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Innovators in Coding Profiled

Aired July 20, 2013 - 14:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: They are innovators, game changers, people pushing themselves, moving us all forward. They are the next scientists, musicians, poets, the next makers, dreamers, teachers, and geniuses. They are "THE NEXT LIST."

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Welcome to the next list. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Today I'd like to introduce you to two extraordinary innovator, Jennifer Polka and Dan Selec. Both are elevating the power of coders, programmers, and technologists to change the world in unexpected ways. Jennifer is the founder of Code for America. It's a non-profit that takes the smartest web designers, programmers, and technologists from places like Google and Apple and drops them into city halls all over the country. She thinks geeks can fix government.

JENNIFER PAHLKA, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CODE FOR AMERICA: It's really remarkable when you think of what we don't like about government, we, the people, created. So if we created it, we can also fix it.

GUPTA: Dan Selec is also using technology to fill a need, adult students on the autism spectrum.

DAN SELEC, FOUNDER/CEO NONPAREIL INSTITUTE: We want to be the Apply of autism.

GUPTA: He's teaching them to make a living in the tech industry.

SELEC: If you want to know what terror is, find out your child has a disability. As a parent we all ask the same question, what happens when we're gone?

GUPTA: The unemployment rate for the almost half a million autistic adults is startling.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The standard is about 90 percent of individuals on the autism scale who are adults are either unemployed or underemployed.

SELEC: It's very limited in the number of job opportunities individuals with autism have. The pay is typically very poor, if they get paid at all.

GUPTA: Dan Selec is on a mission to change that, creating an institute based just outside of Dallas, Texas. Today we'll take you inside his hybrid tech company for an intimate look at his resolution to empower adults on the autism spectrum all over the world. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta and this is "THE NEXT LIST."

SELEC: Nonpareil is a person or thing so excellent as to have no equal or match. And that really comes from how we as parents think about our kids. Today we're competing in several marketplaces. We compete in the iTunes store and Google Play and most of the mobile platform stores. We even have some product in iBooks.

JACOB WATERS, STUDENT, NONPAREIL INSTITUTE: This story is just mainly about one spirit that represents both good and bad until it separates into two.

SELEC: This is a place where we take adults from the autism spectrum and we provide them technology training. They learn to work in teams, and ultimately we have a campus vision where they'll come together and live.

ADAM JEFFRIES, STUDENT, NONPAREIL INSTITUTE: I basically make sure it makes the stuff while physically being there and make a move.

SELEC: We are non-profit. We are funded largely by our student fees, by the support we get from the community. But ultimately, it's about fulfilling lives.

JEREMY GAGE FERRIS, STUDENT, NONPAREIL INSTITUTE: For me and probably a lot of people, I never expected to make video games. They might be lucky enough just to get a janitor's job like I had for a few years. And then just going from that to this, that's just a miracle for a large group of people like us.

JIM CONNELL, A.J. DREXEL AUTISM INSTITUTE: Autism is a developmental disorder that's typically characterized by three types of impairments. One is social impairment, the second is the communication impairment, and then the third is typically described as repetitive or repeated behaviors.

NITA BOLES, MOTHER OF NONPAREIL INSTITUTE STUDENT: Some people pace when they get a little nervous, and some people cough or have tics and for that reason may not be able to maintain a job.

SELEC: This population faces challenges in a way that makes it difficult for corporate America to easily accommodate their needs. Business is business. Nonparel is a company that exists to serve the needs of its employees.

The learning process here is directed toward removing the negatives. This is our cloud-based engagement application called NP connect. It's a piece of software that I wrote that really allows us to better engage our students in both training and from the production standpoint.

We just have a ton of training resources that you could look at, many, many videos, PDF files, lots of information that as a team we've gathered over time. So when you've kind of gone through all the training and all the courses, you begin to get assignments and campaigns. And campaigns are a product that's going to market. Each of these individuals comes into our program and is able to experience these great tools that allow them to innovate and take these great, creative ideas and turn them into content that they can share with the world.

AARON WINSTON, STUDENT, NONPAREIL INSTITUTE: The four games we have on the iTunes store right now are NPI-Soribon, NPI Car Track, NPI Tap It, and NPI Space. Live Wire is coming up, and Dots and Boxes is another game that's coming up.

My name is Aaron Winston. I've been at Nonpareil for two and a half years.

This is Space on the UYI console. I decided I wanted to learn how to be a programmer, so about a year and a few months ago I took the C- Sharp 101 course, and since then I've just been programming a lot.

SELEC: That's really the difference in our model, is that we don't just provide training. In the end they become part of a working software company. And today we're competing in the mobile marketplace.

