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At Code Switch, Techies Tackle Social Justice

 

If you’re going to solve the biggest problems facing the state, you’re going to need some computer help.

That’s the vision behind Code Switch, a two-day hackathon where people use data and technology to create projects aimed at addressing inequity in Minnesota. Hundreds gathered in the second floor of the Union Depot in St. Paul for the first day of the event Saturday.

Some were computer-savvy coders. Others were community organizers or concerned citizens. Together they pitched dozens of ideas and worked all day to make them a reality.

“We have so many different apps that make our lives convenient,” said Sharon Kennedy Vickers, an organizer and founder of Blacks In Technology MSP, a support group for people of color in the tech field. But Code Switch, she said, is a way of “taking tech and using it to disrupt inequality.”

Organizers were also conscious of bringing all kinds of people together, said Casey Helbling, a co-organizer and founder of tech company Software for Good.

“Some of these problems can only be solved by making inclusive spaces,” Helbling said. “As a cisgendered white guy, I don’t have all the experiences the rest of these folks have, so for me to try to create a solution makes no sense.”

Code Switch coincides with the National Day of Civic Hacking, which unites a number of civic-minded hackathons taking place across the country this weekend. About 275 people registered to participate this year, more than double last year’s inaugural event, Kennedy Vickers said.

Participants were asked to come up with ideas related to five topic areas: civic engagement, economic opportunity, health and wellness, public safety, and immigrants and refugees. They then split up into groups to brainstorm. Using white paper and laptops, the groups developed apps or websites that would bring their ideas to life.

At the beginning of the day, a panel featuring speakers from NorthPoint Health Wellness, the Metropolitan Council, the University of Minnesota and more shared insight into problems that could benefit from tech-based solutions.

“You get to hear from people that are passionate about social justice and civil tech,” said Jenessa White, a 25-year-old front-end developer for Software for Good. “I would not have had an idea if not for the panel.”

White heard NAACP Minneapolis President Jason Sole speak on a panel about the issues facing former convicts when they register to vote.

She decided to pitch an idea: What if there was a website available for people to check if they are eligible to vote, even if they were charged or convicted of a crime?

Her team got to work. By 3 p.m., they had registered a domain — www.canivoteif.com — where they would continue to tinker with White’s idea. “[We’re] trying to help just a little bit,” she said. “If a simple survey … can handle problems, we could get more people to vote.”

Her group is expected to present their minimum viable product, or MVP, on Sunday.

“Ideally, it will be really beautiful,” she said.

 

 

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