Silicon Valley’s Biggest Problems Are Being Hacked by San Francisco's Youngest Developers


June 4 marked the National Day of Civic Hacking (NDOCH), a 24-hour celebration in which developers—mainly undergraduate students—use open-sourced federal and local data to create tools for access to community necessities, from health care to housing. The event is an extension of the Obama administration's Opportunity Project, launched in March. AlterNet interviewed young developers attending an NDOCH event at San Francisco State University about the Silicon Valley's technological innovation and how it affects the San Francisco community.

"We must harness 21st-century technology and innovation to expand access to opportunity and tackle our greatest challenges," President Obama announced in his 2016 State of the Union address. And from the looks of things, the technocracy is putting aside its differences for a common goal a lot more quickly than Congress is able to. Given its proximity to the most successful tech startups, it is unsurprising that San Francisco was a hub for multiple NDOCH events. But more surprising was the diverse array of political ideologies and willingness to work together in spite of them that appeared at San Francisco State University.

"I personally think that Silicon Valley is really hurting everyone else, because if you're not a techie, you're going to be somewhere on the bottom. I'm not super passionate about coding," Michael Leung, a developer and former City College of San Francisco student, told AlterNet. But considering how housing and upward mobility in Silicon Valley belong to those who code, he adds, "Hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

"That's kind of true," agreed David Katz, a student at the University of San Francisco. "It is excising a lot of the culture because of the pricing [of housing]."

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"The best solution is not having all the techies concentrated in Silicon Valley and SF," Leung proposed, adding, "Affordability is just relative to your income, so we were thinking our app would show you jobs and housing on the same map. You could put in your income range and your rent range and your weekly spendings, and that could calculate what houses will be available to you."

"Even though [Silicon Valley] is bringing a lot of wealth" to the local community, said Katz, "it's also getting rid of a lot of what makes San Francisco unique, so making tools where we can make people more culturally aware" is also important.

"Taxes are huge," Weston Davis, a student at San Francisco State University and self-described "middle of the road guy," said, as he pitched an app that allowed users to vote on the issues, not necessarily the candidates.

"All my life I've beeing thinking, I don't want to be taxed, but now that I work for the government, I realize [there are] two ends of the angle. As a business guy, I've realized that too," Davis explained.

Davis' team is developing an app for Zika education, which will allow users to receive notifications about detected cases and doctors qualified to treat the disease within X number of miles.

"We're really trying to take the information that's already there and develop and design ways to disseminate that information in a way that people can digest it easily," said Xian Ke, an SF-based special projects director working on the Zika app team.

"We talked about translating [the notifications] into Spanish [because] a lot of Latin American countries have more instances of Zika [than the U.S.]," Xian added.

Another group was building an app specifically for translations.

“We’re working on ‘Ready to Work in Espanol,’ basically trying to compile resources for Spanish speakers for job readiness programs or places where they can learn English," Victoria Chavez, a student at Brown University, said.

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"There’s a lot less resources for them. Let’s say I’m a Spanish speaker, and my English isn’t too great, and I need someone to view my resume. ... It’s definitely very difficult," Chavez added. 

As of mid-2015, Latinos represent the largest ethnic group in California: 39 percent of the state's population.

Another group, the Opportunity Project, concentrated on data representing a completely different and potentially underserved demographic. 

“We’re actually creating a mobile app to help improve the data for the census," Mike Muccio, an SF-based Android developer of Street Census on the Opportunity Project team, said. "Currently we have groups going around counting homeless people with paper and pen, so we're going to make a mobile app that makes it easier for these volunteers to count the homeless population within your community."

"I got really interested in the homeless population of San Francisco because [of this] huge population, and 80-percent-plus are veterans, and so we absolutely have to find out a good solution for helping these veterans, helping the homeless population as a whole," Muccio told AlterNet.

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But Muccio had a different view from Leung regarding the growing wealth disparity in the city. 

“I think there’s a lot of positive growth in San Francisco," he said, when asked if he thought Silicon Valley was contributing to homelessness in the Bay Area and surrounding cities.

"Should the rich get richer as long as they're making cool things?" AlterNet asked him.

"I think the rich should get richer as long as people are buying their things," he responded, adding, "I don't know if they're necessarily cool things."


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