Teens Hack Alameda County (With Permission)

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Hacking doesn’t mean breaking stuff anymore. The term has evolved. Now, hacking is often a form of making.

A few weeks ago, almost 50 young people gathered at Youth Radio for a hackathon co-hosted with Alameda County’s Youth Leadership Academy. County Chief Information Officer Tim Dupuis explained that for the event, the young people would design mobile apps and data visualizations using public data generated by Alameda County relating to topics like health, community safety, county government, and transportation.

Given less than an hour to work, groups of teenagers, many of whom had never met before, sped through awkward introductions and were quickly brainstorming ideas for their apps. Everyone seemed to be participating and having fun, laughing as they sketched out their designs and planned out their skits, which would demonstrate the purpose of their apps.

The ideas ranged from navigation to probation support. For example, one group pitched an app called Vote-ed that would map political data related to upcoming elections as well as provide information on bills. Another proposal, Pathways, would help people find jobs by allowing them to upload their resumes and find local jobs that matched their skills. Yet another, Tinics (that’s “Teen Clinics” if you couldn’t tell), would allow people to search for local hotlines, shelters, and therapy clinics.

In the past, ideas generated at similar workshops have resulted in actual apps. Inspired by their involvement in a hackathon in 2013, Castro Valley teens Caleb Kim and Stephen Ou went on to become interns with the county and created an app designed to make the schedule of the county’s shuttle bus service easier to access. That app is now popular with employees.

Although many participants did not know how to code, they were still able to collaborate and brainstorm efficiently. “Now, I’ve learned how to get along with people,” said Castro Valley high schooler Alexandria, who participates in the Youth Leadership Academy. She says that working with other teens helped her gain some valuable leadership skills that she can “ take into other scenarios… like with coworkers.”

While the technical aspect of the event may have been daunting for some kids, for 19-year-old Storm White, who designs apps as part of Youth Radio Interactive, the process of rapid ideation was nothing new. “This is something that we do every time we create apps,” she said. What made this experience special for her, though, was seeing students who didn’t know each other learn how easy it is to start creating together.

The hackathon was part of the graduation for the county’s Youth Leadership Academy. Many parents were in attendance, including Nadine and Larry McDonnell, whose son Curtis McDonnell is a part of Leadership Academy. Both parents were impressed by how the program exposes the teens to many different careers.

The hackathon is the first time the Youth Leadership Academy has partnered with Youth Radio, and Tim Dupuis said he hopes the two organizations can build on this collaboration. By exposing teens to technology and the STEM industry, he hopes they’ll see that “data and technology can… make a difference in our community on a day-to-day basis and be an enabler of change,” he says.

Ultimately, County Administrator Susan D. Muranishi hopes these efforts will allow “the youth [to] come together… engage the community… and face some new challenges.”


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