August 2016

Meet High School Intern: Sagar Punjabi

This summer, we’ve been thrilled to host high school students as part of our NYC Microsoft High School Summer Internship Program (HSIP). The HSIP is a 6 week internship for junior and senior high school students providing an opportunity to explore the technology industry while expanding engineering skills. Microsoft is committed to developing junior talent and championing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related fields. HSIP sets out to inspire students to pursue collegiate degrees in computer science or STEM through exposure to those career paths. In addition, HSIP strives to attract a diverse pool of students with a technical background and a passion for technology.

Sagar PUnjabi (1)Where do you go to school? When are you graduating?

I am going to be a senior at Forest Hills High School this fall. I will be graduating in 2017.

Where are you applying to college? What do you plan on studying? 

I’m still currently looking into schools, but so far I’m interested in Cornell and Brandeis. I want to major in Computer Science.

What brought you to Microsoft’s internship program? 

I first learned about it through The Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship. Microsoft’s vision of empowering every person and organization to do more is something that stuck with me, and I knew a summer here would be a summer I would not forget.

What’s your favorite piece of Microsoft technology?

The Xbox One. It has so many capabilities and functions, what can’t you do with it?

What work are you most excited about this summer? 

I loved to work with all of the different types of technologies Microsoft has available.

What’s one thing you learned with Microsoft? 

I’ve learned how useful the cloud can be and how to utilize it. This is something that has made my life a lot easier.

How are you utilizing entrepreneurship skills at Microsoft this summer?  

Every entrepreneur must be able to solve the challenges that come his or her way no matter how big they might be. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve been given work I’m not familiar with, but that hasn’t stopped me from completing it.

Meet High School Intern: Sejal Mehra

This summer, we’ve been thrilled to host high school students as part of our NYC Microsoft High School Summer Internship Program (HSIP). The HSIP is a 6 week internship for junior and senior high school students providing an opportunity to explore the technology industry while expanding engineering skills. Microsoft is committed to developing junior talent and championing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related fields. HSIP sets out to inspire students to pursue collegiate degrees in computer science or STEM through exposure to those career paths. In addition, HSIP strives to attract a diverse pool of students with a technical background and a passion for technology.

Sejal MehraWhere do you go to school and when are you graduating? I go to school at Division Avenue High School in Levittown, NY. I will be graduating this coming June 2017.

Where are you applying to college and what do you plan to study? I will be applying locally (New York City) and to MIT. I plan on studying computer engineering.

What brought you to Microsoft’s internship program? The excitement of getting to know the real technology world brought me to Microsoft’s internship program.

What’s your favorite piece of Microsoft technology? My favorite piece of Microsoft technology is the Surface Pro and Microsoft Band.

What work are you most excited about from this summer’s program? I am most excited that we were able to work on IoT (Internet of Things) this summer.

What’s one thing you have learned with Microsoft? One thing I learned with Microsoft is how much more there is to Office 365 than Word and PowerPoint.

How has Girls Who Code empowered you to use technology? Why is coding important? Girls Who Code empowered me to express my passion for technology. Coding is important because it’s something that is all around us and everything can be programmed, from the smallest toy to the biggest building.

Recap — New York City Council’s Digital Inclusion Summit

In New York, the tech sector—the city’s fastest growing industry— is 62% white, 9% black, 11% Latino and 16% Asian, according to a study by the Center for an Urban Future, and while efforts are underway to diversify the workforce pipeline, a comprehensive look at institutional practices from the beginning to end of that track is critical for addressing under-representation.

— New York City Council

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Last week, the New York City Council hosted its second annual Digital Inclusion Summit, a day-long conference bringing together tech and government’s hardest-working drivers to build on a better future. While tech may be the fastest-growing sector, our government and our workforce have yet to catch up to the equity, organizational culture and processes behind a successful growth.

Together with speaker Mark-Viverito and other national corporations and organizations, Microsoft made a commitment to work on these issues moving forward, while presenting our own proposals for change and growth.

