long-term project from a team of volunteers world-wide to help to connect medical supplies and services to those in need.
We've built the initial version of MedLink with a constant eye towards sustainability and extensibility, and will begin testing in The Gambia and South Africa. However, the real success will come only if we make the system long-term sustainable. This will require more than just technology development skills.
MedLink's success is not my own, it's the combination of efforts from Amran and the rest of the team. My success was in inspiring them to help with the project and in keeping the energy levels up and the focus sharp. The team's success is that the system is built with extensibility in mind, with a world-wide focus, and a strong drive for sustainability built in from the start.
Craig Michael Lie Njie is founder and CEO of Kismet World Wide Consulting
- Posted byon August 14, 2013 at 2:05 PM EST
Travis Laurendine is being honored as a Champion of Change for applying his tech skills for civic good.
We used the platform of the National Day of Civic Hacking to try and put a dent in one of New Orleans’ most important problems: a high murder rate. For my entire life, I have always lived around this problem, but it never came closer to me than on Mother's Day when nearly 20 innocent people were shot at a parade. It happened on my street and my father and I nearly stopped off at the parade on the way to my Mom's celebration. I could have been there... and many of my friends actually were! The next day I walked down the street to the gathering the Mayor had arranged. Talking with the mayor (and Idea Village CEO Tim Williamson) spurred the idea of an anti-murder hackathon. The National Day of Civic Hacking seemed like the perfect opportunity.
I've had a great deal of success with hackathons in New Orleans. They were so successful that local people basically thought I invented the concept (obviously not the case!). However, when I launched the Hack the Murder Rate campaign, I was met with quite a bit of online resistance—people who were somehow against the idea (or name) of “Hacking” the Murder Rate. These people took to twitter to slam the idea and they surely decreased the turnout for the hackathon. One went so far as to make a parody website. Initially, I was angry about this but I was reminded of Ghandi's quote "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
Well, we went ahead and made an app and now, with going to the White House, I can't help but feel like a winner.
The story of the app is that I sought out people on the front lines of the murder problem to see what they did to combat this problem and to protect their loved ones. Thanks to my career in hip hop concert productions, I have a good deal of rapper friends who live on the front lines. One of them, Skip, told me a story about a "beef" that he "squashed" just a week prior. The key element to this peaceful resolution was that he was the person who was trusted by BOTH people in the conflict, and seen as an “OG” (“original gangster”) in the community. He realized that he was the only person in a position to mediate the conflict and so he did it himself. What I realized was that we could design a system that used information technology to scale this process. This, coupled with the fact that nearly 60% of murders with known causes stem from prior conflicts, meant that if we could scale up the mediation happening in the city, we really could hack the murder rate.
At the event (hosted by the lovely Willow of Geeks without Bounds) we amassed an all-star team. George Mauer and Justen Martin helmed the programming, Bill Brown and Julie Green did the design, and Wade Kodrin (Army conflict veteran in the Afghan and Iraq Wars) and Michelle Calabro helped visualize the data and define our "customer" flow. Tyronne Walker from NOLA 4 Life came by to help make sure we were working in the right direction and then he invited us to their midnight basketball tournament to get our first users and get their feedback.
The first part of the app is anonymous "beef" reporting. This is the web compliment to the anonymous phone beef reporting service that already exists. We ask for certain identifiers such as name, neighborhood, and Twitter or Facebook profile name. We then match that information against the combined network of all of the OG's that we register in the city. This can be rappers, business owners, preachers, or others respected in the community. When a "beef" is submitted we then search to find a matching OG who has that person in their network. From that point we will work with NOLA 4 Life to help mediate the conflict and bring it to a peaceful resolution.
The app still has a long way to go, but our mission to create the initial prototype in a weekend was fulfilled and hopefully this White House honor will help us get the funding needed to bring a more complete version out to the world.
Travis Laurendine is the founder and CEO of LA Labs.
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