South Philly’s Smith Playground near Snyder Avenue used to be a bit of a boy’s club. The success in welcoming young girls that followed is part of a pattern of efforts to grow diversity in technology, including the years-old women in tech scene in Philadelphia.
The Smith Playground programming once heavily leaned toward soccer, football and basketball, said Yolanda Willis, who lives a few blocks from Smith and has worked at several city playgrounds over the years. So Willis, who became Smith Playground’s public computing center coordinator when the computer lab opened in late 2011, made it a goal to get more young women to use the playground.
“It’s better than them being outside,” she said.
While Willis has yet to organize any specific computer lab programming for girls, she’s already succeeded in her goal. From January to mid-February, 85 percent of Smith Playground’s roughly 250 youth and teen computing center attendees were female, according to data from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees Smith Playground and other rec centers.
That’s in contrast to the city’s 15 other rec center computing labs, which either have an equal male-female breakdown or skew more toward male attendees. Willis thinks it helps that there’s a female presence at the computing center.
Willis’s story is just one example of efforts to diversify the digital conversation.
- From the city’s KEYSPOT initiative, which funds computing centers at places like Smith Playground, that aims to bridge the digital divide,
- to the “girl geeks” behind LadyHacks, Philly’s first women-only “hackathon,” a weekend-long event during which technologists build community-minded tools
- to Temple University’s Urban Apps & Maps Studio, a program to teach minority students how to develop software that can help their neighborhood
- Startup Corps, Workshop School, STEMnasium, FATE and a host of other education efforts are trying to create new pipelines into entrepreneurship and technology
Efforts are cropping up all over the city to bring traditionally underserved communities into the tech picture.
Tristin Hightower, who recently announced plans to leave Philadelphia with her husband and was one of the co-organizers of women’s hackathon LadyHacks, said that she noticed that despite the growing local community of women in tech, women weren’t coming out to tech events, and hackathons, in particular.
LadyHacks was an effort to encourage more women to get involved in Philly’s vibrant hackathon scene, Hightower said. It worked: out of more than 65 women that participated, most were first-timers. The participants launched a half dozen projects, including a women in technology resources site, and every group was interested in continuing to work on their projects, according to an informal survey after the event.
Similarly, Temple University’s Urban Apps & Maps Studio launched to get more black and Latino students thinking about how to use technology to solve neighborhood issues. In December of 2012, the Knight Foundation awarded the program $635,000 to continue its work for three more years.
“We see a growing apps developer community in Philly where few of the workers and leaders are black or Latino, despite together making up more than half of our city’s population,” said the Knight Foundation’s Philadelphia program director Donna Frisby-Greenwood, explaining the foundation’s commitment to the program.
As for the city’s KEYSPOT program, the wide-reaching effort that offers free Internet access and computer training has launched over 70 public computing centers across the city and served more than 300,000 Philadelphians. The most common demographic, according to a preliminary survey on KEYSPOT users, was black women, who made up 45 percent of survey takers.
These efforts and others are all part of a citywide vision to make Philly “the most digitally literate and digitally engaged city in the country,” as KEYSPOT coordinator Joanne Ferroni put it.
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