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IBM tackles racial justice in Call for Code hackathon

IBM has issued a Call for Code for applications that help promote racial justice in an attempt to combat systemic racism.

With a history of applying technology to solving hard problems such as space travel in the 1960s and '70s, IBM now hopes to address one of the most pressing issues of the day: racial justice.

In light of tragic, racially tinged events last year that included the on-camera alleged murder of an unarmed Black motorist named George Floyd at the hands of police, IBM decided to put its engineering expertise to work to help through its Call for Code developer contests.

These are typically run as global competitions, where teams of coders and non-coders compete to deliver applications in a certain category. In October, IBM launched a new Call for Code effort to get developers to create applications that promote racial justice.

However, because of the cause's importance, IBM has made it an "always on" project that will continually run and produce new applications, said Ruth Davis, who was recently appointed director of IBM's Call for Code.

Grow the ecosystem

Davis, a 36-year veteran of IBM, said the company's immediate goal is to grow the ecosystem for the program to include corporate partners as well as to partner with the nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to help with the effort.

Ruth Davis, director, IBM Call for CodeRuth Davis

"There is a huge untapped resource in our HBCUs, and many of those students know the pain points and can identify exactly where there is a need for the types of applications we are looking for," Davis said.

Previous Call for Code contests have addressed some of the most pressing challenges of our time, including COVID-19, climate change and natural disasters. The overall Call for Code effort includes an ecosystem of more than 400,000 developers across 179 nations.

The IBM Call for Code for Racial Justice team is contributing projects to the open source community that have been built using technologies such as Red Hat OpenShift, IBM Cloud, IBM Watson, blockchain ledger, Node.js, Vu.js, Docker, Kubernetes and Tekton, said Daniel Krook, CTO of Call for Code.

Currently, there are several racial justice apps in the works, including Five Fifths Voter. The largely JavaScript-based web application empowers Black people and other minorities to ensure that their voices are heard by exercising their right to vote.

The project's name has historical perspective in that it is a play on the "Three-Fifths Compromise." The compromise, reached in 1787, determined that three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for determining direct taxation and representation in the House of Representatives.

With the Call for Code for Racial Justice program, IBM invites teams of open source developers to deliver projects in three key focus areas: police and judicial reform and accountability; diverse representation; and policy and legislation reform. Because the program is now always running, there is no single winner. Standout teams will be identified and rewarded, and their apps added to the portfolio.

"The most important skill for a developer to possess is the ability to thoughtfully consider how a potential technology solution could effectively address a pressing humanitarian challenge," Krook said. "It's tempting to get excited and rush to apply a new approach, such as blockchain, to a problem without understanding the issue in-depth first. A developer must consider the positive and negative impact of a solution -- for example, how it might impact privacy, or whether it adds undue complexity -- and use that to conceive effective, user-focused, sustainable, and innovative applications."

John Obeto, CEO and CTO at Logikworx, said, "Five-Fifths Voter is a project that is both timely and useful. He noted that the recent Democratic political successes in Georgia's pivotal Senate races can be directly tied to minority mobilization there. "A nationwide product like this has the potential to bring more minorities into the voter totals, and help make a difference," he said.

More Call for Code for Racial Justice projects

Another key project is IBM's Incident Accuracy Reporting System, a content management application that focuses on transparency surrounding police incident reporting by allowing witnesses and victims to directly submit evidence such as images and videos. The system helps to create a more reliable record of all accounts of an incident.

"The most immediately impactful of these Call to Code initiatives you cite is the 'Incident Accuracy Reporting System,'" Obeto said. "By getting bystanders to divulge what they have seen and heard contemporaneously, and including media, it would bolster the truth either way."

Obeto added that police incident reports can be written to protect officers who have done wrong and give bystanders a way to share their reporting can keep police reporting transparent.

Other Call for Code Racial Justice projects include Open Sentencing, which helps public defenders better serve their minority clients by identifying racial bias in data such as demographics that can help make a stronger case.

Systemic racism won't be solved through a unique magical button; it needs to be tackled through a lot of different approaches and, as software is eating the world, it is critical for the right foundations to be set.
Sacha LaboureyCEO, CloudBees

The Truth Loop app helps users understand the policies, regulations and legislation that will affect them the most and allows them to share their experiences of how these policies have affected them or how proposed policies could, using short video testimonials. Another project, Legit-info, helps residents understand the impact of legislation and policies based on their country, state, county, city and district location, Davis said.

"Systemic racism won't be solved through a unique magical button; it needs to be tackled through a lot of different approaches and, as software is eating the world, it is critical for the right foundations to be set," said Sacha Labourey, CEO of CloudBees and a self-avowed social justice warrior. "I applaud IBM for leveraging their critical mass, expertise and brand to initiate some core software-based initiatives for social justice."

To be sure, the goals of the Call for Code Racial Justice effort are not minimal and neither is IBM's commitment to it, Davis said, although she would not put a dollar amount on the company's investment.

Having spent so many years at Big Blue solving technical problems for customers – from engineering to sales and project management, Davis said she is ready to move on to bigger issues. "Every single role that I've taken is about solving problems for our clients. And here I am, 36 years later, looking at solving broader societal problems with the Call for Code program," she said.

Next Steps

IBM extends Call for Code for Racial Justice program

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