Hacking for Good: Coders and Community Workers Unite in San Francisco

The tech sector faces a Big Pharma kind of problem. Drug-makers have plenty of incentive to cure first-world ailments because those customers can pay big bucks for even non-vital drugs—Viagra being the classic example—but there’s scant profit in ending diseases that only affect the poor, like polio. Technology is the same way, but a group of Bay Area optimists believe goodwill and pro bono work can bridge the incentive gap.

Lillian Mark is one of those optimists. She is the operations manager at Glide, a community group with a half-century of experience helping the homeless and working class in San Francisco. Mark knows her clients and what they’ll use in terms of technology, but she doesn’t have the chance to work closely with the technology community, even though the sectors’ leading lights are headquartered in her backyard.

Now, though, there’s plan to tap a San Francisco’s tech talent for social good. The project is called Creative Currency, and it starts with a hackathon-style brainstorming event at the end of April. It takes the (unfortunately) unusual step of including community workers and non-tech social service experts on teams with the coders, designers, and business plan gurus. The teams will pick several community-level problems to solve for the residents of the Central Market District, which has one of the highest rates of poverty in the Bay Area—31 percent of the 39,000 residents earn less than $15,000 per year, and only 54 percent are employed.

A smartphone app isn’t going to solve homelessness, but maybe the hotshots who build apps can drum up something to help Glide’s clients. First, the techies must work with Mark and her peers to begin to understand how a homeless person might benefit from a mobile phone app—or, more likely, from a database management system for shelters that more efficiently tracks available beds each night.

Marks has brainstormed about creating digital signs for homeless people (who often wait hours to find out if they will get a bed) to see real-time information on the probability they’ll be served today, so they can spend less time on line and more in a job training class. “We have the idea, we need the resources, we need the technology to implement it,” Mark says.

“For everyone, it’s a bit of experiment,” says Cory Smith, CEO of the Hub Bay Area, an incubator and coworking space for social enterprises. The Hub is facilitating the collaboration along with 20 community groups, the City of San Francisco’s Office of Innovation, the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, and American Express.

Smith’s organization can offer the skills of more than 1,000 social entrepreneurs with some serious tech chops business chops. Smith sensed they wanted a way to put that talent to use locally, “to work on projects that benefit society.” So they teamed up with GAFFTA, a techie group experienced in running hackathons, to come up with a plan to take a tech startup approach to local problems for the poor.

The idea is to tap all the new tools out of the tech community—like crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, user-centered design, data mining and so forth—on behalf of community groups that lack the time or resources to iterate and experiment like a startup. Creative Currency will take the hackathon model and follows it six or nine months down the road. Teams will show off their progress at a demo day “several months” from now, and the best projects will share $15,000 in seed money in October.

The risk of flopping in this type of front-loaded project arises if the talent quits midway through. Entrepreneurs get busy, especially if their real companies start taking off. Staff at the Hub and GAFFTA say they’re staying involved after the hackathon to support the teams, and if necessary, to replace team members who drop out with someone else from the social enterprise community.

The organizers are particularly excited about the potential for mobile money projects, which have seen success in the developing world but haven’t made it in the U.S. American Express is offering access to its new mobile wallet system, Serve, which lets a users who lack credit cards swipe through transactions and take advantage of most of the benefits of traditional bank account, hopefully gaining access to the financial services that could put them back on their feet in the process. “We believe these new services enabled by digital platforms actually can open up tremendous opportunity for different income levels,” says Dan Schulman, Amex’s group president of enterprise growth.

As the teams move from brainstorming to idea to creating actual products for the poor, it remains to be seen whether the hackathon can evolve into something with consistent follow-through instead of a nerd party for tech startup junkies. For now, the people involved in Creative Currency are happy just to be talking to each other, especially the community groups.

“[It’s] a huge mobilization of a lot of great minds and great hearts,” says Lilian Mark of Glide. “Being a part of that conversation is very valuable.”

GOOD: Hacking for Good: Coders and Community Workers Unite in San Francisco