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Presentation: Community Centered Tech for Social Good

Track: Socially Conscious Software

Location: Pacific BC

Duration: 11:50am - 12:40pm

Day of week: Tuesday

Level: Beginner

Persona: Developer, Technical Engineering Manager

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What You’ll Learn

  1. Hear how the Seattle Parks Foundation, the City of Seattle, and Microsoft have cooperated on a project to build an app to explore the city’s parks.

  2. Find out how companies can participate in changing their surrounding communities to create a better life for residents.

  3. Hear how managers/senior engineers can help younger developers succeed in their projects.

Abstract

Community-centered app development bridges many gaps in the accessibility and usage of technology. The cross-platform Seattle Park Explorer app is one example of a community-centric approach to addressing digital divides. This talk will focus on how a collaborative project between the Seattle Parks Foundation, the City of Seattle, and Microsoft allows residents to discover local parks, and to take advantage of the various resources that the city has to offer. Additionally, with the integration of IoT devices in public spaces, the city will have access to real-time data on how parks and amenities are being utilized.

This community-based project, which extends the capabilities of IoT devices and the cloud, amplifies the tremendous value that public spaces provide. Data from the app will not only help the City of Seattle make data-driven decisions when developing existing services, but also empower its non-profit partners in their advocacy for innovative community-based programs. The app showcases how connecting high-tech firms, like Microsoft, with local organizations, fosters continued development of socio-economic justice programs - transforming our society from one plagued by digital divides, to one empowered by digital inclusion.

Question: 

What are you doing at Microsoft?

Answer: 

I am a software engineer and I started at Microsoft almost a year ago. I work on Azure DevOps.

Question: 

What's the genesis for this talk?

Answer: 

This talk came out of a project that I did for a Microsoft hackathon this year. I partnered with the City of Seattle and Seattle Parks Foundation, a local non-profit, to build an app for them that will hopefully allow residents to engage with the city and Parks Foundation in a different way. I was very surprised to find out that Seattle has over 6,000 acres of parks just within the city limits. That is a lot! I've also interacted with many people who moved here from out of state who always commented on how much greenery there is here. Most of them gush about how close they live to a park!

I've gone to many of the parks in the city that are incredible. In fact, going to the parks, especially during winter time when it’s cold and dreary outside, helped me to stay healthy and not get sucked into a couch-potato induced depression. I wanted to figure out what I can do to give back. Something I noticed when I tried to browse the Seattle Parks Department’s website to find more parks was that most of them have free amenities - like tennis courts or fire pits. But finding a park with a specific amenity wasn’t that easy to do. I asked myself, 'Do they have an app?' or 'Would they be interested in one?'.

Since One Week (our hackathon) was just a couple of weeks away at the time, I contacted both the city and the Parks Foundation about my app idea. They were interested but very jaded because they didn't have the tech chops for doing it. Another setback the city had was that the Parks Department used to have their own IT staff, but the city’s IT has recently been centralized - making it that much harder to get special projects like this app off the ground. However, I think the fact that I worked at Microsoft and had a group of talented folks eager to work on this project with me, got both the city and Parks Foundation even more excited to see what can come out of this initiative.

So, literally, I bootstrapped a project - started it at noon on a Monday - wrapped it up at noon on Wednesday, and had a fully functioning app with real data showing!

Question: 

What are you hoping people get out of this talk?

Answer: 

I just wanted to feel inspired to do something more than my day to day job - like you said, find a purpose as to why I am in this industry. I started working as a software engineer two years ago, yet I felt I wasn't really accomplishing what I had hoped to in my life. I went to work, I did what somebody told me to do. My partner tells me I have a pretty high ego. So, it’s no surprise that I don't really jump to take orders I don't understand or that I don't think are the right idea. That’s part of why I left working in startups and came to work for Microsoft.

At Microsoft, I can at least feel there is a larger mission that I connect with, and more support to do these kinds of passion projects. I’m hoping that by sharing my experience, I can show people it’s possible to create your own purpose utilizing the tools you have in your company, and that by being passionate you can often get support from others, as well. Even though I had this idea I definitely didn't have the tech chops to do it on my own, and the person that helped me out is a very senior, very technical guy that's been writing software for 15 years. I wouldn't have been able to accomplish what I did without him.

I feel a lot of times when someone gets very deep into their career, at least from what I’ve seen in engineering, it's easy to lose sight of what it feels like to be a younger developer when you have all these ideas, and you have the drive but you don't have the skills or the support. Hopefully managers and other senior folks will realize that and reach out to a younger member of their team to support them in the way that my teammate supported me because it was definitely an experience that changed my life.

Speaker: Sri Ponnada

Software Engineer @Microsoft

Sri is a Software Engineer who is passionate about diversity + inclusion, building communities and (surprise) technology! She has an unconventional background in English, and Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies. In a past life, she dabbled in journalism as an opinions columnist and radio talk show host. Outside of work, Sri spends a lot of time volunteering with various local nonprofits, as well as promoting STEM education / careers for women and other underrepresented minorities in the tech industry. Sri believes that when technology is developed with diverse perspectives, inclusion, and equity in mind it truly empowers us to change the world.

Find Sri Ponnada at

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