technology

Dial It Up a Notch

Not too long ago, there was a common phrase that many people were using: “There’s an app for that.” For those unfamiliar with Decipher City, its origins began at a conference/competition called Hack4 Change at St. Edward’s University. There, plenty of aspiring change agents collaborated with programmers itching to engage in activism, and several new apps were designed–ours was created. After hours of conversation before and during the conference, the programmer who worked with us sat down and made the first version of the app known as “DecipherAustin.” It was designed to capture data on the racial experience within the city of Austin and provide commentary to the Equity Office, and after becoming finalists and being one of the winners of the competition, we submitted the app to a seed funding competition offered by the City of Austin.
The most important aspect of our app–which still exists–is that it gathers data innocuously and anonymously which allows people to feel someone more comfortable entering the information. Systems which marginalize large populations are being maintained by people who avoid confrontation at all costs; therefore, to demonstrate the efficacy of the degradation, those people must be presented with simple questions that have more revealing answers. For example, I once asked a friend’s mother, “Which would you hire? Someone with good credit or bad credit?” Automatically, she said, “Someone with good credit.” I then said, “But what does one’s credit have to do with jobs that have nothing to do with money?” Because of how I asked the second question, she was able to understand the bias behind the first. Because several people asked that question of several others, more employers have been skipping the credit checks because bad credit is common after the Great Recession.
In 2016, the City of Austin created an Equity Office after making a big splash signing the Racial Equity Here agreement, proclaiming that it was going to work on the diminishing presence of communities of color. Since then, there has been little exposure to the office, few people know about it or even where the office is, the Equity Officer has been run around to several meetings without consistent engagement with local groups committed to equity, and there has been little to no funding. Recently, a survey was put out by the Equity Office to rate the equity of the functions of several different departments, and the language was very similar to that provided in the Equity Assessment Tool, which is available in the crevices of the City of Austin website. The language was considered confrontational by staff, and as a result, few if any would take the results seriously or act on its recommendations, which are still under review and may or may not ultimately be released. With the lack of resources and multiple city grants issued to people of the dominant narrative, Austin demonstrated that it wants the Equity Office to be little more than a screaming protester in the middle of an unblocked street: a nuisance at best, and in danger of extinction at worse.
This is the kind of situation that Decipher City could have helped the city avoid if the funding had occurred in July, which would have involved collaboration with everyone working for the city from the lowest to highest paid because all the results would have been anonymous–seriously, even we cannot see anything but what kind of smartphone was used. The money from the aforementioned competition could have paid our small staff of four to host meetings, gather data and offer reports–all within weeks. We could have set up a system that offered reports on equity on a quarterly basis because with the city backing us, we could have worked with the limited schedules and staff to produce big results. Instead, the winners of that competition were people who created apps for teaching kids to program and for moving emergency vehicles during disasters. While these are not poor goals in and of themselves, the problem is that when the city was presented with people who could offer technology to solve their racial inequity problems, they chose to continue to ignore the problem. Many offer the chance to meet with us for free, but without real investment as is offered to contractors who fail to meet the city’s ordinance on diversity. Even the MBE/WBE application is unnecessarily arduous and when confronted by us via email, no one responded. Until the city is willing to offer actual resources to inequity to come up with actual solutions, they will continue to push out the marginalized, making the City of Austin a playground for the wealthy. And there is no excuse, because there’s an app for that.
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