Listen first, hack second

Hack for LA celebrates National Day of Civic Hacking with Design Thinking

Jerry Ramirez, Dorit Dowler-Guerrero, Laura Guglielmo and Emily Uyeda Kantrim share their expertise around homelessness [Photo by Jim Thoburn]

Every year, Code for America volunteer brigades around the country celebrate a day devoted to civic hacking. Teams nationwide come up with ways to give back to their communities and aim to motivate others to join the cause. In the past, Hack for LA teams have come up with apps that help people find jobs, serve specific neighborhoods and help do intake for Safe Parking LA.

But this year, we tried something different.

We decided to focus our National Day of Civic Hacking on empathy.

Given that homelessness in Los Angeles has increased 75% in the last six years, we know it’s an important issue full of opportunities. We built our schedule around hearing from local government agencies, nonprofits and advocates. As we heard from the experts, we processed what we were hearing using design thinking exercises. At the end of the day, everyone walked away with a specific problem they could help solve and a deeper understanding of the root cause of the problem.

Who we heard from

Our goal was to help civic technologists build the necessary listening skills to create effective solutions. Far too often, we jump into solving everything with an app. Real solutions rely on us getting more involved in the problem space, truly understanding the nuances and creating a solution with the community rather than for the community.

Here was our agenda for the day:

Lightning Talks Session 1

  • Peter Lynn, Executive Director, LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA)
  • Sharon Rapport, Associate Director, California Policy, CSH
  • Jeff Sutton, CSH Speak Up! Advocate
  • Jenny Portillo, Senior Field Deputy, Office of Councilmember Blumenfield
  • Brief Q & A

Design Thinking Workshop 1 — Understanding the problems

Lightning Talks Session 2

  • Emily Uyeda Kantrim, Program Manager, Safe Parking LA
  • Jerry Ramirez, Manager, LA County Homeless Initiative
  • Dorit Dowler-Guerrero, Co-founder, SELAH NHC and Director, Lilly’s Place
  • Laura Guglielmo, Executive Officer, Los Angeles Housing & Community Investment Dept (HCIDLA)
  • Brief Q & A

Design Thinking Workshop 2 — Finding opportunities

For those of you unfamiliar with the housing and homelessness field, this was an all-star lineup of speakers. The individuals and organizations mentioned above represent a significant portion of the entities working to end homelessness in LA. It was a roller coaster of emotions listening to these experts tell us their struggles with complex government relationships, local and national policy, and of course, the daily one-on-one interactions with people in need.

Jeff Sutton, a CSH Speak Up! Advocate shares his story [Photo by Jim Thoburn]

In attendance, we also had some impressive representatives from key organizations including Inner City Law/Homeful.la, Invisible People, the City of LA, the City of Santa Monica and the Mayor’s Office. Along with experts from the field, we had many technologists and Hack for LA regulars join us.

Focusing on the problems

As you see from the agenda above, we did two sessions of lightning talks, each followed by a workshop. In these workshops, the objective was to stay completely in the problem space. Asking as many questions as possible but not providing any answers yet.

The first workshop was problem generation. We asked everyone to write themes from the talks on post-it notes and then, we grouped them by common traits. By the end of this exercise, we had hundreds of post-its and over twenty problem areas.

After we had exhausted our problem set, we talked through what we thought the highest value problems were to solve. If we solved one of these, which would save the most lives? Help the most people? Save the most money?

We asked the audience to vote by raising their hands though in a smaller group, this prioritization is often done with dot stickers.

The five major problem themes we identified from the talks were:

  1. Lack of housing
    We simply do not have enough housing in LA to serve the population
  2. Need for community education
    Community support is necessary to provide housing, shelters and services. When there are misunderstandings about what causes homelessness or what the solutions look like, it can block action.
  3. Preventing homelessness
    It’s easier to help someone stabilize before they become homeless than when they are already experiencing homelessness. Currently, there are a substantial amount of Angelenos on the brink of homelessness with very few resources (or knowledge of resources).
  4. Not able to access services in real time
    When someone is ready to accept services like medical or mental health support, it’s difficult and time-consuming for their Case Managers to find an available spot in a program that matches their needs.
  5. Complexity in government
    Los Angeles has multiple levels of government and many departments involved in homelessness across the City, County, State and Federal levels. On both the policy side and the execution side, it’s quite an effort to coordinate. (Sidenote: this is why it was so impressive that both Measures HHH and H passed)

Feeling motivated to jump in yet?

