Tuesday, March 31, 2015

#FixIT@UNAM: How We Got Over A Hundred Latinas In Our Hackathon

[Image Caption: Group photo of #FixIT: Latina Hackathon @ UNAM


  • Organized  a large scale Latina Hackathon #FixIT with almost 300 registered females and 147 female Hackers on February 26-27 2015 at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
  • The Hackathon had a large female turnout because we created a space welcoming for Latinas.
  •  Hackers designed innovative smart home appliances using arduinos, and collaborated with other very diverse females, such as high school students, young professionals, graduate and undergraduates in Computer Engineering, Mechatronics, Industrial Design, Philosophy, Politial Science, among others.
  • The Hackathon's organization  had powerful team work between Google Anita Borg Scholars, US and Mexican universities (UNAM, UCSB, UC Berkeley, UCD, Georgia Tech) and non-profits (Major League Hacking, SocialTIC).

Many organizations have been fighting to bring diversity into IT. But it has been a sloooow loooong progress. I don't like slow! I decided to take things into my own hands :) So I did what you always do when you’re a little guy facing a terrible future with long odds and little hope of success: I teamed up with my friends.

I was very fortunate to have been awarded to join the planning committee of Google Anita Borg Scholars. This new organization has the mission to increment world-wide the number of women participating in computer science. I started to work closely with Miray Kas, and Sarah Safir. These two women gave me the motivation and inspiration to start dreaming and making a reality: the idea of Fixing IT, rapidly bringing diversity. It gave me the drive to stay up multiple nights with friends further devising a plan.

Online I got introduced to many new great people, from other Googlers who had careers focused in fostering diversity, to 19 year old UNAM students, like Juan Pablo Flores, who organized large scale Hackathons throughout their country. I’ve worked with some of the strongest teams in industry, academia, and even sport (Olympic medalists!) But I’ve never seen anything like this.
Starting from literally nothing, we went to having a fast moving plan: We would do a Hackathon! A female Hackathon, a Latina Hackathon. We would be fighting to incorporate two minorities at once!

[Image Caption: Latinas in 
#FixIT hacking away.]

Why a Hackathon?
We saw Hackathons as a fast way to turn anyone into creators, not just consumers of, technology. We wanted to create a space that would empower these minorities to build and present their own visions of what technology looks like.

We were a strong motivated team, but in a certain sense we were also just newbies, running around telling everyone we were going to create this new awesome more inclusive hackathon. You can ask anyone, I was constantly inviting everyone to join and participate in my Hackathon. The problem was that we didn't really know any latinas interested in tech; we didn't have a space to hold the Hackathon. Heck, we didn't even have a budget. We had no funds to even run it.  Even I began to doubt myself. It was a rough period.

But December hit and suddenly things started moving.  Suddenly all the work we had done started coming together. All the folks we talked  to about it suddenly began getting really involved and getting others involved. Everything started snowballing. It happened so fast.

So... How did we make it happen?

[Image Caption: UNAM Professors helping to explain Hackathon dynamics.
The professors helped to secure the spaces, 
prepare bootcamps, and connect with students.]

A. Professors from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) got involved.
[Note that UNAM is one of the largest public universities in the world, and also one with  high academic ranking] The professors played a key role in the Hackathon's success because they helped us secure a space where we could run the Hackathon. From interviews with latinas we found that: 1) some latinas did not attend Hackathons because they lacked their own equipment; 2)  some parents from latinas only allowed their daughters to  participate in  the Hackathon if it happened during the school week and it was part of a school activity; 3) some Latinas felt insecure of their technical skills and this made them hide away from hackathons
This lead us to want  to create a Hackathon that covered the needs of these girls, and made it easy for them to participate.
1. The UNAM professors helped us secure computer labs so that participants would not need to bring their own equipment.

2. The professors also gave us access to their network of high school and college professors (UNAM also has high schools!) These professors kindly invited their Latina students to our event; many physically drove them there; and some even turned it into an official school activity.

[Image Caption: Latinas with Mentors
@ #FixIT bootcamp.]

3. The UNAM professors and also UNAM senior students helped us to prepare a bootcamp. We felt the bootcamp would give participants more security in themselves and help them thrive. The bootcamps helped participants regardless of their programming knowledge or skill to start designing and building smart houses using Arduino. UNAM also gave us many mentors  that helped participants throughout the hackathon. These mentors were very engaged students that also helped to create security in participants.

