Report from Techonomy Detroit: Bridging the Digital Divide

[Correction, 9/24/2014, 9:36 a.m. See below.] Detroit’s bankruptcy, while humbling and damaging to the city, has also brought “extraordinary” national interest to the Motor City, evidenced this week by the lineup of boldface technology names gathered at the Techonomy Detroit conference this week.

“It’s a sad event in some sense, but it dramatically increased attentiveness and concern for Detroit,” said David Kirkpatrick, organizer of the conference, billed as a celebration of technology’s potential to drive growth across the country and “speed development and rebirth in Detroit.”

“I’ve seen more focus on what it will take to bring Detroit out of financial depression and more awareness of the roles technology, entrepreneurship, and partnerships between government and the private sector can play in reviving Detroit.”

With that outside focus comes additional pressure as the city is held up as “a great crucible for real change and responsive use of technology to help people lead better lives,” said Susan Crawford, author of “The Responsive City” and a Harvard law professor who spoke at the conference.

Techonomy Detroit featured thought leaders from around the world for panel discussions on everything from improving city government with technology, responsive transit, and maker culture to the sharing economy and the death of the American Dream. Speakers included TaskRabbit founder Stacy Brown-Philpot; Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square; Danae Ringelmann, founder of Indiegogo; Codeacademy CEO Zack Sims; Venture for America founder Andrew Yang; former Microsoft chief information officer Tony Scott; and entrepreneurs, government officials, investors, and innovators from both near and far.

Attendance seemed a bit lower than in previous years, but there were a few big, competing tech events this week that likely drew participants away.

One area that still needs improvement in Detroit, Kirkpatrick said, is the gap between downtown and the rest of the city. “It’s important to have reconciliation between the city and the surrounding suburbs,” he added. “We need to find a way to reintegrate those communities.”

Indeed we do. Provincialism and virulent racism still flourish in metro Detroit, with its legacy of white flight, riots, and mass disinvestment in the city proper. So how can we help level the field so that all of the new opportunity surrounding tech companies and entrepreneurs downtown might spread to the rest of the city? What will it take to get the city to widely adopt technology to significantly improve operations and efficiency?

Crawford, formerly a law professor at University of Michigan, praised the efforts of local startup Loveland Detroit to help solve the issue of blight by mapping it online. Loveland’s data portrayed a much more accurate picture of Detroit’s blight, something that had never been done by government agencies—even those tasked with monitoring blight—prior to Loveland independently undertaking the project. It’s thanks to Loveland’s work that we now know that there are roughly 80,000 blighted structures within the city limits, a staggering number.

Loveland has been around Detroit doing this kind of work since 2010,  and now it’s helping to lead mapping efforts for the Detroit Blight Task Force, along with Data Driven Detroit and the Michigan Nonprofit Association. [An earlier version of the story left out the names of Loveland’s partners in the Detroit Blight Task Force. We regret the error.]

“I’m so impressed with [Loveland’s] energy and fearlessness ,” Crawford said. “The Motor City Mapping effort brings so many important players and ordinary people together to make Detroit a better place using data. It’s one of the most moving and interesting examples I’ve come across nationally.”

Crawford said that not only can technology help government figure out what it knows in order to make it visible and efficient, it can also make government more compassionate: “That’s why Detroit is so interesting—it has to make the most difficult decisions. How can you do that in the dark? So many resources are focused on Detroit, and it’s a great crucible for real change and responsive use of technology to help people lead better lives.”

Crawford says her book chronicles the “best of the best” in terms of those who are working at the intersection of government and technology, and how technology can be used to improve processes. “It’s an exhortation to the whole community to create a pipeline of new leaders as cities face titanic challenges to find the resources they need,” she added. “Lots of government offices are populated by people who don’t have an intuitive sense of technology—they see it only as nice to have. They don’t understand technology can be quite powerful in solving problems.”

Crawford says she’s witnessed it many times: Data helps focus people working to solve municipal problems. “When people look at a shared screen that shows a visualization of facts, especially with a diverse group of stakeholders, the temperature goes down,” she said. “Instead of making speeches at each other, they start trying to solve problems. Digital technology can really help reduce conflict and ensure solutions are truly data-driven and sustainable.”

Marlin Page, founder of the Detroit-based group Sisters Code, also believes in the transformative power of digital technology. Page launched Sisters Code at last year’s Techonomy conference, and she says her mission is to “educate, empower, and entice” women to explore the world of writing code. “We want to be the place women come to re-career in tech,” she explained.

Sisters Code is open to women of all races, ages 25 to 85. It hosts two-day Website Warrior Weekends throughout the year, where participants learn things like Java Script and HTML. All of the program instructors are also women, and Page goes out of her way to make sure the classroom environment is inviting.

Page envisions a 13-week course where the participating women are compensated for their time. “I will not take 20 women out of their jobs, train them, and then say goodbye,” Page said. “I have to find companies that are willing to open up the workplace and, at the end, there has to be a job. Until we’re able to find funding and partners for that, we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.”

In its first year of operation, 150 women have participated in Sisters Code … Next Page »

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