Connecting Communities through Code

Over the past few months, we’ve seen a huge amount of change and activism following world events such as the Orlando nightclub shooting, refugee crisis across Europe, and police-related violence. Times like this can either fragment the world in sorrow or bring us together to work together to build a better future.

Luckily, the internet is a huge place, and getting involved in solutions is easier than you might think. Whether that engagement is maintaining your personal education about the state of things, volunteering in-person time, or hacking on websites for oppressed groups, it all contributes to progress. We’ve gathered a few of our awesome community members to share their experiences working with organizations to make progress on some of the big issues of our time, and to give readers actionable steps using the skills we have. In this issue we spoke with Alon Robinson about his experience with Operation Spark’s collaboration with the White House Police Data Initiative andGary Goldman from Out in Tech NYC. A sneak peek of our big takeaways from working with them: there are some really, truly wonderful people in the world coding toward a better future, and there is always room for others to get involved.

We’d also like to take this opportunity to wish a happy August to our Inclusion.Tech community, and welcome you all to the newsletter’s third issue. There are a few updates for the community:

  • To start, we want to give a huge shoutout to our volunteer designer, Liz Hewell. Thank you for our beautiful logo and design!
  • We are now on Twitter! Follow us via @InclusionTech
  • Our community would love to hear your stories and ideas. If you’re interested in getting involved by being interviewed or writing a piece for a future issue (or nominating someone else), reach out to us via inclusion.tech.newsletter@gmail.com

We hope you enjoy this issue of Inclusion.Tech, and look forward to your ideas and feedback, growing our community, and together making the world a better place.

Best,
Yan Fan, Savannah Kunovsky, & Claire Hsu

Please contact us at inclusion.tech.newsletter@gmail.com

Pushing Progress Through Sparks and Data

Alon Robinson is a software engineer based out of New Orleans, Louisiana who participated in Operation Spark’s Summerware hackathon, a 3-day event that “utilized open data to increase transparency, build community trust, and support innovation between the citizens of New Orleans and NOPD” in partnership with the White House Police Data Initiative. Alon spoke with Inclusion.Tech about technological activism, working with the police and government officials, the necessity of government data transparency in regards to Diversity/Inclusion, and how we can help and spread awareness as a community.


IT: What is the role of the civil sector and tech companies in promoting inclusion and diversity, and especially data-driven justice?

Alon: First of all, it’s important to think of ways in which these two can work together, as technology increasingly encompasses more aspects of our lives, and drives innovation universally, the linkage between these two sets of actors continues to grow stronger, and the importance of ongoing collaboration is increasingly apparent. For example, with the recent floods in Louisiana, which have not been as devastating as say something of Katrina-level magnitude of destruction, people still have access to technology, in terms of their phones, and there’s therefore opportunities for hackathons to help develop apps to try to alleviate the burden of victims, connect them to resources and to help to automate some of the processes that they need to carry out.

IT: Speaking of hackathons, can you talk a little bit about your experience with Operation Spark and their Summerware hackathon.

Alon: I had always thought of activism as something very physical, as something that protestors or lawyers might do in the streets or in the courtrooms, that you had to be physically out there to get something done. But actually, you can achieve a lot without that physical presence as well. Looking at Anonymous, for example, you can see that incredible things can be accomplished, and that can go either way, obviously. Summerware was actually my first exposure to both regular hackathons and to the civil side of it as well. I got to really work alongside the chief of police, the CIO, the people from City Hall, on figuring out and solving problems.

“I had always thought of activism as something very physical, as something that protestors or lawyers might do in the streets or in the courtrooms, that you had to be physically out there to get something done. But actually, you can achieve a lot without that physical presence as well.”

IT: In your speech at the White House, you mentioned your initial skepticism about how genuine the police would be about opening up their data to the public. What about your experience shifted your opinion, and what opportunities are their for software engineers to get involved?

Alon: It’s honestly really easy to stereotype entire groups of people based on small, personal experiences. Going in initially, I definitely had my reservations in terms of how much of the data was going to be released, what kinds of trends would we find. In fact, I was actively looking for bad trends, as I had heard that that’s what I would find. But, actually sitting down with the police and city officials face-to-face, going over the data with them was so important to shifting my mindset. I could see that they had no intention of running from the data, that they actually embraced it, and that they wanted to really open communication and foster relationships with the community. I could see that their attitudes towards working more closely with the community were optimistic and positive, and in the end, we actually had fun working together. The value of this willingness to embrace change alone was highlighted by the Dallas Police Chief at the White House Police Data Initiative Summit. At the summit, he talked about how when they made their police data public, their officer-involved shootings dropped, that opening up the data alone drove change, as well as fostered and built a lot of relationships with the community, and that even if you come up with a skeptical mindset, or are apprehensive about what findings there will be and how they are received, if there’s something wrong, we can look at this data together to figure out a way forward.

