CODING (AND CONNECTING) FOR CHANGE


By Courtney Jones and Rose Schapiro

What if top tech talent – developers, coders, and designers – turned their focus to building tech answers for the public good? And what if government agencies and nonprofits opened their doors to connect with these innovative ideas? And what if leading organizations put prizes on the table to recognize the very best of those ideas?

Code for Change is determined to find out.

“We’re open to ideas – that’s why we’re here.”  – New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM).

Those words capture the essence of the Code for Change launch last Friday, September 28, when government agencies and nonprofits mingled and brainstormed with coders, designers and tech developers in pursuit of innovative tech solutions to some of the most pressing public issues facing people across the country.

Launched by a partnership among NYU Wagner, One Economy/Applications For Good, Code for America, NPower and Blue Ridge Foundation, Code for Change is a twist on the traditional 24- or 36-hour hackathon: participating developers will spend two weeks working on concepts to address the agencies’ challenges, culminating in a judging at NYU Wagner on October 12. The top solutions will win prizes like cash, free office space, and support from some of the strongest talent in the tech field.

“These nonprofit organizations and government agencies are the greatest civic actors in our society and are facing some really significant challenges” – Neil Kleiman, Special Adviser to the Dean at NYU Wagner and an event organizers.

Ideas moved quickly at Friday’s event, with government agencies like New York City’s Office of Youth and Community Development and nonprofits like Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship allotted just one minute to summarize their most pressing technology challenge in a quick pitch to a crowd of tech developers, who would choose to sign on to help design an innovative solution. The agencies represented the top 13 entries in a wider competition and shared a few common themes in their challenges:

  • How can technology help us identify the right combinations of talent and skill on our staff and ensure those people are working on the right issues at the right time?
  • How can technology help us synch in real time what’s happening in the field with what we need to track – to improve implementation and reporting – back at the office? Can we knit together the various pieces of data we collect to form an accurate, up-to-date picture for our review as well as our funders’?
  • Our target audiences need the resources we provide – what’s the best way to use technology to let them know what’s available and help them access when and where they need them?

With the challenges laid out before them, the developers, coders and designers hopped from conversations with one agency to another, probing for more information about each challenge, forming teams, and sharing their initial ideas. Developers asked how each agency currently tracks data; whether they had tried to address these problems in other ways; and how their roles as government agencies and nonprofits might put a different spin data privacy or other issues relevant to the public sector. Many of the coders and designers were particularly excited to work on projects designed to serve the public good—be it an application for social workers in schools to reach out to at-risk students, or a prototype for a textbook exchange at a local college. Some of the agencies knew exactly what they wanted, or had a system they were planning to use as a foundation, and others were looking for fresh ideas from designers and developers who could define a new direction.

The launch marked the beginning of two weeks of work, when teams will meet on their own time to work collaboratively on their solutions. On Friday, October 12th, teams will reconvene at NYU Wagner for a “demo day” to present their solutions. Judges will include: Rachel Sterne, NYC’s Chief Digital Officer; Seth Pinsky, President of the NYC Economic Development Corporation; Charlie O’Donnell, Partner, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures; and Andrew Rasiej, Chairman of NY Tech MeetUp.

 What’s at stake? A Grand Prize of $10,000 goes to the judges’ favorite entry! Also available is a Social Innovation Prize, valued at $6,000 including 6 months of free workspace access at the Centre for Social Innovation, a shared workspace and incubator for social ventures, opening in New York City in January 2013. Additional cash, in-kind and mentorship prizes are being announced weekly.

The next great tech fix will be judged in just two week. Stop by the Code for Change final judging on October 12th to see its beginnings and visit http://applicationsforgood.org/ to see what other creative ideas are being exchanged – and what their impact will be.


Can the Arts be Managed? (Short answer: Yes)


David Gordon, the founder of arts consulting firm Gordon Advisory, gave a lunchtime talk at NYU Wagner to a gathering of students.  Mr. Gordon was well worth a listen, as he has spent much of his career transforming and revitalizing arts organizations in the U.S. and England. He peppered his insights and advice, both personal and professional, with dry wit.

“You’re wondering: can the arts be managed?  The answer is yes.  If you’re short on time, you may now take a sandwich and leave,” he began the March 30 discussion.

For the next hour, Gordon described the unique opportunities and challenges of managing arts organizations.  Gordon believes that arts organizations must find harmony between business and passion.  For Gordon, this passion distinguishes the arts.  When well-managed, it also provides their greatest source of strength.

Drawing from his experiences, Gordon offered strategies for successful management.  These strategies are tailored to the arts, but applicable to any organization.

