South High senior leads social-minded hackathon

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By Chris Peraino

Ryan Lee, a senior at Great Neck South High School and a deft computer programmer, spent the last year or so frequenting hackathons: daylong events where teams of programmers, engineers and designers sprint to develop tech-based projects addressing a particular theme, often for money and other prizes.

Lee found them fun, sure.

But with a typical engineering outlook, he saw the potential for improvement.

He and other high schoolers throughout New York he met competing in these events wondered if hackathons could serve as something greater than an excuse to get together and program. Maybe they could make a social impact.

“We saw that they didn’t have a purpose,” Lee said. “We thought, what if we had a hackathon, but one with a social good theme? A civic hackathon.”

From that thought spawned h2hacks, a nonprofit described as “a student-led social good organization” that Lee founded in March.

The organization’s first event, a 15-hour long hackathon asking for tech solutions to environmental sustainability, will take place on Saturday at the Bushwick Generator in Brooklyn.

Winners of the hackathon will have the opportunity to present their projects at the Our Future Festival NYC, part of Climate Week NYC 2019, the following week at Governors Island in front of a crowd of over 2,000.

Lee and his team settled on an environmentally conscious theme after realizing that they shared a pastime.

“We figured out that most of us had been to beach coastal cleanups,” Lee said. “How great would it be to put our passion for environmental conservation with our love of going to hackathons?”

After solidifying a mission and a name – h2hacks is a play on H2O – Lee and his team spent the summer seeking support from other nonprofits. They found a receptive partner in Sustainable United Neighborhoods, or SUN, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit group focused on advancing the so-called green economy.

“The why for us was this hackathon being so aligned with our environmental justice mission,” said Jay Solly, co-founder of SUN, which secured the event space for h2hacks and serves as general logisticians and fundraisers for the hackathon. “Gen Z coders are definitely the tech innovators not of tomorrow, but very much of today. They understand it intuitively. I turn to them when I have a tech problem. I don’t go farm it out to an agency any longer.”

Roughly 200 high schoolers from throughout the East Coast are expected to attend next week’s hackathon and compete for first, second and third place, along with other distinctions, like Best Education and Awareness Award and Best Game Award.

Projects are allotted a broad set of mediums. A team may produce a game, say, and another an app. Some may code a data collector or build a website. One team will develop machine learning for a trash sorting device; the only requirement is that projects fall under the agenda of environmental sustainability.

But while many attendees will be exceptionally adept at computer science, h2hacks and SUN made a point to foster a more holistic hackathon where beginner or novice hackers could feel comfortable and where all will receive educational opportunities. The event will host a series of workshops and panels related to the green jobs sector.

A Facebook Developers Circle will host a workshop showcasing machine learning’s ability to predict sea levels, for example. Yemi Amu, co-founder of Oko Farms in Brooklyn, New York City’s largest outdoor aquaponics farm, will present on another panel.

“The premise of a hackathon is to empower youth,” Lee said. “The hackathon is a catalyst. You spark their passion for computer science and also make a social impact.”

Equity and diversity are other front-of-mind considerations. Students were heavily recruited in schools that “speak to the cultural competency” of North Brooklyn, Solly said, citing the Williamsburg School of Architecture and Design as well as Grand Street High School in East Williamsburg.

And the traditional hackathon staples of energy drinks and stacks of large pizza boxes were passed over in favor of more nutritious and diverse options: locally sourced Latino and Caribbean food from nearby Moore Street Market or La Marqueta de Williamsburg.

“Tech jobs and coding innovations know no ethnicity. They know no boundary. And so our goal is to make sure we have that inclusion and we’ve instilled that in the students,” Solly added.

Although a flurry of tech goodies, including headphones, keyboards and software, will be doled out to winning teams, the most consequential award will be five-minute spots for flash presentations during the Our Future Festival on Sept. 21.

The Climate Reality Project, a co-sponsor of Our Future Festival, granted SUN a pavilion in Nolan Park. Inspired by the initiative of h2hacks, SUN decided to take a youth engagement approach to its space, transforming the pavilion into a science fair-like presentation of the hackathon’s projects.

That youth-oriented approach is in step with the current climate zeitgeist, as younger climate activists like Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swede who recently spent two weeks sailing the Atlantic in order to attend the UN Climate Summit without leaving a carbon footprint, are increasingly considered pragmatic leaders in the fight against climate change.

“The students are in the same cohort,” Solly said. “They have a much more, quite frankly, vested interest than a baby boomer does about what happens 20 years from now. I know that’s a little stark, but that’s the reality.”

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