Hackathon Seeks to Empower Latino Communities

By Jackie Serrato, Staff Writer

About three in four U.S. Latinos own a smartphone, according to figures compiled by Nielsen, and the Latino presence on social media can rightly be called enormous. (You’re probably reading this on your phone right now).

But while Latinos are among the leading consumers of technology, Census data indicates they comprise only about seven percent of the people who actually create it.

This disparity became glaringly obvious for Lucio Villa last month when he flew to Boston for a software development event at MIT and realized he was one of two Latinos in the room.

Upon returning to Chicago, he pitched the idea of a homegrown hackathon to a small network of technology-focused Millennials known as Latino Techies. The group ran with it and successfully held a Latino Hackathon earlier in February.

The day-long event at Cultura in Pilsen, 1900 S. Carpenter St., coincided with International #OpenDataDay and other synchronized hackathons across the globe.

Let’s be clear: this is not the type of illegal hacking in the basement you see in movies.

Normally, web developers with technical backgrounds get together in college campuses and cafés to code a solution to a problem, which leads to the development of a phone app, website, interactive map or something otherwise practical.

The Latino Hackathon, on the other hand, did not expect participants to possess advanced skills in computer science. Latino Techies welcomed data analysts, community organizers, journalists, bloggers, photographers, and graphic designers. The sprinkling of developers on hand were receptive to other people’s fields of expertise.

“‘Hacking’ is not the right term,” Villa said. “I feel like ‘hacking’ is like stealing something, but we’re just using the resources that are available. It’s all open source.”

Essentially, participants worked with publicly accessible data and utilized free platforms or ones which came directly from the organizations they were researching. The idea was to get teams to think creatively about community issues and build prototypes they could develop on their own time. The emphasis was not on a final product but on the collaborative and exploratory function of the hack day.

Salvador Muñoz, a resident of the Midway area, had never been to a hackathon before, but his perspective as a community organizer with the Latin United Community Housing Association (LUCHA) was integral to his team.

They looked at the hundreds of single-family homes that had been bought up en masse by corporations in working and middle-class neighborhoods. As a model, the team was researching a single corporation — Blackstone’s Invitation Homes — because it was the most active firm purchasing these properties.

“It’s been really hard because the website that has the data, it sucks,” Villa said. “The two developers have to create a program to download the information. It’s information that’s painstaking to extract.”

With this data set, his team would find ways to be alerted when major investment groups were “snooping around in our communities,” according to Muñoz, “so that the hardest-hit residents can organize themselves.”

Additionally, the data would provide a map of the recent migration patterns of communities that have been impacted by economic displacement.

“These are not only numbers to show our funders that there is a need for the services that we provide, but it shows us a larger story that we can humanize,” Muñoz said.

Latino Techies co-founder Luz Chavez, who was among a small number of women in attendance, said Latinas are huge consumers of digital media, “yet (need) to see ourselves more as leaders and creators.”

“Being the only woman in Latino Techies and a queer Latina at that, is a constant reminder of one of our main goals: to reach out to underrepresented communities and keep tech from being such a boys club,” she said.

Not only can new technologies help underserved communities grapple with social challenges like gentrification and crime, they can help mobilize us to become more politically informed, vote, bring resources to our fingertips, undertake collective actions and determine the future of our institutions.

“I just want to empower Latinos with the right skills,” Villa said. “A lot of businesses that open up in Pilsen are by people that are not from the community. What if we train these kids to create technology so they can get a $60,000-$90,000 job? Then they can buy a building or a business!”

As Muñoz said, “We need to revolutionize how Latinos see tech.”

Latino Techies plan to host more hackathons in the same venue throughout the year.

The inaugural event was held in partnership with the Chicago Chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and Google.

Learn more about the group by following them on Twitter @LatinoTechies.

Photo courtesy of Gerardo Pelayo.

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