In 2018, Nellie Bowles wrote for The New York Times about college students’ growing ethical concerns for working for social media giants like Facebook. Technical students are looking for more fulfilling ways to use their talents, and with that, we have seen a rise in organizations and companies focused on technology for social good. Though initially drawn to the idea, I became frustrated by how many tech for social good projects focused on the technology, rather than the problems they were trying to fix. There were too many hackathon projects sitting untouched in Github repos and recreations of apps that already existed. Solutions like apps or websites for nonprofits seemed to be missing the mark, often leading to unnecessary hurdles in the form of hosting fees and additional maintenance for the nonprofit or cause.
During my time at Bluebonnet, I learned a lot about data, but even more importantly, I learned about the landscape of local politics—what issues people cared about, how people sought out news and formed their opinions, and how people interacted with one another. Working on Sam Edney’s North Carolina House of Representatives campaign connected me to the local communities I was working with. I dove into the local issues being discussed by the campaign, such as sales tax, community connections, and access to education. I mapped out the largest cities in the district, and I learned about the range of businesses that existed in North Carolina, from agriculture to retail shops. These details helped me understand the complexity behind the data, and to zoom into the individual data points—like particular businesses or radio stations—that added context to the local landscape in which we were working.
One project we worked on involved broadcasting campaign advertisements through local radio stations. Through public databases, we were able to compile a list of radio stations in the district and the zip codes that each station covered. The goal of our project was to reach as many people as possible through the campaign messaging. Initially, our instinct was to call radio stations with large areas of coverage. However, the radio stations our campaign suggested were almost never the ones that covered the most zip codes. In fact, the radio stations where community members sought out local news were often smaller, covering one county rather than the entire district.
Although remote, we were able to become part of a local community. In one memorable conversation, the radio station manager asked one of my teammates if she was related to a family “that ran the paper in Brevard” because of a shared last name, adding that he had “bought WPNF Don years ago.” Speaking to our campaign team and to local radio stations added context and helped guide our search for data. The technology, such as VAN, then served as a tool for storing and tracking that information.
My candidate, Sam Endey, emphasized connecting with people and overcoming political divides. He made sure to show up to support local organizers and to personally call the local businesses in the district. It wasn’t just about getting votes—it was about building connections with people and making them feel heard. Our data analysis followed much of the same process. By going beyond the first glance at datasets and trendlines, we were able to dig into the district and discover the depth behind the data. Data and technology are powerful for creating social good, but what’s most important are the people and stories behind it. Through my experience as a Bluebonnet fellow, I was able to make meaningful change within communities by collaborating with the Sam Edney campaign, using my background in technology as a tool to help me make a difference. Though I learned so many technical skill sets, the people were really what made my experience.
About the Author:
Lily Lou is a recent grad from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she majored in American Studies and Computer Science. She is currently a developer at IBM working on federal government projects.
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