Besides hackathons, non-tech opportunities such as attending any town hall meetings that the city has is a great way to stay connected with community leaders and remain up to date on the latest issues and to get involved as well.

IT: What are some best practices for driving change?

Alon: Hiring a specialist is a huge first step. While engineers are known for trying to get MVPs out the door as fast as possible, government agencies are known for being slow, so that role, if they come from a tech background, has to be willing to reframe their mindset and agree to compromise, while that department also obviously has to be willing to compromise and actually listen to whoever is in that position as well. We need to think of the best way to accomplish this. It’s a huge deal to get those police departments (PDs) signed on to the initiative and to the 1-year commitment. But that is just a small fraction of the total number of PDs. There’s always that question: if I release the data, how is it going to paint public perception? Could it break up relationships? Stories like Dallas’s, where their officer-involved shootings went way down just due to their efforts at transparency, help to debunk these types of myths and are crucial to changing the logic surrounding why different PD’s don’t release data. Although there’s a lot of skepticism, we have to be willing to compromise, and change, it will come, but patience is needed.

IT: What role should the community play in incentivizing PDs to begin to undertake transparency initiatives?

Alon: If the community never gets involved to begin with, there’s little incentive to free up data. If that’s the case, you have a situation where everybody is waiting for everyone else to make a move. The departments are understaffed, underfunded, swamped, they have no reason to address issues if they aren’t actually brought up, that is why what is happening with social media is great, but it can’t just stop there. Mirroring that, the role of social media as a source of news and information, shouldn’t be overlooked by the government, as a way to leverage these types of initiatives.

Social media as a source of information and news for the public, by the public, means that people don’t have to rely on a couple of news outlets anymore, now you can get information from everybody, and you’re able to piece the story together yourself. Ultimately, it’s critical to get the information out there and as fast as possible, as it’s probably already trending on social media. For example, with the recent floods, at first the president was not asked to come, and the governor said the resources required to fly him out to the flood area would be better spent on supporting the relief efforts, but then people bashed Obama, comparing it to Bush and Katrina where it took him something like six days to finally visit the disaster area, so now the story is running on CNN, and Obama is coming to Louisiana. This definitely translates to projects like the PDI, where a coordinated social media strategy could be a valuable tool, as most people aren’t software engineers, and don’t know how to build with the data and make apps to use it, so sharing the findings could help it take off, help to confirm and/or deny myths, and provide people with some common ground to begin the conversation.

IT: How can global tech and Inclusion.Tech support these efforts?

Alon: Having conversations, driving conversations around this stuff. A lot of conversations around this stuff are very uncomfortable, but nothing will happen without that conversation. You get to hear different perspectives and hear opinions that you don’t agree with, but only if you have done that can you come to mutual respect. What’s key here is knowing that it will be difficult, and not shying away from it anyway, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

IT: Moving forward, how are you getting engaged in these and other issues?

Alon: Right now, I’m talking on the Hack Reactor alumni Slack channel about what we can do to help flood victims. Obviously tech is not a panacea, it’s not going to solve all the problems, actual manual labor, physical goods and resources play a huge role, but there’s a lot we can do to leverage these types of efforts. So, although I definitely advocate this type of activism, which I myself am taking part in along with the rest of my church, I’m also asking questions like: What can I build as an engineer? What can I build and maintain that would help these efforts out? What platform can I build that can help these people out? I know that there’s more stuff that’s gonna happen like this, what can I do, not just physically, but technically to ease the burden? For instance though, I’m reading now about a woman who has spent the last five days organizing trucks and boats to get to people still in water and trucks full of donations to shelters and churches. I just think in some way software could help and make it easier to do that. But in that same vain my church is heading out tomorrow to help with cleanup in some of the affected areas. So balance is definitely key in these types of scenarios. But if software could help connect people with supplies, for example, that are within a certain radius, people can better organize logistics. What can we do to alleviate some of these problems? You know, until the AC came out, people thought “It’s just hot. That’s just the way it is. Hot in the summer. Cold in the winter.” People don’t realize how much better things can be until somebody makes the effort to take the first step in a better direction.

