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Community Centered Tech for Social Good



I'm Sri Ponnada. I work at Microsoft as a software engineer. Today, I'm going to talk to you all about Community-Centered Tech for Social Good. Before I get started, I have a question. How many of you in the room have a problem that keeps you up at night? By a show of hands. Some of you don't have problems. Fine.

How many of you have a technology problem that keeps you up at night? All right, there are a few. Some of us are thinking about things, maybe this talk will get some of the others who don't think about technology problems to think a little more. During my speaker interview with Wes, he asked me, what is a technology problem that keeps me up at night? I was like most people in the room. I'd never thought about that before. That was a really interesting question to me because up until then, I was just like, "What are you talking about? Technology is solving so many problems. What is this?"

And I thought about that a little more. And I realized in many areas of my life, the answer to this question has already been there. Technology is the problem that keeps me up at night. And why is that? Rapid advancements in technology have led to the rise of what's known as the digital divide. This is a term that academics use, and that's how it sounds in my mind, but what it really means is, the many gaps that exist in the access and the usage of information and communication technologies.

The more that the internet becomes the medium for business, for professional development, for education, for social networking, even for dating, it becomes that much more necessary for people in our society to have the educational and cultural background to really be able to utilize it. Because we built this whole new society, this whole new world online. And a lot of people, especially people from lower income neighborhoods, and organizations like nonprofits and smaller government agencies, in the real world, are being left behind. I thought about that. And heck, I work in the tech industry; I work at Microsoft, but sometimes even I feel I'm being left behind.

Bridging the Gap

So I'm going to tell you guys a little bit more about myself in a bit. But before we get into that, in this talk, we're going to explore this digital divide and how it affects our society, our industry, and what steps we might take to overcome it before technology continues to push us further apart.

As I promised, a little bit more about myself. I'm Sri Ponnada. Even though my day job is software engineer, I for the longest time just did not use a computer. I was an English major in college, I have a degree in English, and my background is in gender, women, and sexuality studies. And this might sound crazy, but growing up, there were a lot of times that I didn't even have access to a computer, I didn't have a computer in my house. My dad didn't know how to use a computer, and anytime we bought a new computer, he would download some random thing and then it just stopped working. And then we didn't buy a new one because it was expensive.

The majority of my access to the internet was through a mobile device. Yes, my first phone, a blackberry, I went on there and chatted with my friends or whatever, called my friends. That might sound crazy to people that work in this industry, but the way that most of the people in the world actually access the internet is through a smartphone or a tablet, because they've become so much more affordable compared to how expensive they used to be. In fact, most people in America, particularly in low income neighborhoods, and households, their access to the internet is through a smartphone or a tablet. I was actually reading this article in The Atlantic, it's called "It's Not Only Rich Teens That Have Smartphones." And they go into a lot of detail about this, and a striking 85% of households below the poverty line have at least one smartphone or tablet in their home, versus a desktop computer. And I think 73% had more than one smartphone or tablet. So that's how people are getting online, that's how people are using the internet.

Looking back, I think that's really what sparked my interest in mobile development or in just software engineering in general, because my first experience with technology really was on mobile. So I ended up taking an iOS course. That was my first real engineering class, iOS development. And I built a game. I was like, "Oh, this is really cool." And just to show you the extent of one of the divides, I didn't even have an iOS device. I had to borrow a computer from my professor so that I could participate in this class, because I wanted to learn but I didn't have the means to do so. And I didn't have an iPhone, I had an Android. So I would run it on the simulator, and when I showed it to my family, it was cool because I built something for the first time and this was a new thing that no one had really done in my personal circle. They were excited for me, but they couldn't get it on their phone. How do they play this game? How does my mom show it to her friends when she goes to India? She can't.

A lot of people talk about Android, and sometimes you say like Android, and it sounds to them, I think, how digital divide sounded to me like, “Android.” And they're like, "Oh, my God, Android. Is that even a thing?" And it is, right? If you look at that chart, global mobile OS market share is dominated by Android, versus iOS, look at that. And it's been growing throughout the years. And that's because these devices are so affordable, especially in developing nations.

Something surprising that I found when I was writing this talk, I was curious, well, okay, I know that Android is popular around the world, but what about in America? Do more people have iOS or Android? What do they have? There was an article in "Business Insider" that talked about this. Android has dominated the shares here too. IOS market shares have fallen behind to Android in the US, in many countries in Europe, and in Japan.

