It’s a crisp December day, and the city is bustling. The crowds move slowly, weaving between twinkling lights and ornate window displays, humming with the promise of the upcoming holiday season.
Tucked away from the crowds of Rockefeller Center, inside the eBay New York headquarters in midtown Manhattan, a different type of anticipation buzzed.
The individuals gathered in the company’s office were anxious and excited, eager to participate in New York City’s first-ever foster youth hackathon.
The NYC Foster Care Technology and Policy Hackathon was a two-day whirlwind event, bringing together leaders in NYC’s child welfare field, technology sector, government, non-profits and foster youth.
The convening was broken into smaller groups, which faced a two-fol challenge: tackling the NYC foster care system’s most pressing policy concerns and developing innovative tech solutions like smartphone apps, social networking tools and digital resources to improve the delivery of services and resources for children of the system.
Following the first ever White House Technology and Foster Care Hackathon earlier this year, NYC’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), under the leadership of Commissioner Gladys Carrión, dedicated itself to continue the movement by hosting the first of a series of city hackathons around the country.
New York’s event will be followed by a similar foster care and technology summit in Silicon Valley in February, and another in Los Angeles next spring.
“We hope to create a movement where every state does this and wants to get more involved,” said Rafael López, Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children, Youth and Families (ACYF). “We need to engage the larger community in looking at us and helping us to support our kids.”
With increased momentum surrounding foster care and technology, ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrión expressed her enthusiasm for the potential of the New York hackathon to lead to future collaborations.
“It’s about delivering what works for those involved in the system, and finding out are there technology solutions for those we serve that we can use?” Carrión said. “What tools are there to make this easier for foster parents, social workers, case workers, foster youth, biological parents?”
Carrión admits that bringing the idea of a hackathon for foster care and technology back to New York City was a risk, but “that the risk will yield a lot of positive results.”
Administration for Children’s Services hosted the event in partnership with eBay, Think of Us, the NYC Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation, the Redlich Horwitz Foundation, and New Yorkers for Children.
The hackathon began following a foster youth panel addressing youth, parent, and adult partnerships. Participating hackers were presented with challenge questions addressing peer-to-peer communication, youth transition plans, child welfare system response times, recruiting foster parents, and improving social workers’ ability to reach and communicate with youth. Hackers quickly set to work devising policy and technology solutions that would lessen the trials faced by youth, foster parents and social workers.
“These type of hackathons are critical to get the kids to talk about their issues and to make policy changes,” said Dayssi Olarte Kanavos, president of Flag Luxury Group, LLC and emeritus board member of New Yorkers for Children. “Within these few rooms, we will encourage more technologists to come and get involved in social justice issues.”
By early Saturday afternoon the hackathon was in full swing, and hackers worked diligently in shared spaces throughout the office. As ideas overlapped, groups quickly began to intermingle, sharing solutions and concepts.
A software engineer, foster youth, nonprofit representative and a city government official all sat at a table, their heads turned inquisitively towards a programmer speaking in quick spurts of enthusiasm, his hands animated.
The shared voices of such different groups assembling together would be unexpected at many other policy convenings, but that collaboration was exactly the goal of this weekend’s hackathon. In uniting the foster care system and technology industry to combat policy issues facing the city’s youth, youth voices were not only heard but generated direct impact.
“It’s the most progressive event I’ve been to that involves foster youth because it asks us for the whole change we want while also implementing it,” said Shyanne Hope-Cross, a youth participant.
Julie Farber, ACS’ deputy commissioner of Family Permanency Services, pointed to how important youth participation was.
“It’s not just youth engagement, but they’re partners,” Farber said. “The kids are partners. It’s powerful for them. They’re having the same experience, presenting like adults. It’s been inspiring for all of us.”
In planning the hackathon, Administration for Children’s Services wanted the event to not only be interactive, but to be impactful.
As the first day wound down guests and youth hackers prepared to leave and the true techies hunkered down to work through the night, catching a few hours of sleep in provided beds throughout the office.
The next morning any fatigue from the previous late night faded as the policy and technology groups prepared to present their final ideas.
The eight youth policy groups presented a wide range of solutions and ideas for improving foster care procedures. Ideas included creating a hotline to call for adoption and foster care resources, streamlining processes for social workers, platforms for foster parents in the same vicinity to connect, a digital campaign for foster parent recruitment, improved childcare resources for youth with children and an app for youth in crisis.
One group’s idea was to improve post-adoption follow-up processes.
“We’re working on the adoption portion, where there is no middleman once you’re adopted. We’re trying to make a plan – to create a contract for adoptive parents, and create evaluations for adopted kids of services,” said Stephanie Augustin, a youth participant.
“I’m a foster child and I want to see change. I’m hoping that through this we are able to create impact and let youth know there are resources out there for them,” Augustin added.
The technology hackers’ five presentations included a software program tracking youth transition goals and a text-based program delivering resource management for foster kids. The pitch, “Paired Parenting,” featured a collaborative interface connecting biological and foster parents. A housing and educational resource blog for youth, “Aging Out NYC,” was created to generate shared knowledge between those in the child welfare system.
Hackers addressed solutions for social workers as well, including an automated platform conducting administrative functions for caseworkers.
“What’s been great to see, people in the technology community have a great open mindset. They bring an open blue sky view and it’s disruptive in a good way,” ACS’ Farber said. “You can throw your problem on a table and a tech person can completely flip it on its head.”
Hackathon guests voted for the technology innovation of their choice, and the LaunchPad website, a software program enabling youth to track their progress and goals as they move towards aging out of the foster care system, was named the hackathon’s winner.
Google Community Manager Peta-Gay Clarke surprised the convening by announcing an upcoming tour of Google and free participation in Google’s Code Next workshop, a program committed to increasing diversity in technology, for all the participating foster youth hackers.
Certificates of recognition from New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio were also presented to technology hackers and youth participants.
The first NYC Technology and Foster Care Hackathon represented a positive shift in the relationship between the foster care system and technology industry, and all involved are already looking forward to the next step.
“It’s been amazing. All of us have learned so much from each other. That’s really what it’s all about is helping young people and putting them on the path for success. I’m hopeful this is the beginning of a relationship with the technology community,” Carrión said in her closing remarks.
ACYF’s López ended the hackathon by reflecting on the weekend.
“We cannot be untouched by what we’ve learned over the past twenty-four hours. And what we do about it collectively as a community, like the one you’ve built here in New York City, to test out these ideas, matters.”