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The social services and tech sectors need to communicate more

Russ Starke, Dave Brindley and Jessica Paschke. May 9, 2016 Category: FeaturedLongMediumPurpose
The beer and wine were flowing, the pita was on the table, copious hummus adorned the spread, and Russ Starke knew just the question he wanted to ask the room: Uh, people — what the hell?

It was a fitting opening to a Thursday evening soiree (one of many happening during Philly Tech Week) held at the Center City offices of design firm Think Brownstone, where Starke is executive vice president. The topic: community service in Philadelphia, specifically as it relates to the city’s growing scene of technologists — the coders, developers, user experience designers and other assembled digerati — and how they can be better and more involved.

Starke had a tale to share. At Think Brownstone, the company comps each of its 65 employees two days each year to do some sort of service work in the city. Multiply 16 hours by 65 employees, and that’s a potential 1,040 total, logged hours of community service. Except, last year, after all the Think Brownstone employees added their hours, the sum total was 78 hours.

“We had employees telling us it took them 16 hours just to find out where to do service in the city,” Starke told the crowd of around 40.

Speaking on behalf of some of the city’s numerous nonprofits were Dave Brindley and Jessica Paschke, representing Not In Philly and Broad Street Ministry, respectively.

Both talked about how their nonprofit work has slowly been integrating more technology into their missions. For Brindley’s Not In Philly, technology is at the core. Tired of spotting litter on the streets around his city home, and wanting to facilitate the organization of grassroots cleanups undertaken on a more regular basis by neighbors and residents in other neighborhoods, Brindley linked up with the civic technologists of Code for Philly. Today Not In Philly has an interactive map about 90 percent complete. When it test launches in Brindley’s neighborhood of Walnut Hill, the aim will be to use Instagram and other social tools to document where the litter is, mark it on the map, and then mobilize residents to grab trash from their streets once a week in exchange for a trash grabber.

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Service in Phily PTW Andrew Zaleski

(Photo by Andrew Zaleski)

At Broad Street Ministry, where “radical hospitality” is offered to people who are homeless and are just looking for a meal, a change of clothes or a mailing address, volunteer efforts have been coordinated for about a year and a half using an online hub. The online tool reminds people which days they signed up to volunteer, sends volunteers a message of thanks afterward, and lets volunteers sign up on a waitlist to help out during Saturday meal service, one of the more popular days for volunteers during Broad Street Ministry’s Monday-through-Saturday meal service.

“But we need a visual communications system,” Paschke said, perhaps something like a glorified digital projector that can alert those who stop in at Broad Street Ministry during meal service when some of the other social services they offer — psychiatric services, dental consultations and legal services, among others — are available.

The conversation was a little light on what people who work for Philly’s myriad tech companies could do for Not In Philly, Broad Street Ministry and other nonprofits outside of contributing community service hours (which, as Brindley and Paschke both noted, are very much appreciated).

If there’s a particular tech angle for the nonprofit world, it’s something that’s still being figured out, and for good reason: The ways the tech community interacts with the city’s nonprofit sector needs to be driven by the nonprofits themselves, who know intimately the work they do, the people they serve and what their immediate needs are. But the gauntlet was certainly laid down.

“Philly’s already on the map as a tech hub,” Starke said. “But how about the tech community — how about we do something awesome together?”

Call it community service hacking. But the underlying message Starke was trying to convey was that if Philly tech companies banded together, service opportunities would be easier to find and could, potentially, have greater impact.


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