In this week's Miami New Times, we profile 30 of the most interesting characters in town, with portraits of each from photographer Stian Roenning. See the entire Miami New Times People Issue here.
A conversation with Rebekah Monson is like that moment in The Matrix when Neo sees everything in computer code. She may not practice kung fu or pluck bullets from midair, but Monson understands the digital world we live in. As Miami's coding guru, she knows this city now faces a choice: Take the blue pill and stay a sleepy tropical town, or pop the red one and join the international tech revolution. Needless to say, Monson is pushing the red pill pretty hard.
"There is room here to grow and to do more kick-ass stuff in the digital space," she says. "We need to pull this city forward. We need to level up."
Monson was born and raised in the small town of Tallassee, Alabama. "I like to tell people it's like Tallahassee, without the 'ha,' " she says, "because there's nothing funny about it." When she was 14, she bought a surplus computer, slapped a modem on it, and began tinkering online. "I remember getting in trouble all the time for tying up the phone lines."
After high school, Monson bolted to Baton Rouge to attend Louisiana State University. She studied journalism and eventually found herself moving to South Florida to work for the Sun Sentinel, first as an online designer and later as a reporter. But Monson soon discovered that the Sentinel -- like other local news outlets -- was behind the digital curve.
"In some ways, Miami is this AAA for media," she says. Our young, tech-savvy journalists are often snapped up by outlets in bigger leagues like New York and D.C. So Monson went back to school and learned how to combine her coding skills with digital storytelling techniques at the University of Miami. Then she cofounded with local journalist Dan Grech the Miami chapter of Hack/Hackers, an international movement of journalists (hacks) and coders (hackers) that collaborates on projects.
Next, Monson set her sights on cracking open county government. She cofounded Code for Miami, which corrals "developers, designers, data geeks, leaders, and idea-makers" with the aim of making Miami-Dade more transparent. Code for Miami encourages officials and organizations to put their data on the internet, where it can be accessed by anyone. Monson envisions a not-so-distant future in which Miamians can go online to see crime, real-estate, and transportation trends in their neighborhoods. "We're creating new pathways for citizens and governments to work together," she says.
Both projects boil down to the same thing: using technology to improve what's already a pretty nice life here in South Florida. "Miami is becoming a really cool place," Monson says, but it needs more "connective tissue" holding together its different parts.
She says the recent debate over Miami's future as a tech hub was misguided. "I don't buy the whole 'We're going to be the next Silicon Valley' argument,' " she says. "There isn't going to be another Silicon Valley. We are going to be Miami. We are going to be something. What that is yet, I don't know."
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Another issue Miami needs to embrace is climate change, Monson argues. Like journalism and government transparency, global warming will require some innovative technological solutions from this city. Ultimately, our future may hinge on who stays and who goes. For Monson's part, she's all in. "I want to live here," she says. "That means I need to invest my money, my time, and my labor here... If people like me don't do that, we are going to be underwater in 50 years.
"I think people are optimistic about Miami. A lot of cool, young people have chosen to stay here. It can't be that someone else is going to save this city. We have to save it ourselves."