This past January, the digital agency Valtech collaborated with Contentful, Create Lab Ventures, Henry Street Settlement, Hackathon Mentors and Asterisk Events to host a hackathon as part of an initiative that seeks to expose underserved communities to upcoming technologies.
This virtual event focused on community outreach through training, mentorship and hackathon-style social impact challenges. All 75 attendees represented a wide range of backgrounds and experience levels — from professional, highly trained developers to novice hackers eager to learn.
Tech companies need to do their part to support all communities
Tech companies often build and sell luxury items or solve minor inconveniences experienced by people in the middle and upper classes. Tech companies rarely turn their resources toward easing social and economic disparities.
But if we can use technology to deliver nonessential items to doorsteps in hours, why can’t we direct innovation efforts to redistribute food to the food insecure? If we can watch a master chef’s cooking class on our cell phone, why can’t we help increase computer literacy? The wealth gap between high-earning individuals and the rest of the population has continued to expand, taking us back to the nineteenth century. But what if we used technology to progress society instead of moving it backward?
A hackathon for social progress
This hackathon offered people, organizations and companies a place to start. It was a way of planting a seed of tech innovation that supported social progress instead of individual economic gain.
The non-profit organization Henry Street Settlement creates opportunities for those in the Lower East Side of Manhattan at an economic or social disadvantage. The organization identified problems faced by the community that a hackathon could help alleviate, such as food insecurity, navigating social services and bridging the digital divide among older adults. Attendees formed teams that tried to develop some solutions.
Teams had 72 hours to build a viable solution to their problem. Participants were supported throughout the challenge with workshops to build Contentful technical knowledge and with members of Hackathon Mentors at their disposal. Winners of the event received an upgrade to their home workstations, such as new monitors and speakers.
The event successfully fostered creative solutions to social challenges and exposed underserved communities to new technologies. Solutions such as Henry Street Settlement Service Center were specifically designed for ease of access and consistency across various platforms. This cyber senior center addressed the ways that seniors use technology in order to provide them with an easy way to access resources and find services without relying on a hotline.
Another solution, Henry's Table, is a food distribution app. It doesn’t simply help people locate food pantries. It lets community members create shopping lists, locate where to get those specific items and helps them keep track of their food so they know when to reach out for various services. It also connects the community with restaurants donating meals so that they have a different meal experience altogether. It's meant to be a tool to really enhance community members' quality of life.
EthniCity was also a thoughtful solution developed at the hackathon. It’s a platform to help community members develop their own personal brands within the site and use resumes, AI and machine learning to create a robust search feature so potential employers can easily search for qualified employees with diverse backgrounds.
The event also enabled attendees to learn valuable skills from industry experts, expand their network and build their professional portfolios — all for the greater good of the community.
It was exciting to learn about such innovative tech, really dive deep and think about how they could be used to create a positive social impact. Not only were we able to get hands-on experience with the software, the environment was so inviting for personal connections with experts and fellow attendees. We went on this collective journey, most of us hacking for the first time. We left with a massive network and portfolio projects to be proud of. Being able to experience this event alongside such a diverse group with so many women of color was so empowering. -Melissa Mel, hackathon participant
We consistently witness the lack of diversity in tech. Not only do we need to restructure companies to learn from and be able to welcome people from underrepresented backgrounds, we need ideas that change the trajectory of underserved communities.
In collectively sponsoring this event, we aimed to amplify the voices of those who are ignored by the industry and provide them with the opportunity to exercise innovative thinking for the greater good of the community. Valtech, alongside Contentful, is grateful to our partnering teams for making this happen. We can’t wait for next year!