Here are some of the top tweets from the day:

Welcoming Ross Dakin to the Microsoft NY Team

ross-headshot-3Hello, New York! I’ve just joined the Microsoft Technology and Civic Innovation team, and I couldn’t be more excited. The last chapter of my career was incredible and I’m optimistic that this next one will be every bit as impactful. For the past year, as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, it’s been my tremendous honor to help our federal government reinvent the way it approaches service creation for the benefit of all citizens. I can’t think of a more natural transition than to now do the same within a global technology company that’s been reinventing its products, its culture, and its role in the world.

At Microsoft, I’m eager to use data and technology for social good. Initially, I’m planning to focus on taking the Civic Graph to new heights, using Microsoft Translator for real human impact, and ensuring that every student developer has the cloud services they need to learn, no matter how much or how little they may have in their wallet. But I’m also excited to meet the people and organizations that are already doing great work in the city. I’m sure the city is teeming with all kinds of high-potential projects that I simply don’t know about yet.

The early days.

Microsoft has a special place in my heart. In 2002, I was lucky enough to have a high school teacher show me how to go “behind the scenes” and write Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) macros in Microsoft Access. This became my first computer programming experience, and it would come at a pivotal time as I was deciding which college to attend and which major to declare.

Now—a decade and a half later—I find it fitting to join the company that created the tools which initially seeded my interest in technology and continues to inspire the next generation of technologists by actively encouraging kids of all genders and backgrounds to try their hands at software development (see the robots, animations, and websites created by the Microsoft Girls Who Code Class of 2016 last week!).

Those formative experiences led me to attend Santa Clara University, where I earned a degree in computer engineering while writing programs in Notepad on my Windows XP laptop. However, it was a Windows program called Cygwin that allowed for the compilation and execution of my code by emulating a POSIX-compliant operating system in which many common open source tools could be used—in other words, my learning environment was a Windows/open source hybrid.

This is a powerful combination of ubiquity and versatility, and it represents another memory to which I’m excited to pay homage by joining Microsoft at a time during which the company is accelerating its embrace of the open source tools that so many developers know and love (learn more about Microsoft’s support of open platforms like Linux, Docker, and Node.js).

Work on things that matter.

“I truly believe that each of us must find meaning in our work. The best work happens when you know that it’s not just work, but something that will improve other people’s lives.”

—Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO

I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of a number of exciting Silicon Valley companies, including: LiveOps, where I developed software for hosting distributed call centers while receiving incredible mentorship from engineers who literally created the first web browsers; BrightPoint Security (acquired by ServiceNow), which leveraged the power of virtualization to move traditional enterprise security appliances to the cloud; Upstart, where we employed big data to shatter the incumbent paradigm of credit-score-based lending risk models; and Deliv, which is utilizing crowd-sourced drivers to provide same day delivery services for the retail brands you find in every shopping mall across the country. Each of these companies have generated value by applying innovative technologies in novel ways. However, my barometer for value creation shifted last year during my tenure as a Presidential Innovation Fellow.

I can even give you a specific date. On March 9, 2016, seven of my colleagues and I traveled from Washington, DC to New York City. We met with people all over town who had written letters to the President (did you know that the White House really does keep them all?), in order to better understand the stressors that might be preventing them from thriving in their given situations.

From Brooklyn to Queens to Harlem and the Bronx, we learned about housing vouchers that the homeless didn’t know how to apply for; food stamps that the hungry stopped receiving because of a missed re-enrollment letter; rejection from cash assistance programs due to not having enough money for cross-town bus fare to submit the paperwork. Every person I met that day held my hand, looked me in the eye, and expressed their sincere gratitude to us for listening to their stories.

That was the most meaningful day of my career.

It’s all about people.

“We shouldn’t think of a technology as radical or transformative unless it benefits every single person.”

—DJ Patil, U.S. Chief Data Scientist

Since that day, it has remained clear to me how much tremendous potential for impact exists in the civic technology space if we are able to “continue to make strides in providing innovation in the realm of connected systems that bridge the unstructured world of human processes with the structured world of business applications,” which Satya Nadella has committed Microsoft to do. As he observed, “Many companies aspire to change the world. But very few have all the elements required: talent, resources and perseverance. Microsoft has proven that it has all three in abundance.”

I’m eager to help apply such abundance to the public good, starting right here in New York. 