Back to my story. Part of me was drawn to mobile development because of my own familiarity with these devices and my passion and just all these things that I was thinking about at the time, or rather just feeling but didn't think deeply about. And I eventually got into the software industry. My first job was as an Android developer; I had never built for Android before because class wasn't offered at my school. So, another kind of divide, that wasn't a thing that I had access to. And somehow I convinced people that they should hire me as an Android developer, and that I was smart enough to figure it out. And they did.

But I wanted to explore more; I felt like I was being boxed into a mobile realm, so I said, "I feel like the internet runs on web. I don't know how to build a website. I don't know how the web works. None of this makes sense to me." And I took an opportunity at my dream job, Microsoft, to be a web developer for the first time, really. And it was great. I was excited. I was like, "Yes". My grandma was telling people; that's probably the only tech company she knows. She's like, "Yes, she's an engineer at Microsoft, the only company in the world that makes computers." And I'm like, "Yes."

A couple of weeks passed by, and I kind of noticed that something just felt off. I wasn't happy. And that was really sad, to think that all of this time, all of this energy that I spent moving into this field from other fields that I was passionate about. I wanted to get a PhD in English and be a professor. Then I realized when I was teaching kids how to code in college, just as a volunteering thing, I was like, "Oh, this is kind of cool. The Public Library has these weekend workshops for kids, and they come here and they learn how to code. I get to hang out with kids, and learn their lingo” or whatever, that maybe I could make a career out of this. How could I change this industry? How could I bridge these divides if I wasn't part of this industry? And that's what really led me to a career in software development.

So thinking back to that, I just wasn't happy. And around that time, somebody had told me about a hackathon. So I was like, "Okay, tell me a little more about this. This is kind of cool, something fun, I can get out of my actual workspace,” because also as I mentioned, I wasn't really trained in web development. It was a new thing. It was Microsoft. The standards are really high. There's a lot of expectation both within myself and from my team. And I felt like I was killing it in the mobile world. But I didn't really know servers and services and all this stuff. I don't know how that works. Tell me how to build an app and I can do it. But we don't even have an app for the product that I work on, so I can't even move to that team.

So this was a good way for me to think about, "Oh, maybe I want to go build an app for my hackathon project." And the other thing that I heard a rumor was that if you participated in the hackathon, and I wanted to participate in a specific category, it's called "Hack for Good." And because of my volunteering experience, and my community service interest, I was like, "Oh, this is kind of cool. Maybe I can build an app for a nonprofit or something." I looked at what projects are going on, "Maybe I could join on one of these projects. Cool." And then I heard the rumor, which was that Satya Nadella, our CEO, who would walk around and shake your hand if you did a Hack for Good project. So I'm like, "How cool would that be? I just got here, I can take a selfie with Satya. Okay, whatever, sign me up." He didn't shake my hand. I didn't even see him. But I tried to find him, he was there, probably avoiding me. So I ended up doing a project with a nonprofit.

The Three Elements of Motivation

But before I get into that, I want to bring up Daniel Pink's book drive. I have this up here. And he talks about this, some of these feelings that I was feeling. He explains them: the three elements of motivation, the three secret ingredients to somebody finding happiness, whether it's at their school, at home, or at their job, are autonomy, mastery, and the last one that stood out to me, was purpose. I didn't feel like I had a purpose. And I needed to find that.

Having this existential crisis, doing this project, trying to find a nonprofit. And I don't know how many of you are from Seattle or have been to Seattle? No one. Okay, we have two, a couple. We have a lot of parks there. "What is she talking about, parks?" We have a lot of parks, 6,000 acres of parks, I think over 500 unique park and recreation areas. And this is just within our city; I'm not talking about national parks or something else. City parks, and they're really cool. They have awesome views. They have trails. They have a lot of amenities, and some of them even have art sculptures. One of them, it's called Oxbow Park, has a giant cowboy hat and a cowboy boot, and I was like, "What? Why is this here?"

