Students, faculty, and tech professionals from across the United States recently got together to collaborate on innovative tech-for-good projects as part of A Better Tech-a-thon.

The hands-on virtual event took place on October 14th and 15th, 2021, and was presented by DemocracyLab, Code for America, and New York University, with sponsorship from Amazon.

It was part of the A Better Tech Public Interest Technology Convention and Career Fair —  the first event of its kind in the US to bring together talented students, leading researchers, organizations, and companies passionate about serving public interest through responsible and accountable tech.  The event was convened by New York University (NYU), with support from New America’s Public Interest Technology University Network.

The goal of A Better Tech-a-thon was to provide participants an opportunity to hone their skills while networking and making valuable contributions to numerous tech-for-good projects.  Projects were sourced from the Code for America Brigade Network and DemocracyLab and ranged in missions from educating children about the trees around them, to making it easier to locate food donation sites.

Hana Schank, co-director of the Public Interest Technology program at New America and author of Power to the Public, said that looking at the participating projects was like “taking a spin through people’s hopes and dreams for a better world.”

“The world that you are all envisioning is a beautiful place where technology is used intelligently and thoughtfully to connect people instead of dividing them; to empower people, especially those who have been historically marginalized; and to make not only government, but society work better and more effectively, ”Schank added.

Matt Statler, the Richman Family Director of Business Ethics and Social Impact Programming at NYU Stern said about the hackathon: “To see and hear all of these examples of incredible work and interesting challenges people have selected, public interest challenges that people are bringing technology to bear on, and a clearly vibrant and ongoing network for really great collaborations across geographies and disciplines… and the knowledge of civic infrastructure, government, and political science is really, really super.”

Mona Sloane, Director of the This is Not a Drill (TINAD) program and Future Imagination Collaboratory (FIC) Fellow at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, applauded the young talented participants for choosing to get involved in public interest technology careers.

“I firmly believe in putting things on the road and translation work between disciplines, between the public, policymakers, technologists, and so on,” said Sloane.

She added, “I really do think that the hackathon work that has happened as part of this event, as well as the other hackathons run by DemocracyLab, are really important in practicing that and getting us to a place where we more routinely can do that work.”

Participating universities included City University of New York; Columbia University; New York University; Pepperdine University; Stanford University; University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Washington.

Collaborating on public interest projects

The exciting two-day hackathon virtually brought together coders, designers, researchers, project managers, subject matter experts, and test users from different time zones to work on 17 unique projects.

For students, the event provided a great opportunity to sharpen their skills, extend their networks, and begin long-term relationships as project contributors.

More experienced tech professionals were also able to further their passions by helping tech-for-good projects make incremental progress toward their long-term goals, as well as work with the next generation of talent.

The participating projects were:

  1. 59Boards — Aims to update or rebuild New York City’s system of 59 community board districts to allow the public to better get involved with local politics.
  2. Accessibility Ratings — A crowd-sourced application for accessibility ratings that will help users and organizations adopt and use more accessible applications.
  3. Banana App — A location-based food donation app system that connects food donors and low-income clients.
  4. Council Data Project — An entirely free and open application that makes it easier to follow one’s local municipality’s council action.
  5. EnCiv — "A portal for productive democracy online, using processes derived from in-person dialog & deliberation, because social media is like a mob!
  6. Full Disclosure Project — Aims to disrupt the culture of secrecy that systematically and pervasively shields law enforcement misconduct.”
  7. iSeaTree — A game-play app that helps kids learn, identify, and record trees in the U.S. and Canada and works with US Forest Service’s iTree CO2 calculator.
  8. — Lifecycle Tools for Schools and Communities using US EPA widgets.
  9. OutreachApp — An app that streamlines communication between outreach groups providing services and resources to the unsheltered community
  10. P4H — An app that empowers education systems in developing countries by facilitating collaboration and certifications for teachers and P4h staff.
  11. Pipeline — Fighting unemployment & streamlining the job search by offering a centralized application tracking system and recruiting insights.
  12. Proof of Humanity — Many immigrants are undocumented and don't get social services. BrightID approaches this issue with a "Proof-of humanity" tech we'll test.
  13. Saving Political Sites — Local political candidate websites disappear post-elections -- this project collects and archives those websites to make them accessible.
  14. Smart City Planning — OSM2GMNS aims to enable rapid creation of routable multimodal networks and demand in General Modeling Network Specification.
  15. Transpare-NC — Starting with campaign finance data, TRANSPARE-NC plans to offer unprecedented access and insight into North Carolina politics.
  16. Vot-ER — An organization at the crossroads of health and democracy that helps patients register to vote in healthcare settings.
  17. Yellow Box Disaster Relief — Rapid and local coms and supply chain app for volunteers.

Get involved

Since launching its open-source platform in 2018, DemocracyLab has convened more than 20 tech-for-good hackathons aimed at supporting public interest technology.

The hackathons have allowed projects to execute a narrow scope of work and make incremental progress towards their long term goals, and volunteers to begin long-term relationships with projects that match their skills and interests while upskilling and advancing their careers.

For more information on how you can participate in DemocracyLab’s next tech-for-good event, please visit our events page.

For a list of ongoing volunteer opportunities, make sure to check out DemocracyLab’s project listings.

And if you're a company representative seeking innovative ways to increase employee enthusiasm and retention, take a look at our corporate engagement page.