Celebrate Our Civic Tech Fellows at #CivicDemo 8/24

#CivicDemo

Join Microsoft’s Technology & Civic Innovation team as we celebrate our summer Civic Tech Fellows and the progress they’ve made in using technology for public good. Our team has spent the past several months working on useful tools and programs to support the field of civic tech. Come see what we’ve been up to, have a drink, and connect with other civic technologists as summer winds down.

We’ll hear from:

Doors (and the bar) will open at 6:00pm, with presentations beginning at 6:30 pm.

Don’t forget to tweet along using @MicrosoftNY and #CivicDemo!

RSVP here to attend

Microsoft Girls Who Code Class of 2016 — Make What’s Next

Girls Who Code NYC 2016

Wow, I cannot believe that seven weeks have passed already. It seems as though the Girls Who Code cohort just arrived at the 11 Times Square office, and on the evening of August 18, I had the pleasure to watch each of them graduate. As part of the ceremony, the girls had the opportunity to showcase their final projects to their parents and invited guests. It was an amazing evening. The best part was the surprise! Microsoft New York General Manager Laura Clayton McDonnell was the Microsoft keynote speaker and she had the honor to announce to the 20 students and their three teachers that they each get to keep the Surface devices that they have been using over the course of the program. The news was received with such excitement! I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room, it was magical moment.

During the coders’ time at Microsoft they learned programming in Scratch, an introduction to Python, Object-Oriented Programming, Web Programming and Robotics.  They used these learnings to work on their final projects that included:

  • one website (called Poll Me) that provides useful information to new and young voters, such as voting locations and ways to register to vote
  • one website / mobile application (called Organize Yourself) that allows students to organize their assignments and classes by adding tasks to specific categories they create
  • one website (called Volunteens) that allows teenagers to search for volunteer opportunities, and it allows organizations to post volunteer opportunities that would be open to teens
  • one website (called Study Drop) that provides a space for students to answer questions related to their school curriculum (ex. 3rd grade math questions), and for every 10 questions answered correctly some amount of water would be donated to communities in need
  • one game that raises awareness about the street harassment that many women face every day in cities such as New York
  • one game that gives new or expecting mothers’ tips on best practices for raising an infant

Some of the other projects that are highlights in the curriculum and that all the girls completed include:

  • An animation of a city scene using Python
  • Choreographing a robot dance by programming in Arduino
  • Creating a portfolio website that shows off the work that each student did during their time at Girls Who Code

An impressive list of accomplishments for these young coders!  

In addition to their coding activities this summer, the girls attended several field trips, including one right here in the office — a visit to the Microsoft Technology Center. They also spent the summer hearing from a variety of speakers and participating in several in-class workshops.

As we close the chapter on this year’s class, I wish all of our coders the absolute best on their bright futures that they all have ahead of them.

Congratulations to the Microsoft Girls Who Code Class of 2016!  Keep Coding!

The Endless [Civic Tech] Summer

While the calendar (although perhaps not the thermometer) tells us that summer is winding down, there are still plenty of events to join in on while avoiding the current heat wave. From community launch events to AI hackathons, you can be sure that there’s always something happening to keep your mind stimulated and your after-work hours occupied. Since joining Microsoft NY, I’ve kept my eye out for new and emerging organizations to expand the breadth of my civic tech horizons. Here are a few organizations I’ve been able to collaborate with during the past week:

Cornell Tech — Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York

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Cornell Tech’s recently launched Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York (WiTNY) initiative seeks to encourage and guide young women entering higher education and entrepreneurship in technology. As part of the initiative, WiTNY hosts a two-week ‘Summer Studio’ program modeled after Cornell’s curriculum, introducing students to real-world skills like software engineering, product development, product ideation, and design thinking. I spoke on a panel to about 40 soon-to-be CUNY women about my day-to-day as a software engineer, workflows used, project developments with CivicGraph.io and Microsoft Translator, and my journey into computing. Mentorship and outreach is something I’ve found to be particularly helpful in the development of my own career, so it’s terrific to be given opportunities to pass along knowledge to students as passionate, driven, and inquisitive as those at WiTNY.

