Published November 02, 2013
Miami – Journalists, activists and techies in 20 U.S. and Latin American cities will brainstorm and code their way toward understanding migration patterns across the Western Hemisphere this weekend, the latest effort to use digital collaboration to rethink immigration's role in society.
Backers of the Americas Datafest say they hope participants in the 48-hour meetups will produce, apps, websites or programs that can be useful to migrants, the nonprofits that work with them and the researchers who study these issues.
Datafest organizer Teresa Bouza first became interested in creating hackathons as a 2012 John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University, where she sought to help journalists become less afraid of big data. She said the hackathons are also a moment for those who usually work in very different fields to come together and show off what they do.
"Most people have a technical background, since without them you can't do anything, but it's also really important to have people who know the problem, because the developers are really good with the coding but may not understand the issues," Bouza said.
This weekend's Datafests will take place in Miami at Univision and Fusion networks' new headquarters; at Harvard and Stanford universities; and at other colleges in Washington, D.C., and Alabama. They will also take place in Mexico, South and Central America, Canada and even Madrid. Amnesty International, media companies like EFE and Univision, and tech firms like Facebook and Microsoft are among the sponsors. The top global projects will compete for $2,000 awards.
Facebook and Microsoft have become increasingly vocal advocates of comprehensive immigration reform, including measures to adjust the status of the roughly 11 million people living in the country illegally. Their immediate interest lies in making it easier to bring in more temporary high-tech workers, but Rane Johnson-Stempson, a principal research director at Microsoft, said there are other motivators.
"If you look today at who's programming, and who's developing solutions, they kind of all look the same," she said. "It's often a lot of white males."
Hackathons give students the confidence to consider a career in the industry. And international hackathons tend to draw a more diverse group, which leads to more diverse ways of considering problems — and ultimately more innovation, she added.
Andrew Suciu is among those helping to organize the weekend's event at Stanford. The computer science graduate student, whose own research has included programs to predict speed-dating outcomes, said he was drawn to the Datafest because he'd like to see more computer science research dedicated to solving social issues rather than building million-dollar apps.
Bouza, who is the deputy bureau chief for EFE in Washington, previously created Datafests to examine campaign finance and money in politics. Those hackathons produced visual apps connecting companies, the issues they back and the politicians they support; an electronically searchable database of how the government is spending its money that can be updated daily; and the website www.doescongressreallysuck.com, which lets readers use data to judge the answer to the question posed by the site's name.
In the past year, hacking about immigration has gained increasing attention. In June, UndocuTech, a partnership between MIT's Center for civic Media and the immigrant youth-led United We Dream, created its first immigration hackathon. The group followed up with a storython in October to help immigrants find new digital formats to tell their tales.
Rogelio Alejandro Lopez, who worked with UndocuTech at MIT, said there is a notion that youth, particularly activists, are tech-savvy, but that much of what they produce is surprisingly conventional.
"There are a lot of folks using tech and media," he said, "but it's keeping up the Twitter Page and the Facebook, the novelty has worn off," he said. "They're looking to create something new."
Lopez is particularly interested in expanding to involve families and even children in the events.
Meanwhile, Claudia Nunez, another former Knight Fellow who now works for Human Rights Watch, created MigraHack last year, first in Los Angeles and then in Chicago, to teach journalists and the public the power of data through programming. The top winners of MigraHack, a play on the Spanish term for immigration authorities, included an interactive map showing how many times detained immigrants were transferred before being deported and a program that challenged users to draw the U.S.-Mexican border.
Later this month, the nonprofit FWD.US, co-founded by Silicon Valley leaders like Mark Zuckerberg, is leading a New York Hackathon just for those known as "dreamers" — youth brought to the U.S. as children who are now in the country illegally.
Datafest organizers have asked experts to suggest "challenges" for its hackers. Among the initial suggestions: build an app to find the best remittance companies or create an app that uses GIS software to help laborers track their overtime hours to ensure they get paid.