“People don’t realize how much better things can be until somebody makes the effort to take the first step in a better direction.”

Out in Tech — Highlighting the Unsung Heroes of the LGBTQ+ Community

Goldman is the head of the NYC chapter of Out in Tech, works with Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), and is an all around social media star. In this article, Gary shares the state of the LGBTQ+ community across the world and invites us to join Out in Tech’s September 10th event in NYC to build websites for 10 international organizations.

The LGBTQ+ community remains undoubtedly one of the most vulnerable worldwide.

In the past two weeks alone, a young trans woman named Hande Kader was burned alive in Turkey, a queer man named Muhammad Wisam Sankari was beheaded in Syria, and a police raid followed by dozens of arrests put a halt to Uganda Pride.

An estimated 75 countries (to give some context, that’s about 40% of the world’s nations) have explicit anti-gay laws. A lot of these laws make reference to “sexual deviancy,” “gross indecency,” and to “unnatural carnal knowledge.” In the case of Sudan, anyone who commits the offence of sodomy is sentenced to receive one hundred lashes. If the individual is caught three times, the sentence becomes either life imprisonment or death.

Even in countries like Russia where sexual activity between same-sex partners is not illegal per se, a federal law created “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values” essentially makes it impossible for a gay person and their family to live openly. The lack of data and demographic information on sexual orientation and gender identity worldwide has also made it difficult to gauge how queer people are affected on various aspects of life, ranging from access to health services to education.

The unsung heroes of the community are the hundreds of grassroots organizations in the field working towards legislative change, raising awareness through education campaigns, and creating safe environments for queer-identifying individuals. In nearly every country, LGBTQ+ groups are organizing clandestine pride events, providing free legal services to queer-identifying individuals who might not obtain representation otherwise, or educating the larger population. Many of these organizations have been active for years, with their leadership putting themselves at risk by (often unwillingly) becoming public figures.

When former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied the very existence of gay people in his country, the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO) was there to prove otherwise.

When Scott Lively, an anti-gay conservative evangelical from Massachusetts, helped pass an act in Uganda commonly referred to as the “Kill the Gays bill,” Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) was there to initiate a lawsuit accusing him of a crime against humanity.

Of course, the list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, you might not find a lot of information about these organizations online. In fact, the list of LGBT organizations around the world on Wikipedia is pretty risible. A large reason why these groups do not want to advertise themselves is for security purposes. However, they often just lack the necessary resources and skills to build and maintain a web presence. Even though a website does not change laws or save lives directly, it can help bolster an organization’s work in a number of ways — from providing key information on LGBTQ+ rights in a specific country, educating members on ways to join and interact with one another to raising funds via online donations — all while adding credibility to the group itself.

On September 10, volunteers from the non-profit organization Out in Tech, a 501©(3) non-profit that unites the LGBTQ+ tech community, will build websites for ten of these groups.

While aligned in terms of broad goals, the ten organizations differ in their geographic locations as well as their overall missions. For instance, the Lawyers League for Minorities in Nigeria (LLMN) provides free legal services to LGBTQ+ people who suffer discrimination while Haus of Khameleon is an activist group working to create a safe space for transgender people in Fiji. The former organization could leverage a website to recruit pro-bono lawyers while the latter could use a web presence to share upcoming events with their members, some of whom experience violence simply because of their gender identities.

This first web development event, which will bring together forty Out in Tech volunteers for a day-long build and is being sponsored by companies ranging from PayPal to Pager, will take place at the Squarespace offices in New York City. Squarespace is donating the websites and will host a reception on their office rooftop afterwards to unveil the ten sites and host speakers fighting for LGBTQ+ rights worldwide. If you’re in New York that day, you can now purchase a tickethere.

The other eight organizations benefitting from the event hail from Belize, Botswana, Brazil, China, the Nile Valley (Egypt/Sudan), Pakistan, Russia, and Zimbabwe. The Out in Tech team is hoping that this will be the first of a series of events geared at supporting these extraordinary grassroots organizations, and at providing an opportunity for its members to contribute to the fight towards equality.

“Even though a website does not change laws or save lives directly, it can help bolster an organization’s work in a number of ways — from providing key information on LGBTQ+ rights in a specific country, educating members on ways to join and interact with one another to raising funds via online donations — all while adding credibility to the group itself.”

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