CodeNewbie NYC

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Saron Yitbarek, A former team member and eternal friend of Microsoft NY, launched the New York chapter of CodeNewbie, an incredibly supportive community of new and established technical professionals. The theme revolved around ‘Keeping it 100’ in celebration of the release of CodeNewbie’s 100th podcast episode. As part of the event, I gave a brief keynote on a topic that I’m a CodeNewbie in myself: Using data for space exploration as a member of the 2016 class of NASA Datanauts. During my talk, I presented a workflow on creating a web-based orrery using various open source tools. Other keynotes included a discussion on cybersecurity and a testimonial by John Resig, the creator of JQuery, on the benefits that’ve resulted from his choice to program on a daily basis. CodeNewbie also took the opportunity to announce its first-ever conference, CodeLand, which is scheduled for April 2017.

General Assembly & Clarifai — Artificial Intelligence Hackathon

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Big thanks to our friends at Clarifai for letting us use this image

Last Saturday, Clarifai and General Assembly teamed up to host their first Artificial Intelligence hackathon. I held a seat on the judges panel and reviewed projects responding to the satirically-dystopian theme requiring participants to “make something with AI that will advance the inevitable robot apocalypse”. The projects were equally as silly. Here are a few that stood out:

  • Miss-Direction: A mapping engine that navigates you to a random location within a few blocks of your destination.
  • Giggle: A search engine returning the least relevant results for a given search query.
  • CutiePai: A dating app that scraped your social media accounts and found your most compatible matches based on similar tagging.
  • Safehouse: A smarthome application using facial recognition to wreak havoc on your appliances while you’re distracted.

There were 28 teams, all of whom put forward incredibly witty submissions. Needless to say, it was overwhelmingly difficult to narrow down the submission pool and decide on winners!

Through events like these, I am constantly inspired and reminded to think creatively, work diligently, and have fun. Every time I walk into a space allowing me to contribute knowledge and connect with brilliant individuals, I’m reminded why New York is known for its top-tier workforce. The fact that these opportunities were spaced within just one week’s time demonstrates the frequency and accessibility of events, which is unique to the New York lifestyle. As a proud New Yorker, that’s why I know I can be excited for what’s yet to come!

Reflections on a Summer of Civic Tech

Well, it has been an incredibly rewarding summer working with the Microsoft Civic Tech & Innovation team!  I’ve learned a lot about the tools and programs that people in New York City and elsewhere are building to address various civic challenges. As my fellowship wraps up, I wanted to share a bit about what I worked on:

The two primary projects I worked on were the Civic Graph and Microsoft Translator.  

For the Civic Graph, I contributed over 900 lines of Python (and a bit of R) code to the Microsoft-curated codebase. In addition to preparing API documentation (viewable here), I spearheaded a project to automate data collection for Civic Graph.

Why is this important?  

Civic Graph offers a unique visualization of the civic technology ecosystem. It contains hundreds of nodes and tracks connection-types between them. In its current state as a crowdsourced knowledge base, however, the application captures only a small subset of the actors and connections in the civic tech space. A few weeks into my fellowship, I asked “How might we make Civic Graph a bit smarter?”

With this in mind, I developed four tools — which I like to think of as “building blocks” — to improve the data quality (i.e. accuracy, completeness of data stored) as well as automate aspects of the data collection process. You can view everything I built in this repository.

civic-tech-resources-HCNYC

I started by scraping the archives of Civicist and TechPresident, two core civic tech publications which together span 2004—Present. Next, I analyzed the scraped content by extracting named entities (e.g. people, organizations, companies, places). I utilized an open-source library called spaCy, which allowed me to tag and categorize entities based on part of speech and named entity type (e.g. person, place, organization). From Civicist and TechPresident alone, over 70,000 entities were extracted!

In order to build a true (and useful) semantic graph from the natural text I had scraped, I needed a way of identifying, extracting, and categorizing relationships between named entities. To do this, I implemented a classifier in Python using a Supervised Learning Model to label tokenized text data according to five initial categories: funding, data, employment, collaboration, location. These categories were chosen because they are the types of connections currently represented in Civic Graph. I trained the classifiers using Support Vector Machines, and used the content scraped from Civicist and TechPresident as my test data. Finally, I designed a pipeline outlining how a future civic tech fellow can integrate my classification system with the existing Civic Graph.

