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hackathon

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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After Simon Rogers´ talk, combining equally classical journalism and data expert skills, the day continued with a number of interesting presentations.

Farida Vis talked more about Reading the Riots, a research about the role of rumours during the London riots in 2011: it is also a research about people´s behaviour in social media, a study case about Twitter (which would deserve further investigation, what Farida promised to do in the future). A fundamental contributor to this work was the Italian data journalist Jacopo Ottaviani, working at Il Fatto Quotidiano and The Guardian. Jacopo´s work focuses on sensitive social issues, such as prisoners´conditions of life in both Italy and the UK: the study in Italy shows prisoners´ main causes of death during the last decade, that in UK focuses about the rate of suicides in British prisons. An example of how data journalism may increase social conscience.

Farida Vis at OKFest

The next speaker was Esa Mäkinen, one of Finland´s prominent data journalists, working for the only daily national newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat (by the way the main one in Scandinavia). It´s interesting to note that HS wants to be a pioneer in data journalism, on the model of The Guardian and other much larger international newspapers. HS has been organizing Data Journalism Hackathons [1] in the last two years, with the idea to find people with technological skills, keen to collaborate for their website: journalists, programmers and designers, meet for a day, working at their own project; the best ones get the possbility to be developed and published on HS website. The next HS hackathon (no.6) will takes place today at the OKFestival!

As it was more times pointed out on Tuesday, data journalism is drawing more and more attention among the readers, who are eventually both attracted by the visualizations and the interactive possibilities (choose freely what to look at, at which country, age group and so on). So it is becoming more commercially appetizing for news agencies, while more traditional reporting forms are rapidly disappearing (see art and music reviews!) Mäkinen said that the HS website has about 1.4 million visitors per day, a remarkable number. Finland is a highly technological country, online apps such as the election machine (helping you to find the candidate more near to your views) have been existing since at least 15 years.

Mäkinen´s team next project is an interactive poll about the brand new building of the Helsinki Music Centre, with questions about its aesthetics and functionality, utility/need for citizens and so on. Looking forward to the results!

The Hungarian Júlia Keserű presented K-monitor, an internet portal aiming to detect corruption levels in the press: she reported about a couple of censorship scandals in her country, where journalists were fired for having revealed links between the finance world and first-row politicians (the Prime Minister or his entourage). The portal aims to detect media ownership control and measure advertiser´ influence.

An inspiring talk was that held by Maya Indira Ganesh and Emma Prest, from the Tactical Technology Collective, an NGO founded in 2003, based in both Germany and India, with regional staff in South Africa, the UK, Jordan and the Philippines. The organization aims to give technological support to rights advocates who work about sensitive social issues, such as sex workers´ conditions in Asia. The research, Sex worker voices, illustrates the acts of violence sex workers endure in West Bengal and Cambodia. In such marginalised communities modern devices as cell-phones are the only means to let others know what happens. The data collected include locations, display of the facts in time (how frequent they are and so on), and especially who are the people involved: in most cases police officers were among the offenders, in first place along with madams, and only in minor percentages customers and landladies. Thanks to this programme sex workers became more aware of the scale and nature of the violence within their communities. They found out that some of the data contradicted their own beliefs. The data also revealed how the stigmatisation of sex workers is reflected in the kinds of violence they face.

OKFestival newsroom

The American researcher Lesley Kadish showed that a dataset may also be composed by historical, archive material, such as diaries, account books, photos from the XIX century (A Christmastime Ledger Book, 1862). The video visualization showed the same landscape (Fort Snelling, Dakota) as it was supposed to look through different historical times.

There were also a couple of open geodata presentations, by the Finnish team Ali Kaapro and Tiia Palvimo, and by the Dutch team of Juha van ‘t Zelfde and Maurits de Bruijn: the latter project, Shippr, was started a few months ago and regards the tracking of ships all over the world. A kind of FourSquare for ships, the idea may have economic, social, environmental implications – as 90% of the world trade happens on the seas. Through dynamic data and locations the application may help to understand better the tangible global economy, in its real time changes. Shippr is now looking for partners, e.g. telecommunication companies such as Sonera. Shipspotting may also be important as a form of citizen journalism, a chance to report facts on a free, voluntary basis. As it came out from the numerous questions, the world of ship traffic is anyway not always a transparent one: if on one hand ship are registered and it´s not so easy to change their names, containers may transport anything, their content does not need to be specified, which gives space to illicit trafficking. One question was also: could you track military ships?

Last but not least, Victor Miclovich from Uganda, talked about the use of technology in developing countries: in extreme situations nets of mobile phones are fundamental to detect the most violent, dangerous areas; or help in case of epidemies such as the Ebola fever, which recently killed many people in Africa in a short lapse of time. Applications such as u report – voice matters or rapidFTR, are useful to find children lost in war areas. Miclovich collaborates with various NGOs, UNICEF and so on.

Miclovich conducted also another project of social relevance in Uganda, to encourage girls and young women to use technology and programming. Girl Geek Series is a series of workshops where girls learn to code and design open-source software: in a male-dominated area, they learn also to work in teams, gain self-confidence and hopefully start a business on their own later on. In spite of their families´ opinions, often not so positive, as in many other areas of the world.


[1] Term combining the words hack and marathon