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Code for Philadelphia Hosts Hackathon Aimed at Reducing Recidivism

Weekend event brings together technologists, public servants, journalists, and newly paroled members of the community, among others.

Civic technologists in Philadelphia are working with public servants, journalists and recently-paroled residents, among others, to collaborate on a hackathon that aims to reduce recidivism rates in the city by fostering the creation of related tech projects.

The event, dubbed PowerUp Reentry: A Digital Solutions Day, is set to begin Friday, Oct. 20 and run through Saturday, Oct. 21, with many of those involved saying they expect to continue developing projects from the hackathon in the months to come.

While civic tech events with a hyper-specific focus like this one are not uncommon, this event stands out for two reasons: Rarely has a hackathon brought together so many disparate groups of participants, and recidivism is a major challenge for Philadelphia. As of 2014, the recidivism rate there was 65 percent with a three-year incarceration rate of 41.1 percent.

“It’s important because it’s a problem of such scale, and it affects so many people,” said Aviva Tevah from Philadelphia’s Office of Criminal Justice. “About 30,000 people come back to Philadelphia every year from different correctional systems, and what we know from data in different places is that recidivism rates are much higher than they should be.”

Tevah said one challenge that the city government faces in addressing recidivism is that there are often many different agencies working toward the same goal — from city departments to nonprofit organizations — and it’s difficult to coordinate efforts and share valuable data. A tech project could facilitate better cooperation.

This thinking is what gave birth to the hackathon, which was first conceptualized by The Reentry Project, a journalism collective with representatives from 15 media outlets throughout Philadelphia. Described by organizers as a “sustained community-oriented reporting project,” the group started its work in November 2016, and the hackathon will mark one of its last major initiatives.

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, a project editor with The Reentry Project, described it as “getting a lot of different people in a room together who could find connections and ways to work with each other we never could have dreamed of.”

While there has been excitement for the possibilities within city government and the civic tech community, Friedman-Rudovsky said the most eager participants are those they aim to help: formerly incarcerated individuals. She recounted an anecdote in which one man told her he’d long had an idea for a mobile platform similar to Uber or Lyft, but instead of ride-sharing, formerly incarcerated people would use it to reach mentors for help navigating life after corrections.

To coordinate the event, The Reentry Project has contracted Code for Philly, the city’s Code for America brigade. Dawn McDougall, executive director of Code for Philly, said this hackathon, with its inclusion of such a broad group of participants, reflects a shift the group has made over the past five years toward incorporating both service providers and end-users into development processes.

With recidivism, for example, that means the brigade works to build tech that social workers might use to more efficiently serve formerly incarcerated individuals, rather than solely focusing on projects for the individuals themselves.

In addition to the wide range of collaborators, McDougall said another quality that sets the event apart is that organizers surveyed potential users in order to get ideas. The reporting work that members of The Reentry Project did over the past year has also been an asset.

As such, technologists have gleaned valuable insights, one being that there’s no consistent way to track parolees once they re-enter society. While predicting work at a hackathon is tricky, McDougall was reasonably sure some projects would focus on collecting better data and “getting a sense of what’s really happening when someone leaves the system.”

“The goal of this hackathon is to produce a groundwork for future collaborations,” said McDougall. “It’s all about bringing people together, creating relationships so people can work together after the hackathon.”

The event in Philadelphia is one of country’s first to bring together civic technologists and stakeholders for projects aimed at recidivism, with efforts having also taken place in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Kistine Carolan, data services manager in open data and digital transformation with Philadelphia, said this is a chance to combine technological expertise with the perspectives of city workers and those they serve.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for everyone in the room to learn more and think about what the next steps are to make things a little better and easier,” Carolan said.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.