For Microsoft Translator, my primary role was to help with project development and organization.  

Microsoft’s Translator is a machine learning-based voice-to-voice speech translation technology that enables two or more people speaking two or more languages to have a conversation using a common device such as a smartphone or tablet.

Our team collaborated with the Microsoft Speech Translation Research and Product teams as well as with various providers of citizen services in New York City. We tested all features of the Microsoft Translator application with the Microsoft Translator Project Manager to explore the product’s functionality, identify optimal civic use cases, and provide useful feedback to the Product team. I also prepared memos outlining goals, stakeholders, and project timelines for upcoming pilots that are expected to run this fall.

Other work:

In addition to the two projects, I also supported the civic tech community through presentations and event-organizing. I co-presented to 24 Chinese delegates visiting Civic Hall about the Microsoft Translator project and my experience as a summer fellow. Although the delegates brought a translator with them, I used the presentation as an opportunity to practice my Mandarin-speaking skills!

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Me (right) and John Paul Farmer presenting to the delegates.

Additionally, our team visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to present to the Director of the Met MediaLab and some folks from the TED Fellows Program. We also presented to Microsoft CELA (Corporate External and Legal Affairs)’s Regional Director for Southeast Asia about our team’s current projects. Finally, together with 18F’s Aidan Feldman and civic tech fellow Briana Vecchione, I co-organized and hosted weekly “Hacker Hours” at Civic Hall, a two-hour period where folks at Civic Hall and outside members of the tech community can share what they are working on and get help on technical projects.  Interested in attending? More information here!

The Civic Tech Fellowship has been a wonderful opportunity to participate in collaborative efforts between Microsoft and the City of New York, to work with talented and passionate people, to develop my technical skillset, and to observe how Microsoft is continuing to build a strong presence in the civic technology space.  I am excited to follow the progress of Microsoft Translator, Civic Graph, and the other projects on which fellows around the country are working!

Quadratic Voting: Civic Tech for Eminent Domain

Historians say we owe the industrial predominance of England over France to it, but fifty years earlier Jane Jacobs called it “unjust involuntary subsidies…fantastically wasteful of city economic assets.”  Whatever you feel about eminent domain, the government taking of private land to avoid holdouts against development projects, you probably feel it strongly.  Jointly with my colleagues Jerry Green, Scott Duke Kominers and Steven P. Lalley I am working to harness the latest ideas from economic theory and technology to find a solution that almost everyone can be happy with.

I first started thinking about eminent domain during the summer of 2007, when I lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by the slopes of Rocinha, the enormous favela (slum) perched on hills with one of the world’s most beautiful views.  I couldn’t understand why the slums remained there; couldn’t all of the residents be much better off if they were moved out of their poverty in exchange for a share of the enormous income that could be earned building luxury developments over that view?  My wife, and later an expert on squatter settlements, Alisha Holland explained to me that the problem was the lack of eminent domain: given the crime in the favelas, Brazil’s elite would never move in until all squatters could be removed.  But because the squatters lacked formal title to their land, no mechanism existed for compensating them and any effort to evict them would meet with violent political resistance. Sharing Alisha’s sympathy for the inhabitants, I wanted to find a solution that would work for everyone.

rocinha-favela

The basic problem was that if every resident was given a veto over the project, it would be impossible to ever carry it out, as there would always be some individual who could hold the whole process up.  On the other hand, if the community were given no right to refuse the government, there would be no legitimacy to the action or projection of property rights.  The natural solution is to allow the community of owners to take a vote on whether to accept an offer made to all of them.  

However, such a vote can be very unfair.  A developer might choose to strategically target 50% of the landholders that have small and low-value plots of lands, make them juicy offers and thereby get the land on the cheap.  For a system to be fair, it would have to protect the interests of those who strongly oppose a deal.  The transaction should only go through if, in total, it made the sellers better off.  

