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'Code For Venezuela' Aims To Find Solutions For The Embattled Country

May 12, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been talking for some time now about the chaos in Venezuela. The power struggle between the Maduro regime and the opposition continues. The economy is in shambles, infrastructure's breaking down. All that, not to mention the shortages of food, medicine and other critical supplies, have caused millions of people to leave the country in recent years.

Among those who have left are tech workers who've landed in California's Silicon Valley and other tech hubs. And some of these expatriates have started a group called Code For Venezuela, with the goal of trying to help solve some of the problems back in Venezuela using technology. One of the group's founders, Jose Montes de Oca, is joining us now from San Francisco. Jose, thanks so much for talking with us.

JOSE MONTES DE OCA: No, thank you, Michel. It's our pleasure.

MARTIN: So tell me a little bit about your background, and how long have you been living outside of Venezuela, and what caused you to leave?

MONTES DE OCA: Well, I am born and raised in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. I study computer science. Once I started finishing my school in 2010, I started to think, OK, what's next in my career? Started applying to big tech companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft. And I got an offer from Google and came to the Valley in 2011.

MARTIN: So how did the idea for Code For Venezuela come about? What was the goal of the group?

MONTES DE OCA: It's a group of friends that - we've known each other for three or four years now here in the Bay Area. And right about late last year, we started, like, really brainstorm - hey, you know, what can we do that's not only financial that could really impact the country?

MARTIN: Can you give me a sense of what some of the projects are that you've tried to work on so far, that you're trying to innovate now?

MONTES DE OCA: Yes, yes. So to give you some context, as we were doing this brainstorm, we set a goal. OK, we had, like, three hypotheses that we wanted to prove. The first one being, you know, can we unite the Venezuelan expats? And then the second one, can we find organizations that are working in Venezuela on the ground that need help with technology? And then the third is like, as, like, Code For Venezuela, can we connect the two?

So, you know, with that in mind, we thought, hey, let's put a goal of a hackathon. Let's come up with interesting challenges and put it out there for the community. So, for example, we have the pleasure to be working with Dr. Julio Castro, who is a very prominent doctor in Venezuela expert in Malaysia. And the work that he has been doing in Venezuela is remarkable. He has a group called Medicos Por La Salud. They have been tracking data points around everything that you can imagine in the health system.

So think about it sort of like a parallel minister of Health. So he's tracking medicine, supply, the number of beds or what's needed on the hospital. All of this based on like groundwork, crowd sourcing via Twitter and WHY NOT. And he has been gathering this data but very rudimentary. So when he came to us with the problem and what he was doing, we were like, wow, you know, we can definitely be your technical arm and elevate your work.

MARTIN: Have you been able to solve any specific problems in real time yet? I mean, you can see where, for expatriates, this is probably relieving to have something that you can do to help to try to help because it has to be frustrating to live outside the country and have your countrymen and probably your relatives going through all this. And you probably feel like, you know, what can I do?

MONTES DE OCA: Yes. So in the hackathon, we had 17 submissions. Three of them were completed, and four our ongoing. So like, you know, one of the ones that, you know, we're pretty excited is related to this Twitter data where people are, like, requesting medicines or offering medicine. A team built a Twitter bot that replies to those requests and try to match - do matchmaking between offer and the match.

MARTIN: That's exciting. I mean, I'm guessing this has been a fulfilling project for you. I mean, how has it made you feel to work on this and to see your work starting to grow?

MONTES DE OCA: Amazing. I think this is the best I've felt in a long time - to actively solve and engage with, you know, challenges in the country has been very gratifying for us as a team.

MARTIN: That's Jose Montes de Oca. He's one of the founders of Code For Venezuela. And we reached him in San Francisco. Jose, thanks so much for talking to us.

MONTES DE OCA: No, thank you for the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.