May 04, 2012

Unhackathon #2: A Good Place to Start

Gabe Wasserman's picture
Gabe Wasserman
Senior User Experience Designer

Our latest foray into brainstorming ways to save our city can be summed up in three concepts: Reclaim Blight, Bring it to The People, and Keep it Simple.

Two weeks ago, I spent 24 epic hours with four fellow Hotties, grappling with serious societal ills at California College of the Arts' (CCA) second Unhackathon, The Equality Challenge. (You can read about the first Unhackathon, for which Hot also suited up.) Again, the focus was on improving San Francisco, but this time there were two challenges: how to help spread small business growth through San Francisco, and how to offer the city’s poorest residents better access to education, economic opportunity, and social services.

First, the good news. Two Hottie-infused teams won the challenge and will be presenting their solution directly to City 2.0 TED Prize judges for a chance to win real bank to implement their idea! (Stay tuned for news of future glory.)

Additionally, we learned a huge amount in the process, and left the Unhackathon with a sense that designers, along with technologists and business people, can together make a difference.

The Call to Action

The organizers of the Unhackathon were deeply moved and inspired by a talk recently given at TED by Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson, a lawyer, defends minors—mostly poor and African American—on death row and sheds light on deep systemic injustice. Stevenson goes to some very dark places in this work and told his audience they should not shy away from these zones. So much at TED is about innovation, technology, forward-looking hopefulness—and these are good things. But, as Stevenson put it: “There is no disconnect around technology and design that will allow us to be fully human until we also pay attention to suffering.”

This resonates for a good many in the design community and certainly for many of us at Hot. We are not comfortable with the idea of using our talents and energies and limited time to uncritically design and develop products just because someone waves a big wad of money at us, and we actively seek out socially meaningful and impactful projects.

Having said that, if you want to tackle, head-on, issues as deep as poverty and injustice. Where do you start? Unhackathon #2 was not a bad place to begin answering this question.

The Problem

Hot's Josh Damon Williams listening to the Unhackathon panel: (left to right) Brian Cheu, SF Mayor's Office; Tatiana Bertsch, Equal Justice Initiative; Chris Roach, Faculty, CCA; Regina Dick-Endrizzi, SF Office of Small Business; John Petersen, Public Architecture

The Unhackathon was kicked off by a panel that included San Francisco City Services officials, CCA designers/architects involved in affordable housing organizations, and an emissary from the Equal Justice Initiative.

They underlined the lack of access to even the most basic necessities for poor residents of San Francisco (and, yes, these problems are hardly unique to San Francisco). How, for example, there are no grocery stores anywhere near some of the poorer neighborhoods and how difficult it is for some to get fresh produce, which leads to poor nutrition and a host of issues including higher healthcare expenditures.

Also, generally speaking, poorer residents’ (including many small business owners) lives are more unstable (no steady childcare, no health insurance, unsteady income, no car, far from public transport and so forth) making it more difficult for them to do the things some of us take for granted: plan a day, make an appointment at a specific time, navigate bureaucracies.

There’s a silver lining: despite recession-era cutbacks, there are still plenty of services, some funded by the City of San Francisco, others by nonprofits. The difficulty is in connecting this patchwork of services to the poorer residents or to struggling small businesses.

A Communication Problem?

And... lightbulb on! The City and funded organizations have a clear problem: they are desperate to get information to targeted recipients. They have a communication problem, and communication problems are designers’ bread and butter. What’s more, this problem is happening in familiar territory—our very own backyard, San Francisco.

These communication problems are interesting and varied: How to visualize data sets to get help where it is most needed; how to update affordable housing availability in real time; how to let non-native-English-speaking shop owners know that they may be eligible for loans from the city; how to bring social services into neighborhoods... and the list goes on.

Connecting The Dots

Denise Brosseau and Ben Rosenthal sweating the details

On the second day we focused on coming up with actual solutions. A number of criteria had to be met, including that the solution had to have some form of a self-sustaining financial model. Without describing each solution in detail (more to come after we present them to the City 2.0 Ted Prize competition), I'll highlight some of the areas of focus and some of the bigger realizations that came out of these solutions.

Solution #1: Reclaim Blighted Properties

Owners of vacant, dilapidated properties in troubled socioeconomic areas have difficulty renting and renovating spaces, which in turn is deterring traffic to those neighborhoods as well as perpetuating the blighted/forgotten look.

The proposed solution addresses the following:

  • How do you rally the community around these spaces to renew and restore them?
  • How do you energize the community to become engaged in their neighborhood?
  • How do you use this process as an opportunity to bring education and hands-on experience to young residents of targeted neighborhoods throughout the process?
  • How do you make a self-sustaining pop-up process that could be transplanted to any neighborhood across the U.S.?
  • How do you leave a space, a community, a neighborhood better than you found it?

The bigger idea: Connect two problems (in this case blight and unemployment) to create one positive solution. Directly involve residents in changing their neighborhoods.

Solution #2: Bring Comprehensive Services to the People

The people who most need services either don’t know these services exist, or have trouble getting around and making it to appointments.

The proposed solution addresses the following:

  • What’s the most effective way to bring services to these people?
  • How do you make the most effective use of time for both the social services folks and the people in need?
  • How do you connect social services agencies to each other to insure good coverage and avoid overlap?
  • How do you keep costs down?
  • How do you make a visit from city agencies a fun and empowering event people actually look forward to and attend in large numbers?

The bigger idea: Connect services to each other before bringing them to the people. Use the right mix of high-tech and low-tech and no-tech (people) solutions.

Solution #3: Provide Simple Ways to get Quick Answers

Small business owners are key to the economic well-being and fabric of this city and its neighborhoods. But small business owners have difficulty finding the information online that could really help them and they generally don’t have time to go to City Hall for answers.

The proposed solution addresses the following:

  • How can we make it easy for business owners to ask business questions on the spot right when and where they are facing a tough problem? (e.g., “My store is flooding. What should I do now?).
  • How do we make sure they get accurate and timely answers?
  • Can we track and analyze these questions and answers to better understand in which areas small businesses need the most help?
  • What’s the best way to use this information?
  • Could this project be self-sustaining?
  • Who are the interested parties beyond the city and small business owners?

The bigger idea: Simple real-time solutions such as text messaging can be powerful when part of a larger ecosystem. Sources of funding may be easier to find for projects involving small businesses.

Some other ideas we had:

Hot is in a good position to make connections between people in need, city services, not-for-profits, and the big corporations we work with.

Making connections hyperlocally, possibly down to the block, has interesting potential, especially if you consider that in San Francisco young dot-commers with disposable income often live on the same block as a struggling cafe owner and a blighted property.

We also came up with ideas on how to improve Unhackathons, and our own process, which will be detailed in this post.

What Next?

Hot has been committed from its inception to do social good. It’s in our company’s DNA. Over the last year we’ve been working hard to grow a dedicated Social Innovation practice in order to find or spur socially impactful projects. We are hoping that much of what we learned at the Unhackathon can be used by the SI team to get rolling on specific projects in San Francisco, or New York (where our other office is located). We’ll be keeping you updated on our progress and welcome your comments as we look for ways to make positive changes in our cities and beyond.