Seattle Park Explorer

So I got interested in that. Then I started digging into the website, into the parks department's website, because I'm like, "Huh, I want to find out more about these parks. What do they do? Is there a Parks and Rec department? What's going on?" And there was a nonprofit that I found out about called Seattle Parks Foundation on Twitter. As I was digging, I noticed that both of these organizations had something in common. Their mission was to build community through public spaces and the outdoors. Whoa, like parks doing that? I'd never thought about that. That was super inspiring to me.

And the Parks Foundation took it one step further, which is that they had these core commitments listed on their site of service and collaboration, learning and innovation, and the last one which really struck me was diversity, equity, and inclusion. "In a park? Okay, sign me up. I want to know more about this." As I mentioned, I was in love with Microsoft, in love with these values, and I felt like, "Okay, those were my personal values that I found in a company that I wasn't really realizing in my day-to-day job building a website. And here I have this opportunity to do a project, and here are these organizations that are kind of in line with my values."

And I thought about, what can I do to help? I wanted to help. So I called both of these organizations on the phone because they don't respond to email. I called them and showed up at their office, and I was like, "Hey, I'm Sri. I work at Microsoft. I want to do a project with you guys for hackathon. What are your needs? I don't want to assume what you guys need. I know you have a website, I didn't really see an app or anything What's going on with the website? Have you thought about revamping it? Have you thought about building an app?" And they're like, "Well..."

The guy that built their website, they had their own IT guy, had been moved to another department, some centralized “IT”. That's one of those other things that people are like, "IT” department. So they didn't have him around anymore to fulfill their vision of building an app. Even that bare-bone site that they had, the data and the content is awesome, the passion bleeds for the site. But for somebody that doesn't really understand the system or understand these organizations, they're just kind of like, "Man, this is a pretty crappy site." You're like, "Huh."

But if you dig into it, there's history of the parks, there's all these amenities listed for each park, but the way we consume technology has evolved. Somebody who's such a deep, digital citizen would say, "Oh, well, there's no way to filter for this," or, "There's no way that I can find a park that has a dog area and a bathroom so I can take my kid to the bathroom if they need to go." And I had some of those thoughts too, that would be kind of cool.

So as I was thinking about that, I realized that there is this huge gap in my own community, and that was really just mind blowing. This is a map of Seattle's tech ecosystem. It was put together by Madrona Venture Group and Washington Technology Industry Association. There are over 600 startups on this map, and more software developers than any other metro area, including San Francisco. There are a lot of nodes. I mean, the biggest one I think is Microsoft. And then we have UDAB and University of Washington and Amazon. How is it possible? And by the way, this is from 2015. That's a long time ago. There are so many other companies that are probably not on this map that are there now, and have a large presence.

So how is it possible that this much technology exists in that area, but the city itself where it exists has such antiquated technology and virtually no support. Even the idea of an app, they were excited. And then we talked about it, and they were excited, but they were kind of scared and jaded to even be excited, because to them, that is just a dream that could never be reality. And that was just sad.


I wanted to use my privilege to change that, I wanted to do something. And the hackathon was a perfect opportunity to do that. So we built a fully functional app in two days. I'm pretty proud of it. The grand vision hasn't been accomplished yet. But as you can see, you can browse parks, you find a list of parks. You can click on a park. You can look at the information that the city has put together about it. You can see all those little icons. There's so many of them. There's boat ramps, views, hiking, ADA, bathrooms, playgrounds, skating things. And you can favorite it, you can get directions, and you can share it with your friends.

The next version, we're thinking about building some of these more complex features like filtering, and how do we connect to some of the technology? How do we bring the city into the digital world that we live in now rather than the one that existed a couple years ago? Connecting to IoT so that we can get data on how the parks and the amenities are being utilized, in real-time so that we can empower the City of Seattle, to have that data and make data-driven decisions on how they're going to allocate their resources, and to advocate for the Parks Foundation, they're a nonprofit, to advocate.

And even just for residents to connect with each other, not just the city but with one another, because something really cool- this park that I have on the app right there, Cal Anderson Park, I live pretty close to it. And I found out that every Friday for however long ago, there has been a pickup dodgeball game that happens there. And you only find out about it if somebody tells you about it or you happen to be there and you're like, "What's going on here?" But that's really cool. And that's kind of been a way that a lot of newcomers to the city have been connecting with one another through this outdoor space, feeling less alone, feeling connected with where they live, feeling connected with one another, feeling connected with themselves.

