Technologists wanted to help amid a tumultuous 2020. Code for Philly saw its volunteer ranks swell - Technical.ly Philly

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Technologists wanted to help amid a tumultuous 2020. Code for Philly saw its volunteer ranks swell

Co-directors Marieke Jackson and Michael Chow reflect on how the volunteer-driven org adapted and helped nonprofits meet their missions while facing forced pivots during the pandemic.

Code for Philly Co-Directors Michael Chow and Marieke Jackson.

(Courtesy photo)

Correction: Code for Philly's February-March 2020 data science hackathon was not canceled, and its fiscal sponsor is Tech Impact, with additional support from Linode. (6/8/21, 10:22 a.m.)
Code for Philly Co-Director Marieke Jackson thought she was just getting her car serviced when she visited Philadelphia Auto and Parole in July 2020. But she also saw a way to use her org’s tech savvy to help the Southwest Philly-based business that employs returning citizens.

“[Founder Jermaine Womack] didn’t have a scheduling link and did it all off the top of his head,” Jackson told Technical.ly. “I said, ‘We could set up some tools.’ The benefit of us reaching out to nonprofits and mentioning low overhead fixes is that we just have to know your level of comfort with certain tools. We had one volunteer set things up for him in Stripe, and they integrated it into his website.”

Jackson’s efforts to help the business that she scheduled her own appointment with via Instagram DM is one example of the pivot-driven type of year Code for Philly has had, and the public interest its volunteers work to serve.

“[That] was really special because Marieke went in there for car repairs and she realized they were a core part of the community doing work with reentering citizens,” said Jackson’s fellow co-director, Michael Chow. “I think it’s so important because they’re so important to their community. It helps us as a tech community to stay focused on local community members having a big impact on their neighborhoods.”

“People often think of Code for Philly doing big tech projects,” he said. “It was helpful for me to see us focus on a small case.”

During the pandemic, Code for Philly saw an increase in support from people looking for solutions to systemic inequities.

Code for Philly has long been an active outpost of Code for America, the network of 80-plus brigades of technologists who volunteer their expertise to nonprofit, civic-minded open-source projects. Locally, that’s included work in recent years such as building a tool to help Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity preserve client court records, and an integrated data solution for the animal welfare nonprofit PAWS. It’s also hosted monthlong, in-person hackathons that invited volunteer dev teams to work on projects supporting better access to essential services and resources for city residents.

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In February 2020, a month after Jackson and Chow came on as leaders, Code for Philly was preparing to kick off a data science hackathon focused on Philadelphia’s opioid crisis. The pandemic changed its plans. While the hackathon still happened, the org also rose to the challenge of creating CHIME, an app to help hospitals plan their patient capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The CHIME project happened because one of our partners for the data hackathon had an app that needed to be scaled,” Jackson said.

But adapting to a pandemic was only one challenge of Code for Philly faced in 2020. During the summer, its volunteer technologists worked with the Philadelphia Bail Fund to build up-to-date visualizations on bail and analyze who is most affected by this part of the criminal justice system. The org had already had a call with the bail fund before the the protests following George Floyd’s murder by police; by the time they had a second call, the collaboration directly connected to current events.

“It fell in line with work we were already doing,” Jackson said.

To its co-directors surprise, the extenuating circumstances of 2020 led to an influx of volunteers joining the brigade with the intent to help out in any way possible. Work on the CHIME app also led to a $5,000 donation from Comcast, which Jackson said is a significant amount of money for a small org like Code for Philly without much overhead.

Through their work, Chow said he found one silver lining in the pandemic: an increase in support from people looking for solutions to systemic inequities.

“It did seem to be a catalyst for people thinking more deeply about problems happening in Philadelphia and how to connect,” he said. “People began thinking about bail funds and issues around incarceration. It did provoke them to think how they could engage.”

Code for Philly sits at the intersection of intention and execution, bringing together the right missions and technical skills for good.

In September 2020, Code for Philly launched its first-ever fellowship with support from Comcast. Three new technologists received paid experience in the form of $1,500 stipends for eight weeks of work and mentorship from other tech pros. Jackson said she felt it was important to provide professionals who wanted careers in tech with paid experience because it elicits a different response from potential employers.

“People don’t treat volunteer work the same way they do paid work,” she said. “That work doesn’t have the same weight in an interview.”

Jackson also noticed that while peers based in San Francisco talk more about networking for tech jobs, her Philadelphia peers talk more about community. That helped fuel her desire to give people an opportunity to have paid work on their resume.

In May 2021, Code for Philly was one of seven Code for America brigades that received part of a $1 million grant from the Knight Foundation to support recruitment, training and tech tools. While Code for Philly is autonomous and has a fiscal sponsor in tech training nonprofit Tech Impact and receives free hosting services from Old City-based open source-focused Linode, Code for America supports its brigades across the country with finding the technical resources they need, and will define how the money will be dispersed.

One of the biggest lessons of 2020 for Jackson was learning how systems work and having patience in the process needed to complete projects. There are a lot of moving parts, and understanding the workflow of different organizations and institutions and their respective limitations have changed the way Jackson sees project management. Identifying the resources necessary to help carry out a project can be one thing, while executing the necessary plan can be vastly different.

“When you marry nonprofit and civic work to tech, you have to understand why you’re doing these things,” she said. “I used to get frustrated when people would talk about projects and not do anything. There was a general understanding of how systems didn’t work, but there is now an idea of why systems don’t work.”

“You have to understand the complexity” to actually get that work done, she said. That’s where Code for Philly can be a catalyst: at the intersection of intention and execution, bringing together the right missions and technical skills for good.

As the team continues its planning for 2021, they said they’re excited for the work to come in spite of not knowing when volunteers will be able to meet in person again. In the meantime, there’s good news in that Code for Philly’s fellowship will be back for a second iteration this year. Look for the organization to soon have open leadership positions, too.


Michael Butler is a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. -30-
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