CINDY WINSTON, MOTHER OF NONPAREIL INSTITUTE STUDENT: Aaron has been at Nonpareil 2004 about two and a half years. The change is unbelievable. He was always bright, but now he has something that captivates his mind that he's really into and really enjoys learning or digging for the answers.

SELEC: We have days that are pretty full, and there is a lot of ups and downs, mostly all good.

GUPTA: Up next, the personal reasons for Dan Selec's school.

And later, Jennifer Pahlka, her geek squad -- will she save local government with coding?


SELEC: I have three boys. My youngest is on the spectrum. Looking at him and his abilities, he had technical abilities that my other two boys didn't have. For me, I wanted Caleb to have a chance to live a fulfilled life, not just live a life. He loves technology. Put him in front of the PC, he's happy.

Do you love making videos?


SELEC: Yes? What are some of your characters' names? Have you made your own characters?

CALEB SELEC: I made a character called Keith.

SELEC: It turns out there is a whole population of this group that this is their core strength, their digital natives.

Tell me some of your other characters' names.

CALEB SELEC: We're done.

SELEC: Are we done?


SELEC: OK. Thanks for talking, OK?

When I recognized that my son need answers for his life, I began with a business model, that there needs to be something structured around this that can be deployed not only locally but worldwide.

Nonpareil institute is about hope.

KELLY KUNST, DALLAS BUSINESS CONSORTIUM FOUNDER: I think that all of Dan's work is about disruption in how we view human capital. Dan is taking some of these incredible individuals and giving them environment to be successful in. And so it's a very disruptive process to how he's growing his organization.

SELEC: This is the kitchen where it all started. A year and a half ago, I ran the business kitchen, and this is where the two training stations were set up. And every night, five nights a week, for over a year, two students would show up each night and I would work a full day job and then come home and do two sessions.

GARY MOORE, FOUNDER, PRESIDENT, NONPAREIL INSTITUTE: We've been open about two and a half years, and we have trained quite a few kids. Right now we have 115 students enrolled at Nonpareil. We think we can get to 125 at this location, so we're looking to add about 10 more students. Just like anybody else, they are looking for purpose in life. They're looking to find meaning for their life. The long-term goal is to provide a campus community where they can train, they can work and they can also live.

RACHEL BOLES, STUDENT, NONPAREIL INSTITUTE: My name is Rachel Boles. I've been at Nonpareil since March of 2012.

BOLES: When the new year rolled around, I said a little prayer, and said, dear god, let us find something for Rachel.

SELEC: Many of them have lost confidence, lack self-esteem. They've been bullied in life, they've failed at college or employment.

BOLES: Everyone on the east side of town has known Rachel to be the girl that skates all over the place. And I would think, I'm the worst parent in the world. I can't keep my 34-year-old daughter from skating all over town because she has nothing else to do. And yet I couldn't find her something else to do.

SELEC: They come here, and within weeks or months they begin to see this is something they can do. They fit in. They're accepted here.

RACHEL BOLES: I got a job as a lab assistant helping people out with things if they have a problem with what they're working on. So I never thought I would get a job that quick working here.

SELEC: That's really the difference in our model, is that we don't just provide training. In the end, they become part of a working software company, and that's our short-term vision, to become an innovation factory for approaching the marketplace and giving our crew sustainable revenue in the future.

JIM CONNELL: The Nonpareil model is very viable for a specific portion of the population.

BOLES: Now, Rachel, I've seen her work and she is excited about having done that and about what comes next and what she might try out next.

CINDY WINSTON: I think -- to me, to our family, we are so grateful to Nonpareil and what it has given to us and just the idea that there is no dollar amount for that.

GUPTA: Nonpareil currently has a waiting list for people from all over the world. They all want to be a part of Dan Selec's unlikely school. He plans on expanding, first in Texas and around the country, and eventually, around the world.

Our next innovator, Jen Pahlka, she plans on changing the world with the power of technology, too, one geek at a time. Her story is next.


GUPTA: Welcome back to THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Our next innovator has electrifying ideas, that geeks can change government.

PAHLKA: Geeks have changed the world so much in the past 10 or 20 years. But they haven't changed government yet.

GUPTA: Jennifer Pahlka created code for America. It's a non-profit that takes web designers and programmers from places like Google and apple and drops them in city halls around the country. Their mission is to cut through bureaucracy. They're writing apps that help parents track their kids' school bus in a snowstorm, allow people to text feedback directly to their city planners.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cities are going bankrupt, and the stuff that we're building really can change kind of the bottom line of these cities.

PAHLKA: We proudly use the word "geek." We call ourselves the Peace Corps for geeks. We've got 26 fellows working across eight cities. Not every Code for America follows a programmer. I'm actually interim planner by trade.