So there are some visions of how can we implement some social features and all of that. That kind of goes into my next point about, you know, there's Yelp, and there's Google or Uber, or whatever that could do this, but why is the idea of software development volunteering so foreign? Why is that so weird? Sure, that exists. But when I was talking to the city, and I had asked them that, how do they feel about that? Because the first way that I found out about parks was through Google and through the business profiles. And the lady told me that people in their department are actually not happy with the fact that Google had mined their data and created business profiles without even asking them first. They didn't get their permission. They just kind of did that. I mean, okay, in one way, yes, Google is filling this information gap, but at the same time, that has stripped the city and the parks' department, the Parks Foundation of their voice. We kind of left them behind.

The other thing is that Google is the one that owns this data, Google is the one that knows, what are people searching for? When are people searching for this park? Where are people searching for parks more? Who's looking for directions to the park? Google has that data, the city doesn't. They're not really getting all of those insights. But with the app, they could, because this is for them, this is their app.

Just doing this project was life changing for me, because even though it hasn't been launched yet, we're still figuring out a lot of the practical stuff, like who's going to own it and all the accounts and all of that, but just the act of doing this bridged the divide. It built a partnership between me and my company, and the city, and the Parks Foundation. We created something and we were able to show the city and the Parks Foundation that their dream can be reality, and it can be a reality in no time: two days. W literally started Monday at noon, finished at Wednesday at noon. Two days for a fully functional app.

Earlier, I talked to you all about mastery and autonomy and all of that. Well, doing this project, I kind of realized that I gained mastery. My first introduction into development was mobile, but I had never done Xamarin development before. I never really worked with C# before. And I intentionally chose Xamarin because I wanted to make sure that this app doesn't create another divide, and that everyone who wanted to use it could access it on both platforms. I don't know how many people have Windows phones, so I haven't thought about that yet. But at least iOS and Android can both access it.

I worked with a guy on my team, his name is Lauren Paulson, and he's been my mentor through this. And he's been a dev for 14 years, he's a senior engineer. And he taught me the process of how do you architect an app. How do you scrape stuff? Just these skills that I didn't know. He walked me through that process, and I felt I was gaining a mastery of my skill and honing in on my craft of software development.

The other thing, autonomy. I had a team of four people, and there's another senior person on my team. He's a director of program management at Microsoft, he's been there for a decade. Both of these senior folks were looking to me for a sense of direction, they were asking me, "What should we do? What do you want us to do next? What do you think we should do about this?" I had a lot of autonomy, I didn't really have that experience before. And the last thing was that I found a purpose. I felt like what I was doing mattered; I was happy again. Me being at Microsoft, me doing this project, me meeting with these people, it helped me develop that sense of purpose.

Now What?

So now what? Great, I found my purpose. My life is great. Yes, Microsoft, Microsoft. Awesome. But what is the takeaway for all of you? Why did you come into this talk? First of all, you can find your sense of purpose by doing projects like this. I asked you, why is the idea of software development volunteering so foreign? Why is that so weird? I'm sure you all have something in your life that you care about. Maybe you have a child with special needs. Maybe you really feel for voting. I was chatting with a guy earlier, and I'll tell you a little bit more about his idea, but that's one thing; you can find a sense of purpose by doing projects like this.

The other thing, if there's senior devs or managers in the room like there are, and there are a couple of you here, technical folks, you can train the younger generation of developers and newcomers to this field to grow in their craft and empower them. And you can bridge a divide that exists in our industry, because as we recruit these people from diverse backgrounds who might have their own fears of technology, or don't have as much experience as you do, you're going to empower them with knowledge and confidence so that they can go out there and do that, right? It's going to have a ripple effect and they're going to recruit people and say, "Hey, tech is where you should be. What are you doing over there? This is the place. This is where everyone is building community. This is where we're doing all the hard work that really pays off.”

And you don't have to build something like Uber or Snapchat or whatever. You don't have to build the next startup that's going to IPO for a billion dollars. Unless you want to, you can do that, that's fine, I'm not going to tell you what to do. But all you have to do is build something that has an impact. One of my first memories of using a mobile phone was playing a snake game on a Nokia that didn't have color. That was like my first memory of using a phone. Does anyone have a Nokia? No, okay. So who has a Nokia anymore? But that game changed my life, that was when my interest in software, technology, mobile development really began. It doesn't matter if what you build only changes one person's life. That is one person's life that you have changed, and that's a big deal.

