Tech firms are increasingly dipping their toes into politics since President Donald Trump took office. For one thing, they’ve been among the most vocal opposition to his immigration orders. When he floated the idea of a Muslim registry in December, more than a thousand tech employees signed a pledge not to take part in creating it. Then when he initiated his temporary travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries in January, companies from Apple to Netflix to Microsoft filed a legal brief arguing that the ban posed “significant harm” to businesses.
CityLab recently spoke with developers who say the contribution from Silicon Valley may not go much farther than that, at least from the executives. (In fact, according to the New York Times, it was the employees who pushed many of the tech giants to take a stronger stand against Trump.) Instead, those workers believe some of the most significant efforts will come from techies volunteering their time.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to Andrew Gionfriddo, a New York-based software engineer who worked on one new civic-minded app. “Personally, I think that this is going to have the most success if it stays local and grassroots,” he says.
Gionfriddo is part of a growing number of designers, coders, and the like who are developing tools to help the communities at the center of Trump’s policies. From the big coastal cities like NYC and San Francisco, to mid-sized cities like Louisville, Kentucky, they’re teaming up with local nonprofits, joining civic organizations, and attending hackathons that put immigrants front and center.
Hacking the ban
Immigrants make up about 7 percent of the population in Kentucky, which has resettled over 4,000 refugees from countries like Iraq and Somalia since 2011. Despite being in a largely red state, Louisville touts itself as being especially welcoming. So when Donald J. Biddle, a GIS professor at the University of Louisville, organized a hackathon for International GIS Day with the school’s community engagement office, that population was at the front of their minds. The focus, organizers say, was less a response to Trump and more a mission to advance Louisville as a compassionate city.
Working directly with the mayor’s office and community organizations around the city, Biddle’s students created two projects: an introductory Story Map of Louisville’s stance on immigration, and an interactive map of the dozens of services available to the immigrant community, including family health centers, transit options, specialized education organizations, and community ministries.
“We've all been to a lot of hackathons that haven't had a lot of clear direction—and while effort is great, a lot of the ideas don't connect with the actual need of the community,” Patrick Smith, coordinator of community partnership, says. “So we wanted to identify some folks in the community where we can meet their needs.”
That was the challenge Leslie Martinez, a New York-based researcher who tackles immigrant issues through design, faced back in February when she helped organize a hackathon called Hack the Ban. Initially, she had planned on mentoring students at New York University, her alma mater. But when Trump was sworn into office, riding on his promise to deport millions and to ban Muslims at the border, a sense of urgency kicked in.
“Oh my god, there will be an executive order pretty soon," she recalls thinking. “If we need something done, a hackathon would have a quicker turnaround than waiting for students to design something within a semester.”
Figuring that the most useful products would come out of collaborations between the tech community and local nonprofits, Martinez and two former classmates gathered about 60 designers, programmers, lawyers, and immigrant advocates at the the NYU Tandon School of Engineering for a 12-hour hackathon. Some groups created apps, while others helped refine existing projects.
“There are advocacy groups who have been doing this for a long time,” says Martinez. “We don’t need to create something new, but what can we do to support those same people who are already at the forefront of it?” At the same time the nonprofits were getting technical help, she adds, they were also guiding developers through the legal complexities of their products—making sure, for example, that any data gathered by the apps remain secured.
Designing electronic lifelines
Mohammad Khan, a campaign manager of the New York-based nonprofit MPOWER Change, is one of the Hack the Ban participants who used the hackathon to translate his idea into a digital tool to help Muslim travelers. He knows firsthand how unnerving it is to be detained at the U.S. border. He’s been held up at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport after returning from overseas.
“As you get through passport control, you know your next step isn’t going to be baggage claim but the 'brown room,’” he says, referring to the moniker given the screening rooms because those in them tend to be of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent. Many are there without a lawyer and unsure of how to answer the questions being asked, or whether they should answer them at all.
So with the help of Andrew Gionfriddo and a few other developers, he created Border Buddy, a website that will soon let legal aid organizations monitor a person’s travel schedule, so that if he or she is unexpectedly detained, they can send a lawyer to the airport immediately. Users will be able to register their flight information ahead of time online or on their phone; the organization uses real-time flight data to track their arrival. If the traveler passes through Customs and Border Protection without any problem, he or she can send a confirmation text to the number provided. But if two hours go by and Border Buddy doesn’t receive anything, it will alert the organization to follow up and send a lawyer if needed.
The website will launch in New York, where the team has partnered with the immigrant advocacy group CLEAR at the City University of New York School of Law. “CUNY already has similar services, but they’re distributed in a very ad hoc manner,” says Dillon Powers, another developer on the team. “So we thought it would be great to make these things more streamlined and systematized.” Ultimately, the team hopes to partner with legal aid organizations across the country.
Hack the Ban is one of several events bringing the tech community together to fight Trump’s policies on issues like climate change, abortion access, and immigration. Grassroots groups like Tech Solidarity and Progressive Coders are arranging large get-togethers and inviting advocates to speak about the complexity of their causes. In some cases, individuals are simply going to neighborhood meetups to see where they can help.
It was at a small gathering in San Francisco for Latinos in tech that Adrian Reyna, the director of tech strategies at the immigrant youth-led organization United We Dream, met Natalia Margolis, an engineer at the digital agency Huge Inc. Reyna, who is undocumented himself, told Margolis about a Migrawatch hotline his organization runs, to which people can report ICE activities. But in times of panic, there isn’t a way for undocumented immigrants to quickly connect to their support network—their family, friends, and lawyers.
Margolis would eventually take that idea back to her company, and within a few weeks Notifica was born. It works like a panic button for undocumented people swept up in immigration raids. With a tap on their phones, users can send out distress signals to multiple people at once, including lawyers. For Reyna, who says he’ll work with organizations in Texas, Florida, and New Mexico to spread Notifica’s reach, the app could help his community hold ICE officers accountable and expose injustices.
Other apps that have made headlines in the past months include RedadAlertas (Spanish for “Raid Alerts”), which uses crowdsourced information to warn people about immigration raids and traffic checkpoints nearby, and DoNotPay, a chatbot initially created to overturn parking fines that was tweaked to aid refugees seeking asylum in the U.S., U.K, and Canada. The “robot lawyer,” as its creator Joshua Browder puts it, helps users determine their eligibility for asylum and fill out the right application through a series of easy-to-understand questions sent via the Facebook Messenger app.
While not of all the apps were created as a direct response to Trump’s executive orders—both Browder and Celso Mireles, creator of RedadAlertas, said they had started their projects when Barack Obama was still in office—they highlight the evolving role of the tech community in immigration politics.
“In 2012, we wouldn’t have thought about going to a tech firm to [ask for] support for DREAMers or immigrant communities,” Reyna says. “But nowadays, because tech is so intricately woven into society, there is a place for everyone in tech to advocate for people in the margins.”