2017 recap: hackNY summer of good

This past summer was hackNY’s first in which dedicated social good initiatives were officially part of the summer program. For years, hackNY has been passionate about impacting New York city, and our first organized social good programwas a good starting point for us to continue serving our community in the years to come. The class of 2017 hackNY Fellows, made up of 28 talented computer science fellows and 6 mentors who were ‘alumNY’ in previous years, organized a number of social good projects. Looking back at this summer, I asked a few of the Fellows and mentors about their experiences with the social good initiative.


Shelly Bensal is a senior at Carnegie Mellon University and was a hackNY fellow last year at Jigsaw, a subsidiary of Alphabet that aims to make the world safer. As part of her  social good project, she worked with CSNYC, a national organization that works on bringing computer science curriculum into schools at a K-12 level with a focus on enabling teachers to teach those curriculums. CSNYC has a summit every October with a number of partner organizations, but they wanted some way of tracking commitment that these other organizations had made to CSNYC. Sick of dumping data into Excel spreadsheets, CSNYC worked with a Shelly and other hackNY fellows in building a Django web app to better facilitate how CSNYC organizes their partner’s commitments. Although they started in August, towards the end of the fellowship, after the summer ended, they all went home and started Skyping at night to work on the project remotely with each other. Shelly recalls that “it was a cool way to keep in touch and get to know each other better in slightly different contexts.” Today, the project has been finished and handed off to CSNYC. “This is something they reiterated and needed, so I’m confident this will be useful to them moving forward, whether they use it as a base or as a prototype. No matter where it ends up, though, we all got a lot of value.”
SaraAnn Stanway is a junior at Rutgers University studying computer science and was a hackNY fellow last summer working at Wellthy, a healthcare startup. Her passion for volunteering and social good long pre-dates her summer at hackNY. In the past, she has coordinated hackathons, which kicked off a chain reaction of working to retain women minorities in college. With her computer science club at Rutgers, she has done entire outreach programs with undergrads and middle/high school students. Termed ‘virtual classroom visits’, these events give younger students the opportunity to ask questions of computer science veterans about what it’s like to be a coder. This past summer, when she was on the hackNY outreach and lobbying team, she met up with other fellows to call their local legislators to lobby for computer science education. She says that this experience was “really educational because wow, this 45 second phone call is one of the most successful things I can do no matter where I am. This is something I want to bring back to my own school.” Indeed, this year, SaraAnn is working with members of her CS department and planning this coming spring to have undergrads go and work with local schools, do tours of New York City startups, and “overall bring more hands-on education that more resembles hacker culture.”
Bethany Davis is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying computer science. During hackNY, she interned at GIPHY on the search team, using machine learning to make it easier for everyone to find the perfect GIF. As the Head TA for CIS 120, an introductory computer science course at Penn, she has become very passionate about computer science education and education policy. She has volunteered at AFSE in New York (a public/magnet school focused on software engineering in the curriculum) and TechItOut Philly and GEARS Day (Philadelphia-area events for young underrepresented minorities in CS and STEM, hosting and running workshops on web development and sharing my passion for computer science). She worked with SaraAnn in lobbying for computer science education. Every week, they would gather some fellows, call their respective senators and urge them to prioritize and fund CS education in public schools. At the end of the fellowship, she also prepared a presentation to explain different ways to stay involved throughout the year, including a calendar of important dates when local or state-level voting could make a difference.
Dan Gorelick is a software engineer at Two Bulls, a digital product company in New York City, and was a mentor for the hackNY 2017 fellows. Dan, in addition to the other mentors, were all closely involved with the social good initiative. He worked with the New York district attorney office’s trafficking response unit to change the landscape in attacking and preventing human trafficking. He was the project manager of a project built using Twilio. After finishing this project, within a few days, he and his team had investigators in the field already using it. A few weeks later, during the last few weeks of fellowship, five of them went to the district attorney’s office to present to the team, after which point they were invited to continue working with them on other efforts. All in all, there were about 15 of the 28 hackNY fellows working on this project. For Dan, this was his first time getting involved in volunteering and social good efforts. Dan says, “It really makes you understand that volunteer work is not easy, and it definitely is work, but in the end, it’s really great to be able to harness your skills and focus on a problem not just to make profit for a company, or solving technical problems for a product. You’re solving actually meaningful problems.” It’s currently being used by Toronto and Ontario police departments, and combating human trafficking at NYPD.

Although this was hackNY’s first year with a formal social good initiative, I also asked a few of the fellows and mentors about how it compared to other non-profit or volunteering experiences they’ve had in the past. The resounding answer I got was two-fold: What defined hackNY’s social good initiative was the teamwork and passion.

As talented technologists, the hackNY summer fellows (and alumNY-mentors) are hackathon veterans who build side projects in their spare time. They all have software and hardware engineering expertise, whether that be in design, mobile development, web programming, systems infrastructure, or hardware. Applied to social good, these skills have the potential to effect massive change across a community or city, and indeed, we witnessed the fellows’ impact throughout the 10 weeks of the fellowship. The diversity of skills within the fellowship allowed the fellows and mentors to learn from one another and work together, leveraging each other’s skills, to make the most impact possible. Shelly described this community, saying that what made hackNY different from other coding projects or nonprofit opportunities was “the support of the hackNY community. I was living with 30 other people who were interested in social good and wanted to work on a project. I could even ask help from those who weren’t working on my project. There were always people who had experience.” For her, having multiple others working together, forming a support network, was a large learning experience. “It’s not like working on an open source project and being alone. I think hackNY giving me that feeling of teamwork is something that is going to stick with me as I move forward.”

However, these fellows are chosen not only for their technical abilities but also their passion for the New York community and the tech community at large. As it pertains to the social good initiative, the fellows and mentors were proactive and passionate about leading and taking charge of their projects. As Bethany describes, “The hackNY experience was different because we were spearheading the effort, whereas usually I would be reporting to someone else’s vision or agenda. This allowed our group to focus our efforts on our individual passions or directions. On the flip side, there was no one holding us accountable if we weren’t able to deliver on our plans on time. I liked that we had a lot of freedom to pursue whatever social good and whatever impact we wanted, and it was great that the other fellows were equally passionate about pursuing these issues.” Indeed, a common theme that runs throughout hackNY, in both the social good initiative and other projects in general, is that we have a lot of people who actually yearn to help out and start doing things. Shelly says, “We definitely unified as a group who were working on our project. Not only are we helping the community, but we’re becoming a better class of fellows.”

Moving forward, we at hackNY are eager to continue improving our social good initiatives. Although our first year was a success in completing projects and working with organizations throughout New York, we hope to provide our fellows with more structure and opportunities to get involved in meaningful causes, especially at the beginning of the summer as opposed to unorganized and inconsistent times strewn throughout the summer. To this end, we are very excited to begin searching and partnering with causes and organizations throughout the city and formalizing a plan that our fellows can take and run with, not only through the duration of the fellowship, but also beyond. If your organization is a mission-driven org that could benefit from partnering with talented technologists next summer, or if you know a good cause or organization that might be a great hackNY project for summer 2018, please let us know at [email protected] !!