  1. Craft a Powerful Mission and Vision.  Artists should engage their love of process and poetry to create inspiring goals for their organizations.  On a concrete level, these shared values ensure that everyone at the organization is on the same page.
  2. Define the Nuts and Bolts.  A strategic plan follows from the organization’s mission and vision.  This plan should include specific goals and metrics, transforming dreams into blueprints.
  3. Nurture Artistic Values and Culture.  Artists are passionate, unafraid to speak truth to power.  Arts organizations should leverage this passion, and encourage a culture of productive dissent and debate.  Arts organizations cannot settle for mediocrity.  As cultural gatekeepers, they must filter for excellence in the arts, beginning with a culture of excellence within their organization.
  4. Create Governance Boundaries.  The boards of arts organizations often suffer from a “Downton Abbey” syndrome, in which the cultural aristocracy meddles in the daily affairs of the organization.  Clear governance guidelines ease this issue.
  5. Recruit and Develop Strong Leadership.  Many successful arts organizations split the roles of management and creativity between a managing director and an artistic director.  The harmonious relationship between these two leaders allows the balance of passion and business to flourish.

During the second half of his talk, Mr. Gordon offered students advice gleaned from his own career.  Many attendees scribbled down his casual and practical tips.

  1. Don’t be afraid of numbers.Take accounting and finance courses and learn what spreadsheets look like.  Number skills offer a serious advantage over essentially everyone in the arts.
  2. Learn to write clearly and succinctly.
  3. Fake it till you make it.  Take advantage of the “imposter phenomenon” – if you don’t know what you’re doing, pretend that you do, and set up systems for receiving support and advice.  Most importantly, once you learn what you’re doing, don’t stop listening!
  4. Stand up to bullies.And if you can’t, leave.
  5. Governance matters.  Great organizations require strong boards and clear governing procedures.
  6. Dream big.Artistic ambitions should be fantastic and soaring.

After the talk, students stayed to ask questions, chat, and debate strategies for arts management and measurement.

Ultimately, Gordon believes that all organizations can learn from the creativity, vision and passion of the arts.  These values transcend sectors and contribute an inspirational spark to management teams and individuals alike.

For more information about Gordon Advisory, visit the firm’s website: http://www.gordonadvisory.com/


IPSA Reading Group Tackles International Intervention


When it comes to humanitarian crises, is all awareness good awareness? Does responsibility ever trump sovereignty, and if so, when? NYU Wagner students gathered to discuss these questions, among others, at an International Public Service Association (ISPA)-sponsored reading group with Professor John Gershman on March 21, 2012.

The thought-provoking and animated discussion began with a look at the controversial Kony 2012 video,  a production of Invisible Children, Inc.  that has gone viral, especially among young people in the United States. The video tugs at viewers’ heartstrings, encouraging them to join an international movement that is calling for the arrest of Ugandan Joseph Kony, a leader in the Lord’s Resistance Army, on charges of war crimes and child abuse. The video has generated substantial support for the campaign against Kony. However, it has also drawn criticism from those who say it misrepresents and oversimplifies the conflict.

Reading-group participants noted the video’s lack of information about what Ugandans have done to fight Kony, and the limited airtime for African perspectives. The video ignores the potential costs of military intervention and many other issues affecting Ugandans and other countries involved in the crisis, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, where Kony is believed to be living. Does the IC production constitute “badvocacy”? What do we make of all the college students who might not have otherwise known the name Kony, and now wear wristbands for the cause?

This led to a broader conversation about U.S. intervention in international affairs. Too often, sound bites about conflicts in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Uganda, among other nations, leave out the history of U.S. actions that exacerbated the problems giving rise to these conflicts. Domestic politics and dependence on oil also play a role in whether and how the U.S. chooses to respond to conflicts across the globe.

It is often easier to criticize than to propose solutions. But the IPSA group did have some ideas:

  1. Consider the appropriate size and scale of U.S. military budget and action. While the costs and benefits of social programs has been a hot topic in U.S. politics in recent years, there has been relatively little talk of this nature with regard to the military and international interventions.
  2. Prepare for peace, not just for war. Support culturally competent peace-building efforts to try to avoid the need for international interventions in the first place.
  3. Tell the truth about complicated conflicts. Sometimes quick summaries are necessary, but public awareness campaigns must eventually translate into nuanced, contextualized understanding and action.
  4. When considering international intervention, think critically about questions such as: What is the history of this conflict? Who is telling the story and how does that affect the way it is told? What is the source of legitimacy for the intervening parties? What is their relationship to local actors? Who is best served by their actions?
  5. Make eye-catching movies about ways to address inequality in our own neighborhoods. Where is the shiny video encouraging people in the U.S. to occupy bank-foreclosed homes?

