Midnight Hackers

The Midnight Hacker program is taking at-risk kids off the streets and putting them to work mapping crime statistics with GIS.

by / June 30, 1996
While violent crime is generally declining, juvenile crime continues to rise. In an effort to curb this trend, the San Francisco Police Department is joining forces with a privately funded project, called Midnight Hacker, designed to keep at-risk juveniles off the streets, out of trouble and involved in productive activities.

Midnight Hacker, which is sponsored by the Recreation and Parks Department of the city and county of San Francisco, was launched last April and was created by the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival in cooperation with the National Association of Midnight Basketball Leagues. Midnight Shakespeare is a similar program started in 1982 that has had enormous success in building self-esteem among underprivileged children and providing them with jobs in the arts.

Bobby Winston, the producer of Midnight Shakespeare, and Lani Luthard, community relations manager at San Jose, Calif.-based Bay Networks -- one of the sponsors of Midnight Hacker -- put their heads together to come up with a new activity for at-risk kids (kids who aren't criminals yet, but who have the potential to go that direction). The idea was to design a program similar to the other "midnight-themed" activities. This time, however, they went a step further -- they devised a plan that would give kids job training and career skills. Thus, the idea of a technology-related agenda was born. This agenda would also accomplish another goal -- to close the widening gap between the computer "haves" and "have nots."

"There is a disturbing lack of computer access in lower-income areas," said Winston. "It's terrible that the computer -- which is the pencil of the future -- is not being made available to poor African-American and ethnic children."

In an effort to increase computer literacy, Winston and Luthard came up with the name Midnight Hacker, though Winston expressed anxiety about the use of the word "hacker."

"We felt that hacker might have a negative connotation," said Luthard. "But we decided it isn't offensive, and kids on the streets will want to get involved because they think it's cool. We believe that if you give young adults something interesting and productive to do they will choose that over less desirable activities."

Thus, Winston and Luthard set out to train kids how to use computers and then apply these newfound skills to paid positions. Initially, kids will be trained at a new computer lab located at the Milton Meyer Center in San Francisco, which has been set up with computers donated by USL Capital. Kids can attend classes on Windows, Word, Excel and other business applications.

Once the kids have gone through basic training, the framework is established to help them apply these skills in real-life jobs. This is where the Police Department as well as private companies like Bay Networks enter the picture. The Police Department volunteered to have the kids develop sophisticated crime incident maps for use in fighting crime on bus lines.

"Not only will we be training kids on how to use a specific application, but they'll also wind up with an actual job," said Stan Hebert, national director of the Midnight Basketball League. "They'll be acquiring job skills, getting paid and providing a valuable service to the client."

For the Police Department project, young adults will primarily be inputting information into a program called Atlas GIS 3.0 for Windows, an application designed by Santa Clara, Calif.-based Strategic Mapping Integrators (SMI). Atlas lets users display, edit and analyze information -- from a database or spreadsheet -- on a map. It combines a database management system with presentation, map editing , drawing and reporting tools, allowing the user to visualize data.

In this case, information will be entered by the kids to create a neighborhood map that displays crimes as symbols. "It can identify a specific type of crime or several types of crime illustrated by different symbols," said Larry Dolton, principal at ViewPoint, a consulting firm based in San Francisco and another program sponsor. Dolton is donating his expertise as a programmer to set up and customize the mapping system to meet the department's specific needs.

"I'll be doing a number of different jobs, acting as a consultant to work with Atlas and building a custom program," he explained. "Atlas contains a custom programming language that works with Microsoft Visual Basic. I use design tools to create a front-end interface that contains buttons for making maps. On the back end, it will be automated to read the inputted data."

"By creating maps and gathering statistics," said Hebert, "the Police Department can get a better profile of what's happening on the streets without having to invest in additional resources. And the best part is that kids who might have been a part of the problem are now a part of the solution."

The experience of inputting information and seeing the outcome on maps will also educate young adults about geography and how it relates to daily life. "The more you understand about what's around you, the more you understand where you live and what goes on," said Dolton.

According to the participants, the real beauty of Midnight Hacker is that this kind of system is no more difficult than inputting data into a traditional database. "Certainly not everyone in the program is a future Bill Gates," said Hebert, "but we want to expose them to the whole world of technology and prove that it can be very easy to use."

"Hands-on computer training is valuable," said Luthard. "We don't want to only teach these kids word processing. We want to teach them how to use a system. Any exposure to computers is going to help them no matter what they end up doing. I'm working for a company that employs 6,000 people who work on top-of-the-line software. People learn wherever they go how the company uses a system. Any exposure to this kind of situation is going to be beneficial."

Aside from getting at-risk kids off the streets, Midnight Hacker's GIS training will open up new horizons. Teens will have a chance to earn money and apply their skills to a possible career in the field. "The GIS industry has really grown over the last five years and will continue to," said Dolton. "Businesses, government and Internet specialists are using it. There will definitely be jobs available for these kids to take."

Midnight Hacker, said Hebert, gives kids, "a chance to reconnect to their community. It's not like they're criminals. They're just kids who have parents working during the late night hours and have no structure or guidance to keep them out of trouble. It's also a way for them to use their idle time and do something that works for the entire community and positively affects businesses and government organizations."

"I think this is one of the most innovative projects that I've seen or heard about in my five and half years of doing community relations in the Bay Area," said Luthard. "It's taking at least three top-notch, well-respected organizations already successful in their own right, having them collaborate and come up with something to target this audience. I think it's going to work!"

Michelle Gamble-Risley is the publisher of California Computer News. She can be e-mailed at .


Atlas GIS is a full-featured geographical analysis tool with presentation capabilities and integrated database connectivity. It incorporates a user interface designed specifically for Windows and uses point-and-click access to information and commands. It features a page layout system to display completed documents and several style sheets to help users create professional-looking layouts.

The Address Finder CD of the United States is included in the program, and lets users find "geocoded" addresses. A layer management tool shows users exactly what they want and lets them click directly on-screen to change colors, settings, styles and visibility. And the presentation tools let users utilize their own bitmap symbols, and move, rotate or hide individual maps to create custom map presentations.