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Another interesting topic in OKFestival, which successfully closed one week ago with a thousand participants from more than 100 nationalities, regarded Gender and Diversity. It felt a bit like a marginal subject, but it was nonetheless worth including it. In a country like Finland, supposed to be one of the best of the world in this respect, gender equality is sometimes a sort of taboo, something nobody likes to talk about anymore (apart from the recurrent considerations in the media about wage differencies, which still exist). The interesting thing was that most of the topic participants were people from abroad, from a variety of cultures, in a subject where culture is crucial.

But first of all a bit of data! At OKFest women were 27%: 20% in the Organizing Team, 25% in the Advisory Board, 19% of the featured speakers, 27.5% of the speakers and 28.5% of the participant testimonials.

Sarah Stierch, lady fellow at the Wikimedia Foundation and museum curator, presented the Teahouse project, an internet platform aiming at “decreasing intimidation” among women editors: it´s a fact that Wikipedia, the most famous online encyclopedia, is edited mostly by men, women editors being only 9%. Sarah wishes that this portal, where users can create their own profile, get support and share what they learn, will encourage women to be more active. The project, launched in March 2012, got about 500 participants in the first three months.

Anke Domscheit-Berg, a German IT entrepreneur, activist of the Pirate party and of Open Government, presented two initiatives: Roberta and Random Hacks of Kindness.

The idea of Roberta, founded in 2002, is to involve more girls in IT technology: in robotics courses, girls of about 10-16 (and even younger) learn to design, construct, program and test mobile robots; all this in a playful approach, where storytelling, choreography, role play, costume and stage design, music contribute to make the technological experience more creative and catching:

Roberta class in Cuneo, Italy

After the classes 77% of participants said they liked technology more, less girls associated the issue with boys and some would like to become computer experts in the future. Education at a sensible age is an important factor to gain self-confidence, in a still male-dominated field. Anke also reported Roberta classes´experience in socially difficult areas, as Berlin Spandau, with girls from various migrational backgrounds. Courses, held since 2005, have improved their composure, enabled them to work in teams and to present their projects in public, even in foreign languages – in a context where families are often of little or none support.

Roberta Network gathers Roberta centres in Germany and abroad, btw. in Italy (Cuneo, Genoa, Bolzano) and Sweden.

Random Hacks of Kindness  is a global community of innovators, initially founded for disaster recovering and crisis management, with about 5000 activists (with the aid of NASA, the World Bank, Google and Microsoft). Since 2007 various Hackathons have taken place all around the world, in Berlin as well: at first female presence was scarce, but the situation improved when Anke and others involved the near Design School of Thinking, where women are the majority. Anke also pointed out that gender situation is actually better in East Germany, an interesting consideration.

Rails Girls is a Finnish movement, born in 2010 with the aim to give girls and women tools to code and build Internet apps. The idea spread rapidly around the world, Rails Girls workshops are nowadays held in many countries, from Far East to South America. The workshops, usually during a weekend, are free. The last one took place at OKFest:

Their name is inspired by Ruby on Rails, open-source software for friendly coding. The idea came from the observation that most of the web users are women but much less are represented as creators. “Finland is the land of open-source: Finnish engineers invented technologies that have disrupted whole industries and still form the backbone of Internet, like Linux” and so on. “Code is about making change. It is profoundly changing societies everywhere. That´s why it´s so important to have an approachable way to spread this knowledge”.

As it was pointed out during the discussion, hack sub-culture is innovative but not automatically more receptive to women. Similar movements and programs arise around the world, such as Girlswhocode. And it´s interesting to note that in countries like India, with a strong culture in math, programming attracts unexpectedly more female students than in so-called Western societies.

The problems encoutered in this field are astonishingly similiar to those faced in music composition and music technology: are girls simply generally less interested in pure abstraction or are they sistematically discouraged to approach such studies?

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The great day has come, after nine months of intensive sketching and organizing, the Open Knowledge Festival opened today in Helsinki, at the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture. Since the very first moment one could sense the warm and open atmosphere, a bunch of young enthusiasts welcoming the visitors with a smile (not such a common event at these latitudes!)

Everything was OK, from the design of the scenography to the original badges, cut out in wood or coloured plastic, a creation of the Helsinki Fablab of Aalto Media Factory and Massimo Menichinelli.

The first Plenary Session was attended with tangible emotion by a varied international audience, which naturally melt with Aalto University population, already multicultural at the origin: young and less young experts and open data enthusiasts from Europe, U.S.A. and every corner of the world.

Before the opening

A multilayered hi-tech experience: not only the presentations are reproduced in live streaming, but it is possible to comment what is said onstage in an open instant chat (active during morning sessions): both people physically and virtually present can interact with the event. A few subjects and questions are selected and proposed to the speakers. And many of us reacted on Twitter at the same time: a fun experience, which nevertheless makes one wonder about what it means nowadays to listen and to communicate, in an era where we can´t anymore simply talk to each other, but need screens both for illustrating our ideas and receiving them. Anyway the atmosphere was relaxed and elated, and technology undoubtedly allowed us to express the emotion to be part of an uncommon event.

Internationally well known speakers inspired the audience with a few words about open data: “the challenge is how to use open information to solve the issues we have in front of us: the challenge is not in data availability, but in the use we do of it” (Rufus Pollock)

“Technology is a tool: policy wonks meet tech geeks”; “reach citizens directly, prioritise the needs of the users”, “give people access, select what is relevant to them”; technology enables “to collect essential medicines via SMS in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda and Zambia” (Martin Tisné)

“Collecting useful data, as allotment data” means to investigate “what people care about, such as growing their own vegetables”. Possibility put in discussion “in spring 2011, with the threat to the UK Allotment Act (1908!), followed by an overwhelming popular response” (Farida Vis)