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 to see what other creative ideas are being exchanged – and what their impact will be.

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