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Watts 'hackathon' takes a step toward narrowing the digital divide

Watts 'hackathon' takes a step toward narrowing the digital divide
DeCarlis Wilson, center, helps children learn to code at a "hackathon" organizedby Teens Exploring Technologyat the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts. (Daina Beth Solomon / Los Angeles Times)

As high schooler Geovany Gonzaga typed lines of HTML code on a Mac laptop, a green Web page sprang to life on the screen.

"If I could learn more coding I'd get more hooked on it," said Gonzaga, 16, who was trying his hand during a "hackathon" Saturday organized by Teens Exploring Technology, a South L.A. nonprofit that teaches computer science and entrepreneurship skills.

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Gonzaga doesn't have a computer of his own, so he uses school computers during lunch or after classes for homework, rushing to finish.

But on Saturday, the hackathon provided laptops and the guidance of tech-savvy mentors who had gathered at Nickerson Gardens in Watts, L.A.'s largest housing project. It followed the model of other hackathons that draw professional and hobbyist computer programmers for hours of nonstop coding and software tinkering.

For Teens Exploring Technology, known as TXT, the event was a step toward easing the digital divide in a neighborhood low on technology access compared with more affluent parts of the city.

Organizers went door to door at Nickerson Gardens spreading word of the program, which offered free lunch and breakfast and was open to South L.A. youths ages 8 to 17. More than 70 turned up, most from Nickerson Gardens. TXT co-founder Oscar Menjivar, a South L.A. native, said the event marked the first hackathon at any housing project in the country.

Built in 1955 with more than 1,000 units, Nickerson Gardens was once notorious for gang violence. Just outside the recreation center where students typed on Macs on Saturday, a yellow wall listed names in gothic font honoring people of Nickerson Gardens who have died. It also listed names of community advocates. The same spirit of social responsibility pervaded the hackathon, called Hustle & Code.

Using several dozen Mac laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots on loan from Google, the students brainstormed local issues they wanted to address with technology.

One group of students created Feed Watts, a website stylized with animated fruits and a banner reminiscent of the Ralph's store logo, to list food giveaways to aid the homeless.

Another group designed an app that would ask users to report dirty classrooms, damaged equipment, out-of-date textbooks and unappetizing lunches at their schools.

A third cohort proposed an app to help users photograph scenes of discarded trash, broken streets and faulty lighting in Watts.

"If the app takes off and does well here, we'll expand it to the nation, or the world, maybe," said one teenage boy, delivering his idea in a presentation to the room with the flair of an Apple chief executive announcing a new gadget.

TXT's effort to draw South L.A. kids into computer science comes as diversity advocates are blasting tech companies for being led and staffed mostly by white men.

The latest "diversity reports" from businesses such as Yahoo and Facebook show little change from last year. Facebook, for example, said last month that 55% of its U.S. workforce is white, 36% is Asian, 4% is Latino, 3% is "two or more races" and 2% is black.

To DeCarlis Wilson, a hackathon volunteer-mentor, these reports are "abysmal." He said he is the only black person among 100 employees at a Costa Mesa financial services company, and looks for opportunities to encourage youth from low socioeconomic backgrounds like his own.

Sitting between two fidgety proteges, Wilson kept coding instructions simple: "How do we close this tag? It's none other than a duplicate of what we just wrote."

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But one student soon became distracted by a CD-sized device flying above. "What is that, what is that? It's like a bug!" It was a drone, shining a tiny blue light as it soared through the basketball court.

Wilson hoped the event could spark excitement for technology, saying that even three years of tech education could help high school graduates land jobs at top companies.

"If you go to a hackathon and you've impacted a handful of kids' lives, then it's worth it," he said. "But you also need a longer-term solution."

Twitter: @dainabethcita

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