From interviews, we also suddenly realized that this might be one of the first large scale latina Hackathon in the region. It then made sense to try to help participants to build a network, and inspire and help each other to succeed. We thus decided to have talks for the Hackathon. Female professors, such as Dr. Cindy Rubio from UC Davis,  and graduate students, such as Deana Brown from Georgia Tech. They  all came down to UNAM to give inspiring talks on their research, career paths, and how they managed to succeed. Here again the UNAM professors managed to secure for us a large auditorium for the talks.
**For all of this thanks to Prof. Norma Elva Chavez and Dr. Jesus Savage. 

B. Amazing Google Anita Borg Scholars Support
The network of Google Anita Borg Scholars, specifically Miray Kas,  connected me with a group of very passionate Googlers, e.g., Rohan Lamba,  who had the vision of creating large scale hackathons across the world. The group helped cover all of the costs of the hackathon, and helped immensely with the planning and logistics. Rohan also came to the hackathon at UNAM and was up with me since 4 am the day of the Hackathon planning and hacking away!  Thanks to Google, our Hackathon gave participants:

1) Awesome Swag (Tshirts, bags, stickers, Tech Girls are Superheroes book! **This was actually written and created by another Google Anita Borg Scholar, Jenine Beekhuyzen!)
2) Kits to build and design Smart Houses using arduino.
3) Lots of great delicious Mexican food!
4)Awesome Prizes! (This was important to motivate participants. )

The Google Anita Borg Scholar network also gave us inspiring speakers and mentors. Both Dr. Cindy Rubio and Deana Brown were Anita Borg Scholars. They came down to UNAM to give inspiring strong talks.

[Image Caption: Dr. Cindy Rubio was the
keynote speaker of #FixIT]

C. Awesome UNAM Students
Our Hackathon had a large turnout, perhaps one of the largest Latina Hackathons to date. How did this happen? I believe it helped us immensely to listen to the needs of these young latinas. Undergraduate students from UNAM connected us with large networks of females who explained to us what it would take to have them attend the hackathon. We created spaces that facilitated their participation and they came! We had participation from schools and universities across the globe. Some examples were Universidad nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM); Instituto Politecnico Nacional (IPN);  ITAM; Tec de Monterrey; Georgia Tech; University of California Santa Barbara, UC Berkeley; UC Davis; Oxford.

The biggest takeaway from this is that perhaps the success of our Hackathon came not necessarily because we had big tech players on our side. We succeed because there was this enormous mental shift in the students, professors, and just everyone involved. All of them were thinking of ways they could help to recruit and bring their latina friends to our event. Often really clever, ingenious ways. Students made videos. They designed ads. They bought billboards. They announced massively and repeatedly on social media. They had rallies. Students saw it as their responsibility to help.
Here a big shoutout to Juan Pablo Flores, Alejandra Monroy!

D. The Designers
Laura Ballroom and Ariadna Gómez Dessavre were the designers of the Hackathon. Ari made the awesome #FixIT logo; and Laura designed the tshirts, stickers and certificates.

The designers were key for the event because they created products that were used and adopted by participants. This helped to create a collective identity for the event and build a community. I loved seeing on social media people share selfies with their Hackathon tshirts and feel proud to wear them.

I loved seeing the senior female student add our sticker to her laptop (along with the multiple other stickers she proudly shows to present all the tech events she has attend) and the young high school student add our sticker to her bare laptop (representing this is her first tech events. But seems to be likely to attend now more :)

I believe we won this fight, we were able to have a hackathon with hundreds of latinas; rapidly bringing diversity into technology, because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to have an event where more audiences could be included; where more voices could be empowered to design and construct technology. They threw themselves into it. They did whatever they could think of to do. They didn’t stop to ask anyone for permission.

We, the people decided to make a difference. We decided to make it our responsibility to do this work. To change who is empowered to participate in a Hackathon. Who is empowered to define technology. Let's not forget that we do have the power to change our reality.
"Juntas Creando y Transformando la Realidad"
[This was the main quote for #FixIT, it reads in Spanish: Together Creating and Transforming Reality]

[Image Caption: #FixIT was a success because we worked with the community to 
make Latinas feel welcomed] 

This text is a remix of Aaron Swartz's inspiring speech: How we Stopped SOPA." We miss you Aaron.