The Former Foster Youth Behind the White House’s Foster Care Hackathon

Sixto Cancel spent the entirety of his childhood in foster care. The bureaucracy and inflexibility of a system designed to protect him instead wreaked havoc on his life and those of his 10 siblings.

Sixto Cancel.

Sixto Cancel. Photo: Think Of Us

Now 24 years old, Cancel is betting that new technology and some political will can help break down – and rebuild – the foster care system. A tech entrepreneur himself, he has enlisted allies at the highest levels of the tech and political worlds to help him.

Tomorrow will kick off the first White House Foster Care and Technology Hackathon, which is largely Cancel’s brainchild.

“It’s like electricity,” he said. “We functioned fine without electricity for ages before, but once we had it we could power the machines necessary to do anything, even build skyscrapers. In the child welfare system, it’s like we’re trying to build skyscrapers without electricity. Now, it’s true that the Egyptians built pyramids without electricity but, gosh, it took a while.”

To build his foster care “skyscrapers,” Cancel plans to use technology to streamline every aspect of the child welfare system, with a focus on creating human connections for foster youth along the way.

The Think Of Us team at work.

The Think Of Us team at work. Photo: Think Of Us

In November of 2014 Cancel founded Think Of Us, a Commitment of Action for the Clinton Global Initiative America. He hopes this nonprofit is the answer to a “digital divide” that he recognizes between child welfare and the tech industry. The mission at Think of Us is to “leverage technology, data, and multimedia to improve policy, practice, and outcomes for youth and families.”

Think Of Us is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative, and the Walter S. Johnson Foundation. The organization started with a grant of three thousand dollars from stock market guru Charles Biderman just last year; in the 18 months since, Cancel reports that Think Of Us has secured $360,000.

The nonprofit’s team of a dozen young people focuses on easing their peers’ transition from youth to adulthood through technology, with projects divided into the categories of advocacy, services, and support. One major project is the Life Skills Tools library, which is made up of interactive videos explaining the background of skills such as buying a car or signing up for classes at a community college.

The Unify app.

The Unify app. Photo: Think Of Us

Another project is Unify, an evidence-informed coaching app that is currently in development. The app contains interactive videos, self-coaching activities and planning tools to help young people plan for and achieve personal goals. The app also connects youth with advocates and care providers, with the intention of fostering community for those in transition. Unify will be one of the projects on which hackers and web designers will focus their energies tomorrow.

According to Cancel, balancing an understanding of the foster care system with an understanding of the millennial tech consumption is where Think Of Us differs from other organizations. He thinks his fellow former foster youth are the most important part of giving his plans direction.

“We may not be child welfare experts, but to be experienced in the actual consumption of a system allows us to have a deep knowledge that even the experts can’t have,” he said. “Even if foster youth seem like just data points, we should be developing those voices.”

The White House Foster Care & Technology Hackathon will take place at the White House tomorrow and Friday, May 26-27, and will focus on how the power of technology can be harnessed for good, specifically within the child welfare system. It will bring together everyone from child welfare experts to engineers, tech corporation leaders to foster care alumni. One notable attendee will be the software developer for McDonald’s, whose impact on the world Cancel does not underestimate.

Think Of Us attending a conference.

Think Of Us attending a conference. Photo: Think Of Us

“These are some of the best tech brains in the country,” said Cancel about the attendees more generally, “and even if they might not know a lot about child welfare, they know how to make software that works.”

There are a number of specific projects and questions slated for discussion, including “how can we prevent unplanned pregnancy among foster youth?” and “how might we make essential documents constantly available to youth?” (the latter has already been the focus of a new app, in development by Think Of Us).

Tools like predictive analytics and big data have been used by the corporate tech sector for years, but have yet to be broadly adopted by the foster care system. Cancel hopes the hackathon will serve as necessary encouragement to propel foster care into the 21st century and into future collaborations with tech.

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