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Hackathons, Parolees and Jobs

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Why do hackathons matter? Let me share a story from a hackathon in Oakland on Saturday.

It was an ordinary hackathon setting: Geeks, citizens, journalists, random interested people and a couple of hours to do something world-changing. This time the goal was to build a mobile service or app which would improve the lives of Oaklanders, and the event was called Code for Oakland.

I was interested in ideas that would reduce violence and bring peace to the community because of my work within Peace Innovation, and I got excited when somebody came up with an idea of connecting parolees to the surrounding community. I joined the team gathered around this idea.

After an efficient need-finding and brainstorming session, we narrowed the idea down to the following design challenge:

How can we connect jobs to parolees living at halfway houses?

We ended up on this challenge because we were lucky enough to have a parolee in our team. He shared his experiences about living in a halfway house. This is what he told us in the need-finding session:

Parolees have very limited access to the Internet during their stay at a halfway house: parolees are not allowed to have computers or smartphones with data plans, and often times the house doesn't have publicly available computers. Parolees can leave the house for job hunting only for a limited time, and publicly available computers are hard to find. This creates a problem: Parolees can't respond to job postings in a timely manner.

Why does this problem matter? Because parolees need to find a job, so that they can move to their own place and begin to assimilate into society. If we could help parolees to find jobs, that might improve their lives.

As a result, our team Txt2Wrk developed a solution, which connects parolees to jobs by SMS. The system is easy to use: If you are looking for a job, you submit your resume online. When there is a job opening matching your skills, you will get an SMS notification. You'll get more information about the job via voice message system, and you can respond to the job opening by SMS. Txt2Wrk will then send your resume to the employer.

Thus, parolees don't need to leave the halfway house for job hunting, and they are more equal to other job seekers. Furthermore, the system levels the playing field for parolees with functional illiteracy. During the development process we learned that illiteracy is a big problem among parolees: Over 60 percent of adults in the prisons in the United States read at or below the fourth-grade level. Functional illiteracy hinders job hunting, and that is why we wanted to use voice and SMS as communication methods in the service.

The hackathon had an amazing result: A random group of about 10 people was able to create a rough demo of the SMS/web service in about eight hours, thanks to the awesome and skilled team. Beyond anything else, thanks to the Code for Oakland hackathon. Thanks also for the prize we won.

But the story doesn't end here. Actually, this is only where it starts. In order to really have an impact, we need to develop Txt2Wrk for a working product. Let us know if you can help us.