Thursday, September 3, 2015

Civic Hacking To Help Those In Need

The concept of civic hacking to help those in need has been mentioned in several posts on this blog, but this is the first post focused on that topic.

For the most part, civic hackers tend not to be from the segments of society who would be considered “in need.” In many cases that’s because the people in need are too busy dealing with their problems to consider being civic hackers. Because people tend to focus on what they know and on what’s important to them, there may be too little focus on civic hacks that would most improve people’s lives.

Examples of helping those in need from one of my earlier blog posts are Food Pantry Helper and Snapmap, two winning civic hacks from the 2015 AT&T Tech Valley Civic App Challenge.
Aimed to connect and engage citizens with government and demonstrate how mobile technologies can lead to the next generation of tech jobs and investment, the 2015 AT&T Tech Valley Civic App Challenge was a partnership between AT&T and area universities, businesses and technology organizations...The grand prize of $10,000 went to Food Pantry Helper...This mobile web app assists non-for-profit food pantries in managing their operations more efficiently and cost effectively to better serve the community’s most needy. It includes services such as client, inventory, grant, volunteer and donor tracking. In addition, the app reduces the need for paper, provides real-time data and reporting to management and compliance oversight entities, and provides an overall structure for a food pantry operation...The third place prize was presented to Snapmap...a mobile web app that helps New York state families get the most out of their SNAP benefits, the USDA’s supplemental nutrition assistance program designed to ensure that all Americans, regardless of income level, can purchase and consume healthy food on a regular basis...”
A starting point for NE Wisconsin civic hackers to make a big impact on someone’s life by helping those in need is to consider what those needs might be. I’m an engineer, not a social worker, so I probably left a few important needs off the list below, but I’ll update this list with other needs as people point them out to me.

  • Health and dental care
  • Hunger and poor nutrition
  • Homelessness
  • Unemployment
  • Domestic abuse and neglect, including child care services
  • Disaster victims
  • Suicide prevention
  • Depression
  • Addictions
  • Mental illness
  • Prison -- legal aid, children of inmates, etc
  • Physical handicaps
  • Legal assistance
  • Landlord problems
  • Transportation
  • Internet access and computer access
  • Digital divide issues
  • Learning disabilities and struggling students
  • Getting a GED (general educational development), aka high school equivalency diploma
  • Discrimination

To get an understanding of some of the civic hacking being done on this topic, check out the “Safety and Justice Primer” post from Code for America. It takes a brief look at civic hacking in the areas of criminal justice, public safety and reform efforts. Another good read for legal needs is “Notes from Hackcess to Justice 2014.” For a couple hunger-related items, read “Announcing the Food Data Jam!”, “Code for Boston launches Pantry Pickup site,” or the Western Massachusetts “Food Finder.”

Everybody who works on a civic hack project has their own reasons for choosing which issues are worth putting their time and energy into. As someone told me recently, “it’s hard to say what motivates people.” Two good ways to choose a need category to work on are (1) figure out which need has the most potential for civic hacker impact or (2) select the need which you are familiar with and have a strong personal reason to address the need.

Most Potential Civic Hacker Impact

My guess is that to identify which need can most be impacted by civic hackers, we ought to have some city, county, and maybe state employees involved in our discussions about Helping Hacks. Some of the people who are already participating in civic hacking events in NE Wisconsin might know a lot about which needs are greatest in our region, but I’d just be guessing if I tried to say where we can best apply our time and knowledge.

The social service providers in our area should have statistics about what the most pressing needs are. They can also tell us what programs are currently addressing those needs. My personal approach to new projects is to not replicate something that’s already being done, especially for a topic about which others are much more knowledgeable than I am. For example, when looking at the issue of hunger, rather than trying to launch a new food pantry, I’d try to find a way to help make the existing pantries more effective (which is what Food Pantry Helper seems designed to do).

If you know social service providers or social agency directors, invite them to the next civic hacking meetup. We could have a great discussion about what they see as the biggest problems and where they think we could contribute to current efforts in the community.

Personal Desire To Address Need

Some civic hackers will choose to work on Random Hacks of Kindness for personal reasons such as having experienced that need themselves in the past, having a relative or close friend who is or was experiencing that need, or having personally seen the impact of that need on people in their community. Or they might want to help those in need because they (a) are trying to live what their religion teaches, (b) have had others help them and they want to pay it forward, (c) have had a good life and want to give back to the community or (d) just want to make the world a better place.

In addition to the Food Pantry Helper and Snapmap hacks mentioned above, what other people-in-need civic hacks have already been worked on? If you’re aware of any, please send me links to those hacks at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com.

Regardless of whatever got you first involved with civic hacking, consider working on a project that helps those in need in NE Wisconsin.


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