Jerry Ramirez of the LA County Homeless Initiative, Alisa Orduna of the City of Santa Monica and Zita Davis of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity making government collaboration look easy

Identifying opportunities to help

In our second workshop, we deepened our understanding of one problem and begin to frame the opportunity. In order to do this, we asked every participant to choose one problem to focus on and had them write a concise phrasing of the problem (also known as a problem statement.) To identify the root cause of some of the things we surfaced, we ran a “5 Whys” exercise. We keep asking why until we could not ask why any more. For example:

Why are so many people living on the street?
Because they can’t get access to housing or the services that they need

Why can’t they get access to the services that they need?
Because outreach teams and case managers who connect them to housing or services can’t always find an opening for them

Why can’t they find an opening?
Because there aren’t enough services available and not all services are the right fit so they have to spend a lot of time on the phone calling around to find a match

Why is it so hard to find a match?
Because each service has specific requirements and there are not enough openings.

Why are there not enough openings?
Because there are not enough services to serve the needs of the community

As technologists, we may not be able to solve the problem of enough services being available but we could alleviate the third and fourth level problems here. We could work on helping Case Managers reduce the amount of time they spend finding a program opening that’s a good match. This was a pain point we heard from speaker Dorit Dowler-Guerrero who is an experienced Case Manager.

Example problem statement

Articulating clear problem statements such as the one above helped us develop our thinking about those experiencing the biggest pain from each particular problem. Deeply understanding the person you are solving for is the most critical part of developing a successful solution. With our problem statement, we talked through who is most impacted by the problem, what their day is like and what’s blocking solutions for them.

Then, we talked about the opportunity. What would be possible if this problem was solved? The opportunity statement is the start of a solution. At the end of the day, everyone took home a packet with a clear problem statement, a sense of who has that problem, and a framed opportunity that they could work on. The goal is for participants to join us at Hack for LA hack nights and start project teams around some of these problem spaces.

Emily Uyeda Kantrim of SafeParkingLA talked about how something as seemingly small as helping someone get their vehicle registered can help them access services and a safer place to sleep [Photo by Jim Thoburn]

How you can get involved

Now that we have identified several opportunities, we’d love to see more people joining us to make a dent in them. Whether you want to join us at Hack for LA or you want to work with another organization, we hope you consider getting involved. Our homelessness crisis is growing every day and as Code for America says, “no one is coming, it’s up to us.”

Here are just a handful of the opportunities people could work on:

Need for community education

  • Share stories of real people with lived experience of homelessness
  • Simplify information already compiled by LAHSA or other government agencies
  • Create local community resources about how to be helpful to those in need

Lack of housing

  • Collect and share resources for the housing that does exist
  • Reach out to organizations that already work on housing policy or advocacy and see what help they might need broadcasting their message
  • Create a campaign to help communicate what’s going with on Measure HHH (HCIDLA already has a great dashboard going)

Preventing homelessness

  • Research and share visualizations of the underlying causes of homelessness
  • Collect and share resources for rapid rehousing or housing assistance
  • Collect and share resources for services like job support, health/mental health, food assistance or substance treatment (Also see Hack for LA’s project Food Oasis)

Not able to access services in real time

  • Develop a list of services with qualifications (veterans only, women only, etc) and show real time availability
  • Develop an easier way for people to get ID or vehicle registrations so they can access services

Complexity in government

  • Make government processes more transparent (for example — by showing the process for how a housing complex gets approved)
  • Share information on how to stay informed with housing and homelessness related policy
  • Surface success stories and progress we’re making on homelessness

Some of the above ideas are bigger than others and regardless, we’d recommend talking with government agencies or nonprofits working in these areas before starting work. We included a list at the end of the post. You can also join us at hack night and we can help you shape your idea. However you begin, the possibilities are endless and it all starts with you.

Start with one problem. Start with just your neighborhood. Start with listening.


If you’re interested in solving big civic problems, please join us on Mondays and Tuesdays at hacknights or sign up for our mailing list.

Download the worksheets from the event. d͡ʒɛrmi Good and I facilitated the design thinking workshops.

Thank you to the following government and nonprofit organizations for sharing their expertise with us:

Thank you to Marie-Aimee Brajeux, Andrea Lopez, Josh Robins, Tamura Fatherree, Jim Thoburn, Nina Kin, and Anthony Rollins for their work planning National Day of Civic Hacking and for their help with this post.

Raise your hand if you’re ready to get involved! [Photo by Jim Thoburn]