The Real Reason Girls Don’t Want to Code

image

I recently sat down for a visit with friend who is running a program focused on STEM, and his insights into the boy/girl ratio were discouraging. “We offer coding camps and courses and work hard to get the word out to everyone. We send invitations to all of the girl-focused organizations. But last time, we only had one girl show up.  This time? None.”

A study released by Google indicated that when girls aren’t familiar with technology, they view STEM as hard, difficult and boring. But here’s the thing: I honestly don’t believe that girls are turned off by STEM because it’s hard or simply because girls think they’re bad at math. Girls aren’t wimps or wilting flowers; they don’t shrink from challenges just because something isn’t a strength. When girls are inspired, when they believe the payoff is worth the risk, discomfort, fear or effort, they can be unrelenting in the pursuit of a goal. Self-doubt doesn’t stop a girl when she wants something bad enough.

The problem isn’t that girls don’t think they can code; the problem is that they don’t want to code badly enough to get past any of their doubts or weaknesses. If you think about it, why shouldn’t girls be turned off? Think of what we see in movies, television – or in the news. The entertainment industry rarely portrays ‘tech’ characters with anyone young girls easily identity with; far too often those characters are either bad boy bro-culture or awkward misfits – neither of which are stereotypes that inspire girls to imagine themselves enjoying a career spent coding. And if you read tech news at all, you know how often it is filled with stories of badly behaving executives, unequal pay for women, and limited opportunities for funding for women in tech. We, as a culture, really aren’t doing a very good job of selling tech to girls.

If we are going to get more girls into STEM and have them like it, I firmly believe we need to change the “why” of these programs and events. Consider that have girls have flocked to Girl Scouts for over a century, in large part, because Girl Scouts play to girls’ natural strengths of leadership and social problem solving.

We need to stop telling an entire gender they need to embrace STEM because it’s good for their brain or if they don’t, boys will get all the good, high-paying jobs. It’s not working, and I’m kind of glad, because it means girls aren’t buying the logic that they need to do something just because boys do. We need to play to girls’ strengths and invite them to participate in projects that create solutions for social issues or problems that they care about – and then offer accessible tech which empowers girls to stop thinking about doing STEM and just use the technology, developing skills along the way as a means to an end. When STEM is simply a set of skills and tools to help solve problems we care about, it takes the scary out of tech.

Besides, girls most definitely embrace tech – think of the evolution of selfies since the introduction of camera phones, of instagram videos and photos with powerful storytelling in the unique framing and juxtaposition of images, and even the storyboarding on Pinterest – all predominantly female audiences using tech as the background for their creative expression.

image

Our team at APPCityLife recently flew out to California as a technical sponsor for a local weekend challenge focused on solving congestion problems. When I asked one of the attendees, what motivated her and her companion to come to the event, she said, “We don’t either one of us know how to develop apps, so we just showed up hoping someone else here would like our idea enough to take it for their own project and run with it.”

I should add that she told me this as she stood next to me moments after she and her team were named the winners. She stood there smiling at her other two team members, shaking her head in dismay. “We won. We won,” she said. She paused and then said again, “We won!”

Imagine that.

Imagine waking up early on a rainy Saturday morning to attend a local hackathon – and being willing to do that without any hope of participating in any meaningful way beyond attempting to convince someone else with the right skills to take your idea and run with it. But when she and her companion heard the announcement that our platform was available to attendees, they wanted to learn more. We initially developed our platform for our own needs of robust app development and management, but its user-friendly interface makes it more easily accessible for those without prior coding experience. The need for such a gateway platform in the civic space inspired us to begin opening it up to the public through events like that weekend’s hackathon.

The couple attended our brief bootcamp and eventually teamed up with another attendee. For the rest of the weekend, the three worked under the mentoring of our team to build out their prototype mobile application and test the viability of the original ideas of a woman who believed her solution could improve the experience of riders while helping stimulate the local economy. She showed up with an idea and left with the understanding that she didn’t have to give her idea away to someone else with the right skills; she and her team could own it themselves and create their own solution.

It has been one of my proudest moments in my company when we were able to celebrate the success of her team. It was something to realize we were able to offer a portal into this incredibly rich world of tech, and our team of mentors made that experience a positive, rewarding one.

The response since the hackathon has been more than I expected. I was happy with an early win and validation, but I wasn’t expecting what followed. Invitations are starting to roll in for our team to bring our platform to civic and tech events across the U.S as well as Mexico City. We’ve entered very early conversations with a few educational institutions about launching gateway STEM programs. And we have already forged exciting new partnerships with inspiring groups like the Geek Girls Club of the YWCA of the City of New York, which, by the way, is also the oldest women’s organization in the U.S.. In fact, our team will host our first bootcamp of the year this coming January in the heart of New York City for high school girls who are actively exploring this rich, exciting world of STEM, whether by traditional means or something else in-between.

The demand is high and growing rapidly. We’re a small startup, but we’ve already imagined great things that we simply got busy and made happen. I am committed to push forward with one of our more lofty goals – to empower those who have had little or no access or enough valid reasons to enter the world of STEM. I am hoping others will be inspired by our early wins – like when our civic bootcamp ended up with over 50% women in attendance – and that others will be inspired to support and join our efforts so we can begin to change the ‘why’ for more girls and help shift the metrics just a bit more every time in the right direction. Together, I firmly believe that we erase the real and imagined barriers into tech by creating easier access to gateway platforms which lower the barrier of entry for so many groups who have believed themselves a poor fit for whatever reason within this world of STEM.

That’s a pretty powerful ‘why’, don’t you think?

Also published on Huffington Post.