Code for America is this really interesting mix of people. We have a lawyer. We have designers coming together with programmers to really make beautiful and effective products. They spend a lot of time with the cities, but actually they're based here in San Francisco at our offices. We're here on Ninth Street in the Civic Center area of San Francisco.

Each of the teams has a space here where they're moving their sticky notes or they brainstorm things around. Our Detroit team took this prime real estate in the office, which is great. They are working the problem of plighted properties. There is this group in Detroit that goes out to survey the communities. The information they gather about a neighborhood can sometimes take nine months to become actionable.

So what they do is they go to a technical assistance provider or a data analyst and they say here's all the information about my community. Can you turn it into a map? Can you turn it into a report? And so we wanted to take the expert out of the equation and really make it about the people who are collecting this data about their communities. And so what we came up with is a tool kit called local data.

We decided to create this web interface that any non-technical person, you or I, could easily create a survey using maps to say we're going to go map and survey the state of homes, for instance, in these couple of blocks. And they've mapped a way to get it down from nine months to just a couple of days. We want to help government work better for everybody with people on the power of the web.

So I love their outcomes here, right? One criterion for success in this project -- happiness!

There are some great apps that came out of last year. One of them was so simple. You can go down to city hall and get the dataset of public art that your city maintains and put it in this application and suddenly you have a walking tour of public art in your city. It's really simple.

We have this idea of bureaucracy and local government, and it's generally the thing that we're frustrated at. It doesn't work the way we would like it to work. If you think about the past 10 years, what's happened to our daily personal lives? They've gotten far more convenient and connected. But government has fallen behind. And that's a real problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bureaucracy is definitely one of the challenges. So it's really looking at ourselves like a start-up within governments being lean, scrappy. And for us we think that's a new model for government.

PAHLKA: So, for instance, if you report a pothole, he wants you to be able to see every step of the way getting that pothole fixed the same way you can see your FedEx package. He believes you should be transparent about that to citizens.

Good morning and welcome to stand-up. Money after a certain level does not really motivate people. We pay these guys a small stipend for the year. They're living on $30,000 a year, so they're certainly not here for the money. They're here to change this institution.

We also did public user testing, which is awesome, because we now have a functional app. What's come up before is that young people aren't really interested in service. But I think what I'm learning from everyone here is that we want to put the skills we do have in a professional context to use into something that does mean a lot to us.

GUPTA: Coming up, Jennifer Pahlka's wild life.


PAHLKA: This is my daughter Clementine. She's nine. She likes to play in the backyard. Don't you, baby? Yes. And she likes to take care of our chicken.

We're in my backyard in Oakland, California. This is our home and the home of our chickens, and sometimes a garden. It looks like we're in country and we're really in a city, and cities have become pretty important to me in my work. We're right near public transportation, we're right near downtown. We're part of a major metropolitan area. But what I like about living here is that we also grow some of our own food, and the chickens help out with that, obviously. And I think that in the future cities are going to be more sustainable that way, so it's part of what we're trying to do with cities.

You done? I think it was sort of in my mid-30s that I realized I'm always on the border between two things. In high school I was sort of friends with the geeks and friends with the socies and friends with everyone else and not solidly in one camp. I've always lived on the borders. OK, let's wrap it up. I've also always lived on the borders. Like right now we're three houses from the border between Oakland and Piedmont. I grew up in Inwood in New York which is right on the border of Manhattan and the Bronx. I look back on my life and realize I've always been on the borders both physically and socially.

In America, we're so clearly on this border because the geek world and the government world hardly touched at all. It was really finding these absolutely different sort of universes and trying to bring them together and say there is real value in this universe, understanding this one and vice versa. There is something good that can come out of that. You speak geek here and you speak gov here, but we can make that translation happen, and we can create something that never existed before.

If you know anything about what's going on in local government, you know that cities are incredibly cash strapped. We're cutting back on garbage being picked up, we're cutting back on parks being maintained, we're cutting back on checking to make sure if the playground equipment our kids play on is safe. And yet we're going to spend $2 million on something that our folks could do in two and a half months.

If you don't tolerate any risk, you can never innovate. There is so much that citizens can do to communicate to their elected officials and to the bureaucrats that they interact with, you know what, we want you to try stuff. It's so remarkable when you think about it in that context what we don't like about government that we, the people, created. So if we created it, we can also fix it.

GUPTA: Jennifer Pahlka believes innovation and a fresh perspective can change the lives of citizens for the better. It turns out she caught the eye of President Obama. She's taking her geek power to Washington with a one-year fellowship of her own with the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House.

Both Jennifer Pahlka and Dan Selec are boldly using technology to empower their communities in unprecedented ways, and that's what earns them a spot on THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks watching. Hope to see you back here next week.