The IPSA Reading Group, organized by NYU Wagner students in coordination with Professor John Gershman, meets regularly to discuss issues related to international development and policy. This conversation will be continued at IPSA’s 2012 conference on Friday, April 13, 2012.


The Politics of Truth, Justice and Reconciliation


How can societies achieve political reconciliation in the wake of repression, civil conflict and human rights violations? In the final event of the Conflict, Security and Development Series (March 6, 2012), Dr. Vilma “Nina” Balmaceda, Director of the Center for Scholarship and Global Engagement at Nyack College, took up this question. Her talk thoughtfully connected theory with experience, drawing important lessons about the power and the challenges of historical truth-telling.

After periods of intense political violence under repressive regimes in Argentina(1976-1983), Chile(1973-1990) and Uruguay(1973-1985), and during the Shining Path conflict in Peru(1980-2000), each nation began a path toward political reconciliation. Dr. Balmaceda emphasized three main components of this process: building a shared history, seeking truth and justice, and establishing reparations programs. All three present major challenges.

First of all, the story of a conflict often depends on who tells it. In Argentina, Peruand Uruguay, for instance, political leanings continue to predict whether people attribute human rights abuses to a pattern of systematic repression by a powerful regime or to individuals overstepping their bounds. While a truth commission report offers an in-depth explanation of what happened, this does not necessarily generate a shared history either. The findings are available online, but they are not included in school curricula, and many people are unfamiliar with the reports.

Lack of evidence presents another challenge. Victims often “disappeared” without a trace, and witnesses were terrorized. Later, when suspects are brought to trial, a rigorous burden of proof can mean perpetrators go free; a less rigorous standard can mean trials are seen as politically motivated. Due to their differential political power, low-level soldiers often face prosecution while leaders do not.

While no amount of money can make up for the atrocities that occurred, reparations can make a difference in the lives of victims’ families. Here, too, the story is important. Dr. Balmaceda emphasized that reparations should be given with the message that they are a right of those who suffered abuse and injustice, not a result of the generosity of current political leaders.

After extensive research in Argentina, Chile, PeruandUruguay, Dr. Balmaceda concluded that none of these countries has yet achieved political reconciliation. What could help advance the process? She suggests incorporating truth commission findings into public school curricula. Currently, students learn about the military victories of centuries past, but recent repression and peace-building efforts rarely make the history books. In addition, media should publicize not just incidents of violence but also communities’ efforts to remember and to heal. Telling these stories could help decrease polarization and create a shared narrative.

As Dr. Balmaceda remarked, across political lines and individual differences, the dignity and rights of human beings should be the easiest thing to agree on. Still, it seems we have a long way to go.

The Conflict, Security and Development Series at NYU Wagner will pick up these themes again next fall.


Moving Toward Greater Accountability in Humanitarian Aid


In the late 1990s, the international humanitarian community started several initiatives to improve accountability to international refugees and other beneficiaries of humanitarian aid.

How’s it going?

Dr. Mark Foran ( M.D., M.P.H. ), an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the NYU School of Medicine, visited NYU Wagner to speak to that question — and how he and others have been moving it along with research.

He was the guest presenter in this second to last installment for the semester of “The Conflict, Security, and Development Series.” This series at NYU Wagner has attracted top-notch, cutting-edge researchers, policy makers, and practitioners who’ve discussed creative and effective approaches to helping refugees in conflict and post conflict arenas. The final installment will be Tuesday, March 6 with Dr. Vilma Balmaceda. The series will pick up again come the fall.

The Feb. 28 forum with Dr. Foran provided 40-plus listeners with a chance to appreciate the complexity and nuances involved in designing a research-based process by which the quality of humanitarian relief — from the standpoint of the recipients, principally – can be assessed and, where necessary, improved.

Dr. Foran’s research seeks to move the humanitarian aid community toward accountability standards, performance indicators, and data gathering procedures around NGO’s common aims. He is developing them for the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, a voluntary association of many of these organizations, and many large and influential ones.

What’s ultimately needed, he believes, are methods for surveying recipients of humanitarian assistance about their sense of security, sense of hope for the future, empowerment and understanding of who has helped them and whom they can turn to. It’s not enough, he said, for evaluators to conduct site visits at NGO offices abroad and ask questions of staffers. They must go into the field and survey refugees themselves. This, he said, may be the only truly solid way to assess an NGO’s impact beyond fundamental first questions of refugee mortality , morbidity, and nutrition.

In his more hopeful moments, no doubt, Dr. Foran envisions the creation of an accountability index for humanitarian relief organizations , one that could be easily read by world leaders and the general public, based in large part on such carefully designed surveys of the people the NGO’s seek to help. The funding will materialize if and when more NGO’s realize the value – to them and their beneficiaries – of devoting more than “00.1percent” of their annual budget to accountability programs.