Playing computer games for social good

By Dennis Clemente

NEW YORK– Why hasn’t computer games (with an educational bent) reached critical mass? “Technology changes so fast. It’s about evolution,” said Asi Burak, the author of “Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World,” his book written with Laura Parker, which was also launched last January 31.

Burak talked about computer games for social good at the Storycode meetup last January 24 at the Elinor Munroe theater.

In their book, Burak and Parker explored how video games are now pioneering innovative social change around the world. After all, the remarkable growth of gaming has inspired plenty of hand-wringing–from the press, politicians, parents, and everyone else concerned with its effect on our brains, bodies, and hearts.

As the former executive director and now chairman of Games for Change, Burak has spent more than decade championing the use of video games for social good. He has worked with such revered organizations as the White House, NASA, World Bank, and The United Nations.

“Power Play” sees the future of games as a global movement. Burak and Parker profile important people behind some of the movement’s most iconic games, including former Supreme Court judge Sandra Day O’Connor and Pulitzer-Prize winning authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

Burak pointed out the unlikely gamer in O’Connor helped to develop in line with her civic-mindedness with iCivics. As he quotes her: “…One of the reasons learning games make so much sense for teaching civics is that any government’s role is sort of like creating the parameters within which we play the game of life. Regulations, Policy, Law enforcement….”

As mentioned in the book, iCivics reportedly proved instrumental not only at teaching kids, but also at helping game metaphors thrive in the world of education. Burak thinks we need more social games that introduce players into the world of political discourse. As for technology, Burak said virtual reality should be able to address social and political issues.

Burak, who went to Carnegie Mellon, said he was taught to think using both left and right brains. Not all games need to be a war, it turns out, as he  pointed out he also produced a little game about peace.

Games are not just for entertainment anymore, they are meant to solve problems – hand in hand with technology.

Improving people’s lives through water, coaching and code

By Dennis Clemente

Last July 30, Inside Startups showed what some people are doing to improve people’s lives, why people need each other, and what you can do with your life. Kunal Mehta of charity: water, Christina Lewis Halpern of All Star Code and Michael Miller of TeamPossible were guest speakers at the meetup held at Projective Space.

Mehta helps people in need of water. He found his true calling after leaving the financial world as an investment banker. So far, he said charity: water has done more than 12,000 projects in over 22 countries.

“If everyone in this room donates, 100 percent goes (to those in need),” said Mehta, who is also an author of the book, “Disruptors” about tech startups. “We have provided clean water to over 4 million people in developing countries.”

Hearing inspirational and motivational talk is not too common in a meetup, but Miller also went there, offering TeamPossible’s three life-coaching programs. For those who feel stuck, it offers an Executive Leadership & Life Coaching program. For seasoned executives and entrepreneurs looking to create something that matters, it has a Create Your Legacy program. Finally, it has a Scale Your Impact program for experts who have mastered their craft but are not achieving the results they want.

The meeting was certainly about coming unglued.

All Star Code’s Christina Lewis Halpern runs a new non-profit initiative that prepares qualified young men of color for full-time employment in the technology industry by providing mentorship, industry exposure, and intensive training in computer science.

All Star Code is passionate about closing the opportunity gap between minority males and the tech industry. As it is, African-Americans comprise less than 1% of startup founding teams, a critical sector for job growth and wealth creation.

Also, there are few tech careers that focus on under-represented male youths of any ethnic background.
So All Star Code offers a six-week intensive summer experience for high school male students in New York City. Twenty students in New York City will attend a program in the summer of 2014.

The curriculum will have a rigorous computer science course, but also a soft-skills curriculum (leadership, innovation, team-work.) to help its students stand out years later when they enter the talent pipeline of top companies.

For Halpern, giving young African-Americans an early introduction to the world of technology provides a mode of entry to an industry that has been closed to them.

The meetup was hosted Ali Nicolas.

Matching social enterprises and developers for a common good

RapidFTR in Uganda from Rapid FTR on Vimeo.

By Dennis Clemente

When you meet Vanessa Hurst, you’ll notice her smile; it’s a perpetual smile that makes her effective in playing matchup. She has been matching developers and social entrepreneurs in her meetup, Developers for Good (developersforgood.org), since 2010.

The meetup gathers all organizations of all different needs and stages and those with limited technical skills, even the underfunded.

Last January 30, ThoughtWorks (thoughtworks.com), the tech consulting company, hosted the event in its 15th St office, kicking off the informal talk with the presentation of its company espousing its mantra: “To better humanity through software.”

ThoughtWorks’ Chris George took the stage first, talking about two of its three-year-old projects, RapidFTR (rapidftr.com) and Democracy Now! (democracynow.com)

RapidFTR is a mobile app that helps aid workers collect, sort and share information about children in emergency situations with CouchDB as its initial backend. It has recently moved toward the Android platform.

The other project, Democracy Now!, is an independent media organization that George says “pushes a lot of stories that mainstream media is not discussing.”

“We used some of the early versions of Ruby on Rails. We are still changing the codebase today, but it has provided its challenges, as we provide a more updated experience with the latest technical tools out there,” he adds.

The attendees then took their turn about their own social enterprises, so the developers present in the meetup could find out how they can extend their knowledge and technical expertise on prototyping, forming a technical strategy or even when planning projects.

Unlike most meetups where enterprises have running sites already, Hurst’s meetup had attendees who clearly needed extra hands to launch their enterprises. Bill Graham (wmgraham1@hotmail.com) is on a mission to initiate a program that seeks to improve education on a global scale with volunteer developers out there.

Smaller in scale but already up and running is bourne-digital.com, a children’s publishing and educational software company, focused on meeting the needs of urban schools. Recently named a groundbreaking startup by O’Reilly Media and included in its publishing startup showcase, it plans to launch an adaptive reading platform for tablet devices. It is also looking to hire a CTO. Email founder Daniel Fountenberry at daniel@borne-digital.com

Maria Yuan’s issuevoter.com site aims to help people get involved in elections. She first envisioned her site when she received email alerts about IPOs while working on a campaign in Iowa.

It occurred to her that people could receive email alerts about biils that were up for vote in Congress or the State’s legislature. So, she thought, why not have this same function and more for people to have a say on these matters?!

It was also interesting to hear from a more established social enterprise, newmusicusa.org, which stands up for the rights of the whole music community, from composers to performers. The organization reportedly provides over $1 million each year in grant support for the creation and performance of new work and community building throughout the country.

More attendees spoke up about their own social enterprises – and how they need both developers and non-technical people to help them get their ideas rolling. For them, the Developers For Good meetup helped them network with the right people.

Hurst’s Developers for Good started in 2010 when Hurst said she grew frustrated working for a financial services company. She initially volunteered her database skills before practicing “what I love” now.