Dawn McDougall is looking forward to the upcoming reentry hackathon. Not only is it an important topic, but it's an opportunity, she said, for Philadelphians to look into the issue broadly and develop potential solutions for people returning from prison.
McDougall is the executive director of Code for Philly, the organization that will produce the event for the Reentry Project, a collaborative of 15 Philadelphia newsrooms focused on issues of and programs for the formerly incarcerated. The Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com are among them.
The hackathon-style event, named "Power-Up Reentry: A Digital Solutions Day," will begin Oct. 20 at Industrious Philadelphia at Broad and Locust Streets, while the hackathon itself will take place at WHYY on Independence Mall on Oct. 21.
Though this is a little different from previous hackathons that McDougall has been a part of, she said, she's hopeful this reentry event will lay the groundwork for further collaboration and discussion.
Developers, coders, journalists, and Philadelphians who have experience with reentry are expected to attend. Typically, a hackathon lasts an entire weekend or overnight as technologists work to create services — or easier access to services — around a specific topic, though McDougall said the model has changed over time. It's unstructured, but in a good way. Participants can work together or alone on reentry-focused projects.
McDougall recently spoke about her role in the hackathon and the event's importance. (This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
What is the process behind developing a hackathon based on reentry?
The Reentry Project bought us in to do the production of the hackathon based on our other experience of organizing and operating hackathons in the past, and for this particular issue it's very broad. There are a lot of players, a lot of voices. It was really important to the organizers on the reentry side that we bring in people with lived experience and really collaborate with people who have lived experience, people who are service providers, people who were working really directly with this community.
The idea behind that was, how do we bring in a lot of voices; at the same time, how do we wrangle in all those voices and opinions and perspectives and distill that into something actionable? And that's a challenge in any software developer project. That was really the thinking behind it, was having the call for ideas, asking what would you want to see change in reentry, what are your ideas. Pretty high level, but it gives people the opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas.
How do reentry and technology relate to one another?
Code for Philly has really always approached technology as a tool, and we think that that idea is getting more popular. I think we know that there are limits of just doing technology for the sake of doing technology. We kind of know that that's an unsustainable model, so we're really approaching technology as a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself.
I think with that frame in mind, it really helps you focus on, "OK, the problem that I am trying to solve is reentry. I'm not trying to solve this technical problem," and there's space for that too. Technical innovation is important, too, but for the hackathons that we produce and operate it's really more about the vision. The vision is that we want to solve this problem. Where do data and technology fit into this conversation? Not the other way around.
Why do you think reentry is an important topic to focus on at a hackathon?
Reentry is important for a lot of good reasons, and there are a lot of good people working on it. Why is it important at hackathon is that we haven't quite cracked the nut on data and technology in this space. In fact, when we were trying to imagine what data would be useful at this hackathon, we were kind of scratching our heads a little bit about what data is out there. What would be the most useful for these problems and what's most useful for service providers and people who are resources in this space?
I think there's a lot of opportunity for technology that can help in a more upstream place in the system, but we need to start having those conversations. We won't solve that all at this hackathon, but just starting the conversation, bringing awareness and bringing these communities of practice together, I think can have a long-term impact down the line in the future.
Who would you say is your target audience at this hackathon?
I think that the goal in many ways is collaboration, so I guess we would need a few different players for that. I think the collaboration is people who will be called subject matter experts, people who really know the space very well and then professionals who can help create solutions for that.
Those are kind of the two big buckets and then subject matter experts, that could be a person with lived experience, that could be a family member, a service provider, a journalist, just someone who is passionate. It's hard to say, I think more than anything, someone who is passionate about solving this issue and kind of rolling up their sleeves and being a part of it.
Will you address some of the issues that those reentering society might have?
The hackathon is going to be very participant-driven and our participants are people who are submitting their ideas. I think what our job to do is create the right conditions for that collaboration, but I think ultimately what people want to focus on is going to be a result of conversations they have. My guess is that because we're including the right people, that we'll start to get at these issues.
What challenges do you see as you prepare for the hackathon?
What is one of the most difficult things when we talk about bringing two communities together is creating a bridge for them to work together. What [Code for Philly] found over the course of organizing many hackathons is that you can't just put people with specific knowledge and expertise together and expect they're going to know how to collaborate.
I think organizationally what our challenges are, are creating the right conditions for that collaboration, and what that really means is understanding what the needs of each community are and then finding ways to meet those needs that are equitable for both.
Do you hope that people who are attending this hackathon will have a better understanding of reentry after?
Yes, definitely. I think that to build good digital products, digital software, you have to understand the needs of the people that the product is serving. Humanizing a problem space is so important, and so I think my goal is to get at people who are not familiar with reentry. I think collaboration is one of the most meaningful ways to really build knowledge about something and really build a connection to, so my goal would be to create awareness understanding but also to kind of lay the foundation of a relationship where people can continue to collaborate down the line.
Why do you think hackathons are important to Philadelphia?
The reason that I think it's so important is one of the good pieces of feedback that we've gotten over the years is just the impact of exposure. I think you'd be surprised about how many people in Philadelphia want to be civically engaged, they want to do something. Not only do they want to do something, they want to use their talents and skills to do that thing, and they want to be able to do it on their own time, because we're in a new generation. What we're talking about is a new generation of civic engagement, a new generation of volunteerism and changing what that looks like.
It's still important to have more traditional modes of volunteerism, certainly not saying that this is any kind of replacement, but if we're not using technology as a mode of civic engagement, then we're missing a huge opportunity. The hackathons are a great way to condense that volunteerism, kind of compress that timeline of getting involved and getting a taste for impact.
Making technology work for returning citizens
One out of every six Philadelphians has been incarcerated. Returning home from prison can be an uphill battle. This event will bring together returning citizens, journalists and technologists to discuss what needs these Philadelphians have and how technology can help.
Read more about the Philadelphia Reentry Project here.
Where: Industrious Coworking Space at 230 S. Broad St., 17th Floor.
When: Oct. 20 from 6 to 8 p.m.