Civic Hackers and The Future of the Tech Workforce

This is the last of three articles in a series about Public Interest Technology by Code For South Florida Co-Director Livio A. Zanardo. The first is highlighting the departure of the organization’s Director Gregory Johnson for a data governance venture (read it here), the second posits a theory of change for a stronger South Florida through Community Driven Public Interest Technology (read it here), and the third explores the opportunity of a civically engaged technology workforce for South Florida.
With the recent ban of political discussion in the workplace at Basecamp making headlines across the industry, there is no better time to talk about the relationship between technology and politics, particularly between the technology workforce and how they can contribute to the public domain beyond their industry roles. We have already laid out  a theory of change for a better South Florida through Community-Driven Public Interest Technology, and now we will highlight why it is critical for the ecosystem to develop a Civically Engaged Technology Workforce capable of working both in the private sector and the public domain to support civic engagement, facilitate citizen and government interaction, and improve local social services. 

Workforce Development in South Florida

When Miami was declared the top city to start a business by the Kauffman Index in 2017,  Wyncode and Ironhack supplied a great portion of the local technology talent for the emerging ecosystem through their various bootcamp tracks. Only three years and a global health crisis later, South Florida finds itself raising its workforce development efforts through institutional investments to local universities like FIU and UM and professional training programs like Correlation One to meet the demand of Miami’s new Technology boom. 
The promise of a technocratic society has always been economic mobility through knowledge-based contribution. Bootcamps and professional development programs focused on hard technical skills are supplying the growing demand for talent. This is a fantastic opportunity especially for underrepresented communities, as it will expand representation from within the startups and companies that will employ their services as emerging technologists. Universities are also scrambling to take advantage of this growth by plugging themselves into the industry and leveraging their institutional resources to create new engagement opportunities for students and community alike.
There are, however, significant shortcomings in the two most prominent avenues for technical training in South Florida, which are bootcamps and universities. While boot camps offer experiences that facilitate rapid technical learning and often include cumulative projects that test the skills learned in their curriculum, the format often falls short in teaching deeper Computer Science or enabling opportunities for real-world impact. On the other hand, the university education route offers a great deal of research and impact opportunities into deeper theoretical concepts and applied technologies, but unless students go outside of the classroom they are unlikely to receive the collaboration and discovery skills they need to solve humanity’s most pressing problems. Seeing this disconnect among hard skills, on-field experience, and academic theory, Code For South Florida is posing an essential question to make technologists much more than productive members of our local economy: 
What if we also train emerging technologists to support civic engagement, improve social services, and facilitate citizen and government feedback through their technical skills?

A Civically Engaged Technology Workforce

Code For South Florida is an organization of Civic Hackers, or technologists working to solve issues of public interest in their local communities. We refer to “Civic Hackers” as Designers, Engineers, and Ambassadors using their professional industry repertoire to solve problems in our community through collaboration and advocacy for technology solutions.
Civic Hackers build in the public domain by applying their technical skills to real and persistent social problems that markets and governments alone cannot resolve. This is especially true at the county and municipal governments, where resources are fewer but the window for impact on a successful initiative is much more significant. 
Through Civic Hacking methodologies combining civic engagement and modern technology design,  Code For South Florida brought many firsts to the region (which you can read about here), proving the concept that it is possible to build Community Driven Public Interest Technology in South Florida with minimal resources. However, to foster this vision of digital transformation for our communities, we are now exploring opportunities to create a program of lasting impact where we will create a civically engaged workforce building solutions for the community, by the community.  

Experiential Learning Opportunities: The Justice Discovery Initiative Story

The organization already has experience training and working with Civic Hackers to build social impact technology. In 2020, in a 6-week sprint in partnership with Miami Dade College and Mozilla Foundation titled Justice Discovery Initiative, we trained a small team of students with little to no experience building technology projects to leverage their resources on hand and create new features for projects in criminal justice and participatory budgeting. We also connected them with professional mentors from our local community to advise them on their career goals as emerging technologists. 
At the end of the sprint, the students reported an increased confidence in their skill not just to tackle technology problems, but also gained a better understanding of their local governments and how their individual contributions can have an impact beyond the workplace or professional relationships. The experiential learning opportunity that Justice Discovery presented to these students was an unexpected, but indicative highlight of how experiential learning in social impact projects for technologists can complement existing curriculums, effectively weaving elements of Civic education alongside technical and industry concepts for a more complete and comprehensive understanding of how technology projects can change the local landscape. 

What This Means For South Florida

At their core, the Softbank and Knight Foundation investments are enabling local resources for the continuous growth of the technology-industrial complex taking shape in South Florida. What these workforce development programs strive to achieve is to satisfy the growing local demand by creating an equally local supply, ultimately bridging the skill gaps required to grow the market and giving emerging technology professionals their share of the spoils. 
Code For South Florida is now on a mission to bring the community together and build the true workforce force of the future, taking inspiration from the Justice Discovery Initiative. The number of Technologists available in the market will open up new avenues for industry growth, which also means more potential Civic Hackers to start and support social impact projects for public interest issues. 
Through a combination of existing programs paired with opportunities for civic engagement through technology, we will be uniquely positioned as a region to raise the success rate of Public Interest Technology projects and become not just a technology hub for private industry, but also for social innovation at the intersection of local government, private enterprises, and social services that will make Miami not just a place with cheap real estate, taxes, and wages for transplants, but also a great place for locals inside and outside of the technology ecosystem.

Livio Zanardo