By Bill Britt
Would you go for an app that sends an alert when you’ve left home without turning off the kitchen light, and asks whether you want to turn it off remotely? How about one that lets you find a reliable, background-checked, neighborhood baby sitter at the last minute? Or better yet, an app that determines how much water you should drink daily depending on how much energy you’ve burned?
None of these apps exists yet, but all of them got a big boost toward becoming reality by claiming prizes at the WeHack / Southeast Cities Hackathon, organized by the Southern California Latino Policy Center and Sabio and hosted in South Gate, a working-class Latino community not usually associated with hi-tech innovation.
“These communities are sometimes left out,” says South Gate Mayor Jorge Morales. “They’re the last ones to get in on the environmental push and the last ones in on technology. So to have the (hackathon) here is incredible for us.”
Hackathons are events where computer programmers, software and hardware developers and others gather to compete and create software projects in a matter of days, usually over the course of a weekend. The “wehack: Southeast Cities Civic Hackathon” drew more than one hundred participants from Irvine, the San Fernando Valley and even as far as Riverside. They converged on the South Gate campus of East LA College over the weekend to compete for more than $7,000 in prizes with goal of creating apps and software that would benefit the residents of communities such as South Gate.
Sabio, a developer community offering 6-12 week full-time coding bootcamps in Los Angeles and Orange County, steered the initiative to stage the hackathon in South Gate. Co-founders, Gregorio Rojas and his wife, Liliana Aide Monge say it was critical to come to the southeast, where there is very little awareness about the opportunities in the field of writing code for computers.
“We’re really happy with some of the high schools that came out,” Monge says. “We commend the teachers that made that effort.”
Many of the high school students, novices known as “developing developers,” came from the Foshay Learning Center School’s Tech Academy. Among them, 16-year old Esmeralda Nava and Danny “Hyun Bum” Cho, 17, who didn’t know each other until they met at the start of the event Friday night. Two nights later they walked away with the top prize for students with their Easy Sitter app, which helps track down reliable baby sitters on short notice. They also developed an instant rapport of familiarity to the point where they sometimes finished each other’s sentences.
“We didn’t know each other before this weekend,” Danny says. “And now,” Esmeralda continues, “we have this passion together and it’s a lot of fun. You also meet a lot of mentors and you get connections and can start networking and I really like that.”
They also learned an important skill overlooked and seldom considered by novices: the ability to pitch their idea. Ed-tech entrepreneur Quiana Patterson offered an early morning workshop on hitting the high notes of a perfect pitch, and the importance of being a skilled public speaker.
“No one wants to build or create something and not be able to sell it,” she says. “My message to them is, if you’re going to spend the time and energy to think of something awesome or revolutionary, you have to be the best salesperson of that product. You never know where your public speaking skills might take you or guide you to an even higher career.”
When the workshop ended, another group of students – the developers of what they called, the “Green Home” energy conservation app – met with Ken Nnaoji, one of the half-dozen mentors from the Sabio organization, to polish their presentation. “Try to begin by telling a story,” he told them, as they huddled in a corner of their meeting room. “Something that can pull the audience into understanding the significance of what you’re creating and how it’s going to make a positive impact on your community. You guys have really great ideas. You’re innovators. Just go out there and knock it out of the park like I know you can!”
On the final night of the event, 15-year-old Megan Dotson hooked the crowd and got the judges’ attention with the story of her ongoing frustration with her younger brother. “Every time he goes into a room he turns on the lights, and I’m constantly turning them off after he leaves.” Her team’s Green Home app landed the second place, $500 cash prize.
“The concept of team sport is really critical,” Sabio’s Rojas says. “It isn’t something that you do individually like tennis. It’s more like basketball, and sometimes like football and hockey with all the fights that might happen.”
No drama at this particular hackathon – but there was plenty of work to be shared, according to 15-year old Sara Du. “The process was hard but the end product is good,” she says. Du was the creator of “Aqua App.” “It harnesses the health app on your iPhone and sends you regular notifications and emails to remind you to hydrate based on personal physical data such as age, weight and height – even taking into account how much walking you’ve done.” Du also admits, “I didn’t think I could’ve created this app in a day. Otherwise I think I would’ve been doing this for a month, probably. Other students might not be encouraged because it seems really hard to do. But I met a lot of people who could help me, so [this] was a good learning experience.”
“There was much more going on this weekend than coding and programming,” said Victor Abalos, Executive Director of the Southern California Latino Policy Center. “We’re hoping events like this help the residents of the Southeast Cities not only recognize how important tech can be to solving day-to-day problems, but also how careers in tech offer amazing opportunities for young people from this area.”