Silicon Valley Hacks Foster Care

After launching at the White House and building steam in New York City, the intersection of tech and foster care has made it to the mother ship in northern California. Yesterday kicked off the two-day Silicon Valley Hack Foster Care Summit, the latest event in a growing movement to the foster care and technology communities together to hack the system.

Over 250 youth, philanthropists, social workers, policy makers, entrepreneurs and tech leaders descended on Microsoft’s Mountain View conference space to put their minds together around the challenges that define the child welfare landscape in California’s Bay Area. The first day of the summit set the stage by sharing stories from youth and alumni of foster care to create understanding around the foster care experience. It also introduced the child welfare community to design thinking, a model to generate ideas collaboratively and think outside the box that is very at home in the start-up capital of the country. The framework established on day one of the summit will be woven into breakout sessions and group work done by participants on day two as they work to improve the system.

Durell Coleman of DC Design kicks of the Hack Foster Care Summit in Silicon Valley. Photo: Elizabeth Green

Attendees spent the first part of the afternoon yesterday getting ready for the thirteen hours of work time and sessions ahead of them, spent over the course of two days. After a welcome by Microsoft’s Director of U.S. Government Affairs, Jonathan Noble, and a call to action from Supervisor Cindy Chavez of Santa Clara County, a panel of young people and professionals involved in foster care teed up the challenges that participants will work to “hack.” Durell Coleman from DC Design co-hosted the afternoon with Sixto Cancel, and led the group through a session on the basics of design thinking — or using the pillars of building empathy, defining a problem, “ideating” possible solutions, prototyping, testing and iterating better designs – to address challenges within foster care.

Participants then worked in small groups to apply this method to issues around computer access, career preparation, health and education for youth, as well as foster family recruitment, training, and matching. There was also an opportunity to focus on legal hacks, and online resource platforms for youth, such as Think of Us’ platform for youth, which is in development with Salesforce and Box.

Yali Lincroft, program officer at the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, explained that the true success of the summit will be measured by what happens after it’s over and how people respond to its calls to action. At the end of the day, iFoster’s Reid Cox gave the audience a powerful update on a commitment that was generated out of the White House hackathon last May, where a coalition of philanthropic, corporate and public partners, spearheaded by iFoster, Foster Care Counts and the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, set a goal of providing a laptop to 10,000 eligible foster youth in California. Yesterday, Cox announced that the coalition has reached 25 percent of its goal, and has received new funding from and a partnership with the Ticket to Dream Foundation.

“We’re here to just learn and find ways we can help. We’ve just committed to donating computers to foster youth as well, understanding the real value of that access,” said Dale Carlsen, Ticket to Dream Foundation’s CEO and Board Chair. “And that’s what I love about this program, [Hack Foster Care]. It’s – you know, let’s blow it up and say, ‘how do we do this differently?’”

Co-founder and Chief Systems Architect for Box Jeff Queisser delivered closing remarks for the day, sharing lessons learned from running a tech company. The possibilities those lessons offer the foster care system were not lost on the audience. In particular, Queisser stressed the need to maintain an “insane customer focus,” a concept that elicited emphatic head nods and engagement from a room full of people who view those customers as children in the foster care system.

Panel members at the Silicon Valley Hack Foster Care Summit. Photo: Elizabeth Green

As both a tech advocate and a former foster youth, 26-year-old Noah Nash spoke on a panel at the White House hackathon and has been a regular at the events geared toward hacking foster care ever since. After the first day of the Silicon Valley summit, he was impressed at the way this event is connecting the dots.

“It’s really nice to actually see design thinking workshops, because [at past events] it’s like, ‘how do we get design thinking?’ and like now we’re actually doing it,” said Nash, a graduate student in the Bay Area.

“It’s really cool to see the event iterate, over and over, and to see more experts come into the room, like more foster care and more tech experts …It’s just propagating really naturally, and this isn’t something that you can forget,” Nash said.

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Elizabeth Green
About Elizabeth Green 43 Articles
Elizabeth Green is the community outreach and education manager for Fostering Media Connections, and a general assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change.

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