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Can youths in ‘hackathon’ help struggling city help itself?

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — Can computer coding help turn this impoverished city around? One nonprofit group thinks so, and is bringing together youths and professional programmers for Camden’s first “hackathon” this weekend.

Hopeworks ‘N Camden, a youth development organization that among other things offers technology and training classes for teenagers and young adults, is holding the event this Saturday. They’ll team up the students with professionals, some of them from Subaru, which plans to move its North American headquarters to the city of 77,000 across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.

Organizers say the benefit is twofold: Students can network and learn more about coding, and in the process work on projects that could benefit the city, a former industrial hub that with the loss of manufacturing became among the country’s poorest and most dangerous.

“The reality is Camden can produce a lot of things,” said Dan Rhoten, executive director of the nonprofit Hopeworks. “We’re used to thinking of Camden as a helpless victim.”

And showing young people that they don’t have to “look like Mark Zuckerberg,” the founder of Facebook — or have a college degree to build a career in technology — is also useful, he said.

Gabrielle Lee, 23, wants to get out of Camden but then return to teach English as a second language, and do other things to help. She sees online learning as a part of the efforts she’d like to make.

“Being at Hopeworks makes me want to impart my skills,” she said.

In this first session, teams will work on designing new websites for four nonprofit organizations. Just one of them — the Mayor’s Youth Council — is based in Camden.

But Rhoten said he plans to hold hackathons every six months or so. Part of the idea is that Camden government agencies and nonprofits would know they’re coming and be able to request projects. A session, for instance, could upgrade a city website intended to collect complaints from citizens on issues such as abandoned properties.

Camden is in the midst of ambitious transformation efforts. The state government has taken over the school district and is assigning charter school operators to run some existing public schools; the Camden County government has taken over policing the city and has a bigger force of officers than the city had; and the state is offering tax credits for businesses that move into the city.

Besides Subaru, other companies committed to coming include the Philadelphia 76ers, which are building a practice facility and offices; Holtec, which builds components for nuclear power plants; and American Water.

The tech students at Hopeworks see the arrival of big business as a good thing, though a development that may not help the city’s residents directly or immediately.

The youths help Camden improve, too, Rhoten said, and show the city that it need not rely solely on outsiders.

One of the Hopeworks trainees, West Lalanne, a 21-year-old Rutgers University-Camden student who grew up largely in Massachusetts but now lives in Camden with his mother, said the hackathons can bring people together.

“Right now Camden is a world where we have small communities,” he said, “but we don’t have a large community.”


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