Hack For LA contest draws coding pros and tech-loving teens to Boyle Heights

Alric Kaczor, left, Melanie Kaczor and Rachana Kapoor work on an app at the Hack for LA event at Boyle Heights Youth Technology Center. Their app would help people find mentors to help them learn various topics.
Alric Kaczor, left, Melanie Kaczor and Rachana Kapoor work on an app at the Hack for LA event at Boyle Heights Youth Technology Center. Their app would help people find mentors to help them learn various topics.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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A diverse crowd of computer coding pros and teen-aged tech fans hunkered down at laptops Sunday in Boyle Heights to compete for cash and merchandise prizes at Hack for L.A.

The two-day contest began Saturday with the goal of bringing citizens, entreprenuers and software developers together to create mobile apps to improve life in Los Angeles.

It was one of many events tied to the first National Day of Civic Hacking conducted simultaneously at the White House, in 97 cities and 38 states.

Dozens of teens, college students and tech professionals had already divided themselves into teams, intently working to meet a 4 o'clock Sunday deadline to show what they had built from mashups of data, visuals and maps.

The youngest might have been Lucero Vasquez, 14. Dressed in a pink hoodie and jeans, she wandered among the teams scattered throughout classrooms at the Boyle Heights Technnology Youth Center, looking for a group to join.  She had no laptop, or experience coding, but she was interested in design.

"Well, I've never hacked, like, in my life, but I think it would be good to learn," she said.

A sensei -- that's tech jargon for a mentor -- accompanied her around the building.

She visited a group that was building an app for people who want to exchange the surplus fruit on their backyard trees with others. They had already scoured the neighborhood and photographed trees with pears, citrus and other fruits and created a web domain: urbanfruit.ly.

They invited Vasquez to join and draw fruit icons or search the web for images to populate their site. She was unsure whether she could do that, and continued searching for a team.

The next group she found was designing an app that uses a mobile device's location services to help job-hunters find open positions near where they are walking or driving.

Cal State Fullerton student Christopher Daden, 18, owns a software development company. He and business partner Jordan Zarate, 19, were already far into the work to complete their "Hack for Jobs" app.

Daden explained: "People don't like to find jobs, or be searching on Monster or websites that can provide that information. So we're trying to flip the process by making jobs come to people via tracking and geo-location."

The job hunter feeds a resume into the app, and it compares the skills with those needed by employers advertising on large private and public job databases. Their app matches the skills with the locations of the job-hunter and open position and sends a push notification that tells them about nearby job openings.

"It can really help some people who are looking for work but don't want to be actively looking for it because it's time-consuming," Daden said. "It could really help people in Los Angeles because the unemployment rate is so high."

He and Zarate were intent on winning a share of the  $20,000 in cash and tech prizes.

The city of Los Angeles helped coordinate the event. Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti spoke to the attendees Saturday. The Garcetti campaign's tech advisor, Catherine Geanuracos said the selection of Boyle Heights over Westside tech hotspots like Venice and Santa Monica was purposeful.

"We deliberately decided to have this event in Boyle Heights to engage the Boyle Heights community in technology and to help support the amazing work that the Boyle Heights Youth Technology Center is doing."

Sponsors like AT&T and Chase bank, tech companies Google, membrane and Redlands-based mapping software company ESRI joined with musician Will.I.Am's foundation I.Am.Angel and the city to put on the hackathon.

The jobs app was also a bit advanced for Vasquez, but she said that what she had seen of the two groups made her interested in getting involved in the tech world.

"This is the beginning to me," Vasquez said.