Hacking the hackathon for greater diversity

“You have middle-aged people at your hackathon?!” That was the reaction of a couple of 20-something developers when they saw photos of a Migrahack, the immigration data hackathons organized by the Institute of Justice & Journalism.

At Migrahacks, we’re proving that hackers aren’t just young white men, the typical image portrayed in Silicon Valley. Our events, which have been held in Los Angeles, Chicago, Mexico City and most recently, Tucson, have each attracted 100 participants or more — men and women, students and those much older, people of various professions (journalists, nonprofits, designers and programmers) and all races and ethnicities (black, white, Asian, Latino and Native American).

Over and over, participants tell us that meeting and collaborating with a wide range of people is the best part of Migrahack. Attendees, most of whom don’t know each other, form teams after a day of training and then work together to create a data visualization project about immigration.

A diversity of diversity

“The diversity of knowledge and skill in each group was amazing,” said Jeannine Relly, a journalism professor and public policy expert at the University of Arizona, who had never attended a hackathon before and had little experience with data visualization.

She joined a team at our Arizona Migrahack in March that included Lucio Villa, a news application developer at Hoy Chicago who is a veteran of tech meetups and hackathons. Villa says that at other tech events, he sees few people of color and feels that attendees are not as open to collaborating with people they don’t know. At Migrahack, “I see other people like me, which makes me comfortable and doesn’t make me question if I’m good enough,” he said.

The lack of diversity at other hackathons led Claudia Núñez to create the Migrahack project when she was a 2012 JSK Fellow at Stanford. She had begun learning about data visualization there, but found most hackathons that she attended in Silicon Valley to be unwelcoming and intimidating to newbies.

As executive director of IJJ, I’ve helped develop the project by raising funds and refining and growing the event. In true Migrahack fashion, our teamwork also breaks a couple of stereotypes: Some people are surprised at who’s in charge; Asian-American and Latino women aren’t known to lead, right? And many people assume that as the Asian, I’m the tech geek; it’s actually Claudia.

Tips for success

Since the first Migrahack in 2012, we’ve learned a lot about how to throw an event that attracts diverse participants and gets them to spend a weekend working together.

1. Hold a training day before the hackathon. The workshops help attract both newcomers and veterans. Newcomers can learn easy-to-use data visualization tools and feel less intimidated about working with technology. Programmers can take more advanced classes and develop their skills set. The training day, with coffee and meal breaks, also helps participants get to know each other and start forming teams. 

“Those workshops really helped to get people talking and learning together,” said Marijel Melo, a University of Arizona English doctoral student who is a community organizer for Code for America. “I went to the hackathon knowing zero people and left feeling like I was a part of a community.” 

2. Create a welcoming environment by getting to know participants and engaging them. When planning, we work with a local coordinator and meet with individuals and groups face-to-face. We constantly ask for ideas and suggestions. 

During Migrahack, trainers move from team to team, finding out about their projects and asking whether anyone needs help. When a few journalists in Tucson couldn’t make the training day because of work obligations and showed up after teams had already been formed, we introduced them to each other and helped them dive into a project. Their work ended up winning a prize. In Chicago, one woman told me she wanted to stay but needed to leave because of her kids. I invited her to bring her teenage daughters and let them hang out; one trainer taught them how to do basic animation.

3. Set goals that encourage collaboration. We award cash prizes to the best projects that emphasize storytelling and insight into immigration data, not just creations that do something snazzy with technology. This means that the teams that have the best chance of winning are multidisciplinary. Someone might not be able to code, but may know a lot about immigration courts.

Susan Swanberg, a former molecular biologist and science writer who is an incoming journalism professor at the University of Arizona, joined a team that included another journalism professor, a sociology doctoral student, two journalists and a developer, all of various ages. “Nobody took over and dominated,” she said. “Everyone’s contribution was encouraged and appreciated.”  

4. Have fun! We ply the participants with food, caffeine and jokes. Claudia brings globe balls to encourage games. After a day of working, she and most of the trainers will invite anyone who still has energy to go out for drinks. Technology is important, but ultimately, connecting people with each other matters most.

Although we have fun, fostering greater diversity isn’t just a feel-good initiative. It boosts business and self-development. Michael Palermo, a Microsoft field representative, said he usually leads workshops at events where nearly everyone is a programmer. He was buzzed about interacting with more diverse participants at Migrahack, who gave him good feedback about Microsoft’s Power Map program. And he was just as excited by what he learned from working with one team — data on the production of corn and trade policies correlated with spikes in immigration from Mexico. “Not as corny as it sounds,” he joked.

Dan Hill, a data journalist at Marketplace, has attended three Migrahacks and says no other tech or journalism event is comparable. “I get excited for each Migrahack because I know I’ll hang out with people who will expose me to new ideas.”  

Phuong Ly can be reached at phuong@justicejournalism.org or on twitter @ijjnews