Addressing the Downside of Civic Hacking: Creating A Financially Sustainable Model

Members of the ABQ Civic Entrepreneur Bootcamp building apps on the CityLife platform

Members of the ABQ Civic Entrepreneur Bootcamp building apps on the CityLife platform

One of the best known civic mobile app contests is the NYC BigApps Challenge. The competition has attracted hundreds of teams from around the world, all vying for high dollar prizes and the promise of a coveted contract with the City of New York. Since the contest’s inception five years ago, hundreds of apps have been launched – with last year’s winners alone sharing a prize pool of over $150,000.

For the winners, it is well worth the effort. The prize money, especially considering that no stake in equity is taken from the winning team or company, is of high enough dollar amount to recoup costs for time spent developing, testing and deploying the app – and possibly make a small profit depending on the size of the team. Along with prize money, there is also the value of international publicity generated for finalists and winners.

But what of the hundreds of apps that aren’t winners, which earn neither publicity nor money? An in-depth study that followed the apps submitted for the 2011 competition reported that only 35% of the applications could be verified as still working one year later. The apps which integrated multiple sources of data along with user-generated content were the most likely to still be in use, but even among those apps, almost half were no longer being supported. That is a lot of time, programming talent, and effort expended on projects with very little reward beyond the experience.

This is only one contest with one study, so perhaps the results would trend differently with larger samples, but I’m not so sure. As the founder and CEO of APPCityLife, a startup delivering a global platform with sustainable options for developing and maintaining useful mobile apps for cities, I have heard this story told all too often by hackathon organizers, city leaders and civic hackers. In fact, in a private conversation with our team, the founder of one of the world’s largest civic hacking groups went as far as expressing regret for launching the group due to the growing challenges of leveraging short-term volunteer labor to create longterm solutions for communities – not because solutions aren’t needed but because most of the events hosted by his organization delivered very little in the way of viable product – and when a completed project was deployed, finding funding and an entity to deliver continued support was an even more difficult proposition.

Here is what I believe must happen if we, as a global community, want to effectively exploit the power of mobile apps to address the growing civic demand for access to information and communication via mobile.

Free Labor Is Not A Sustainable Solution

While most of us have likely participated in volunteer efforts focused on a personal passion, very few of us can sustain full time or long term involvement without enough financial benefit to cover our day to day expenses. Even as a corporation, our team can only provide charitable support to a limited number of worthy institutions. This whole “build it and they will come” notion that somehow all that is necessary is for cities to send their data out into the ether and then the data will be embraced by developers and integrated into useful tools solving pain points for citizens for free is short-sighted. While open data most definitely accessed and used in very valuable ways beyond building mobile apps, it is important to realize that when it comes to this particular aspect of open data, free is not a sustainable solution.

Students, community groups and individuals are usually more than willing to show up for a day or a weekend to attempt to address local issues, brainstorm solutions and begin the hard work of building out the technology needed to bring that solution to viable product, more often that not, a day or a weekend is just not enough time. And expecting these groups or individuals to continue work over long periods of time without financial remuneration is not only unreasonable, it is not good business. Without proper funding, solutions are not easily maintained, updated, or grown to add new features. It is one of the reasons we spent almost a year building a real time coupon server where geolocated, targeted offers are deployed on the fly on a local level. By offering revenue share models where income generated through mobile coupons, sponsorships and advertising is shared with those creating solutions for their community, there is proper incentive for apps to be sustained longterm. And it works – our first public school app went out the door already generating more revenue for the school district than was spent on development or support fees.

Open Data Must Be Normalized For Affordable Mobile Integration

Since most open data is being delivered from legacy servers with myriad formats, the challenge of integrating multiple data sets that are structured differently is a difficult challenge even for experienced programmers. When our team began work on our own global open data app, we experienced first-hand the challenge of developing an app accessing data feed from a variety of sources, including companies like Socrata or Junar as well as data produced by in-house teams in other cities. Instead of tackling each of the data sets individually, we stopped production on the app and took a month to build an incredible piece of technology – a world-class open data server which analyzes data from almost any source and normalize it on the fly for immediate use in mobile as everything from charted city budgets to real-time mapped locations of food trucks. It almost feels like magic happens when an open data feed is added and then appears as a readable chart within seconds. And the best benefit of automating complex coding is greatly reduced requirements of both skill level and time to produce a finished product, meaning that an app that might cost six figures and take months with custom coding can be produced in a few days or weeks and supported for as little as a few thousand dollars a year – and generated advertising revenue can often cover or exceed those costs.

Make Mobile Development Accessible to Non-Developers

During a recent meeting with the CIO of a city on the West Coast, it was mentioned that the majority of people who attend the civic hackathons his city hosts arrive with almost all of the right ingredients: passion, ideas, and willingness to work as a team. What is missing from the majority of the attendees is the one skill needed to create mobile apps for civic solutions, mainly the ability to code. And after his team reviewed numerous platforms available on the market today, none provided the depth of flexibility or the sophistication needed to enable non-developers to create powerful civic apps that would actually solve the problem being addressed. It is one of the many motivators behind our decision to make the necessary upgrades to our platform to offer a version which graphic artists, web developers, and passionate activists could comfortably use. It is vital that as a global community, we enable those who are most willing and able to solve problems to access tools that enable them to finish the job in hours or days instead of months. After news of our first successful bootcamp this past weekend – the first time anyone outside of our own team gained access to our platform – requests for a spot on a waiting list to access this platform have already started pouring in from those in attendance to as far away as South America, Europe and Africa.

If we want open data initiatives to truly succeed and become the conduit for useful mobile tools in our communities, we must offer options for funded projects, provide access to powerful tools which serve as stepping stones for STEM. Only then can we create sustainable public-private partnerships. We will all reap the benefits of more available civic mobile solutions when we come to the place that the only limit holding us back is time.