If you're thinking about ideas of what you could do, like as I mentioned, I was talking to this gentleman earlier, and he was telling me that he feels really passionately about legislation and voters understanding legislation. And that a lot of the time, the language is so complicated and just hard to understand. And you're just like, "I want to care about this, but I don't know how." And he has this idea to...please don't take his idea, but, I mean, you can contact him, I forgot his name. But his idea is that he wants to find a way to simplify that for voters so that they can more easily grasp what they're voting on, the issues that they're voting on.

You could build an app for the local library system, revamp that. I don't know. You don't even have to build something; you could volunteer with a nonprofit. There's a guy that asked me yesterday about what I'm talking about here, and I told him my story. And he said, "You know, I felt like that too." And the moment I felt like I had a purpose doing what I do, is when I started volunteering, teaching kids how to code. And I was like, "I get that. I relate to that. That's awesome."

So you could volunteer with an organization that teaches kids how to code. You could mentor someone, you could take somebody under your wing and say, "Hey, let me teach you how this works. I see you trying, I see you hustling, but maybe you're kind of struggling a little bit. Let me show you and let me empower you to grow." Or you could just be an advisor; maybe you have a lot of experience in design, maybe you have a lot of experience in security. You could play an advisory role for a local organization that's trying to revamp their site. They see that they're being left behind, and they're trying to take strides to move forward. And you would be surprised how desperate they are for any kind of tech help, and how appreciative they are when they can get that.

So, I ask you again, why not use your software superpowers to bridge the many, many digital divides, “digital divides”, that exist in our society? I truly believe this, that if each of us pitches in to do something, anything, that together we can transform our society from one that's plagued by digital divides to one that is empowered by digital inclusion.

Questions & Answers

Moderator: We have some time for questions. Please remember, your question must start with a question. I'm sure you have great manifestos. Today is not the day for that. So let's go ahead.

Participant 1: How did you make this park application sustainable? You even move on to other things; how do we make sure that this can be kept sustainable, not financially?

Ponnada: That's a great question. So I'm still thinking about that. Personally, I'm very invested in this project. So I intend to carry it on. As long as I live in Seattle, I don't plan to move anytime soon. So there's that. And then also, just telling people about it. Maybe somebody that works on the project has to drop out, but I've spoken with so many people that are very interested, very excited, and they're like, "How can I get involved? So kind of just spreading the word. And then the other thing is, working with the department and working with the city to educate them; raise their technical skill and just figure out how we can build that partnership.

Participant 2: Are there plans to make the source open-source? And if so, to help other students do that? And if so, can I help?

Ponnada: Yes, you can help. Yes, you can check us out. We're hosted on, I think, it's a public project. It's hosted on the product that I work on, Azure DevOps, VSTS. So I think it's just Seattle Parks. But I can post the link or something, you guys can talk to me afterwards, follow me on Twitter or something. A lot of people have asked and we're completely open source, looking for people to join. Thank you. It's a great question.

Participant 3: An interesting idea, how you talk about all city's parks are on Google Maps, and Google gets all this data. You work for Microsoft- have you thought about trying to push for sharing the linked data, what people are searching, what parks they're searching for? I realize that's probably a hard sell, but ...

Ponnada: No, that's a great point. Yes. Oh my God, they're going to hate me. I don't use Bing, but when I was searching for an image for this project, I remembered that I saw somebody do a Creative Commons search on Bing. And I was like, "Man, Bing is actually pretty cool. Maybe I should start using it." But yes, I do push for a lot of things at Microsoft. I will reach out to them after this talk and tell them.

And really quickly to go back to your question about, is this expandable to other parks? Yes, because we thought about that. The way we built it is that, the app is open so that all we need is the data from the other city. And then in that city, you can get the data of the parks that are there. So it's very easily transferable. I don't know. Does that make sense? People have asked that, so that's really exciting. There was a guy that was from Houston, and he was like, "We have a lot of parks. When are you going to put this in Houston?" And I'm like, "I don't know, dude, I don't even know when we're going to put it in Seattle." But cool.


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Recorded at:

Feb 28, 2019

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