To solve this problem, I devised a new voting system, called Quadratic Voting, in which individuals can buy additional votes on an issue at an increasing cost. One vote costs $12=$1, two votes cost $22=$4, three votes $32=$9, etc. This allows a minority strongly affected by a project to express its feelings, but only if the issue is extremely important to them.  My work has shown this is the only rule that causes people to vote in proportion to how much the issue matters to them, thus ensuring that the sale will go through exactly when it benefits the sellers overall.

poli-votingObviously, a quadratic function isn’t easy for most people to grasp, any more than are the powerful algorithms underlying services like Uber.  That’s where the power of technology to force people to understand only what is necessary and let computers do the rest comes in.  A user interface represents the cost of influencing the choice visually with sliding bars, moving at an increasingly rapid pace as votes are cast.  Beyond eminent domain, Quadratic Voting has a variety of other uses in cities and politics more broadly, allowing citizens to find compromises that allow them to have more say on the issues most important to them in exchange for letting their fellow citizens have their way on the issues more important to them.

By bringing the power of civic tech to some of the most contentions issues of local government, Microsoft is paving the way for the happier, wealthier, more harmonious and functional cities of tomorrow.

glen-weylE. Glen Weyl is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research New York City, a Visiting Senior Research Scholar at the Yale Economics Department and Law School and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow.  He was valedictorian of his undergraduate class at Princeton in 2007 and received his PhD in economics also from Princeton a year later.

Civic Tech Summer: August in NYC

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Where did the summer go? With the time flying by, we’re grasping on to the last of the hot summer months with all the civic tech you could hope for. Our top picks for the month:

August 2

Tech Tuesday Open House at Hack Manhattan

Tech Tuesday is Hack Manhattan’s weekly general interest open house. Don’t worry, it’s not just about technology—any kind of project is welcome.

Tech Tuesday is the perfect opportunity to visit Hack Manhattan and check out what it’s all about.

Bring a project and get to work, use our tools, drink a homebrew beer, hang out, and draw on advice from our wonderful community. Visitors are strongly encouraged to bring a project to work on, or at least a laptop.

August 2

Bots are the New Apps: Building with the Bot Framework & Language Understanding

Join us for an exciting talk where we’ll explore the role of bots and conversation agents in various business scenarios. Come learn the fundamentals of the new Bot Framework, including the Bot Connector, the open source Bot Builder SDK for C# and Node.js, and the Language Understanding Intelligent Service (LUIS) from Microsoft Cognitive Services.

August 2

August 2016 NY Tech Meetup and Afterparty

Join fellow technologists for an evening of live demos from companies developing great technology in New York, followed by a networking afterparty.

August 4

Design and Tech Summer Bash

In partnership with The Next Web and Dumbo Bid, we are hosting a summer party under the archway on August 4th to celebrate the design and tech community and friends! Join us at Live at the Archway, a part of the Live at the Archway series, featuring a musical performance by Madame T and the Starlights with a set of whistleblowing train songs, sizzling summer swing and a journey of high camp performance that will make you want to dance and swoon! There will be beer, wine, and bites from The Lighthouse and epic scenery below the Manhattan Bridge. You will also have a chance to explore all the galleries open for the Dumbo Art Walk.

August 8

Big Data Infrastructure: Streaming, management & analysis with Redshift

As the volume and variety of data continues to grow more and more companies need to implement scalable big data infrastructure that transfers, manages, and analyzes their data in order to support analytics and insights. Developing, maintaining and scaling these technological terrors fall on the shoulders of developers.

Creating infrastructure that can deal with your unique needs, is user friendly, and scales with the influx of data that your company generates is a major hurdle to overcome. We will show you how to use cost-effective, and infinitely scalable data pipelines and management platforms built on top of Redshift, resulting in a simple but powerful data platform tailored to your company.

 

August 16

Digital Inclusion Summit: Innovating Civic Engagement

Join community members, technologists, non-profit organizations, and members of the New York City Council for conversations about the future of voter engagement, Participatory Budgeting, and other public initiatives!

August 17

Sourcest – Meet HR Tech leaders in NYC, Network and Grab Lunch

The free event is sponsored by Jobjet and will connect you with the best talent pros around town. Join us, meet new friends and check out a panel discussion over lunch. RSVP is required. Space is limited and will be reserved quickly.

August 17

Fixing Session

The Fixers’ Collective(fixerscollective.org) is holding a fixing session at Hack Manhattan!

Bring something to fix, or help fix things. All are welcome, whether you have something to fix or just want to observe and watch.