Updated, correction appended.
This weekend will see the debut of JustHack, a free, anti-oppressive hackathon aimed at using tech projects to help the community. Under the motto of “collaboration, solidarity, and empowerment,” JustHack is the result of collaboration between seven women, all of whom are McGill students from a range of programs, have equity training, and share a devotion to social justice.
Rachel Bergmann – U3 Cognitive Science student, equity commissioner of the Computer Science Undergraduate Society (CSUS), and JustHack co-organizer – told The Daily the event is intended to demonstrate how “there are ways for tech to be used for social good,” noting that JustHack will bring together hackers and activists who will “work with each other and create projects that will make a difference in their own communities.”
“It’s not your typical humanitarian project – we want grassroots efforts,” Bergmann said.
Co-organizer and former Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) Equity Commissioner Isabel Lee highlighted the hackathon’s goal of creating an inclusive space for those normally marginalized in the tech community. “Within the hacking world, there is an extremely desperate need for more inclusive spaces for people who are not white or male,” Lee said.
“We want to ensure that we create a precedent for this kind of space to become normalized for future women, future queer people, future men of colour – people who don’t fit into the mainstream narrative of ‘Silicon Valley White Boy,’” Lee continued.
An alternative to corporate hackathons
Both Bergmann and her co-organizer, Chemical Engineering student Tinke De Witte, cited several reasons why it is necessary to create an alternative to the usual corporate hackathons.
To start, most hackathons, especially those geared toward university students looking to join the workforce, are funded by large corporations, such as Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft, to name a few, all looking to ‘find the best talent’ and see who will make the best product to help their businesses.
“I think hackathons become a place where you’re encouraged to work for free as much as possible, to work with a company […] and make cool things for them instead of projects coming from within,” Bergmann said.
“We really want people to help build projects to help their own communities instead of building the latest iPhone game that will be a fad for a month or doing something interesting with a big corporation.”
“We really want people to help build projects to help their own communities instead of building the latest iPhone game that will be a fad for a month or doing something interesting with a big corporation,” Bergmann continued.
JustHack will be largely funded by sponsors, as hackathons typically are, but De Witte said the sponsors will not have the power to influence the hacks developed at the event, nor will they give out prizes to their favourite projects, to further limit the corporate influence on the projects.
“We were also quite adamant that our sponsors themselves also follow certain rules as to how they operate their businesses; and also any swag [company merchandise] that they wanted to share at the event needed to be ethically sourced,” De Witte explained.
Creating space in hackathons for marginalized groups
The organizers of JustHack have taken several steps to be as socially conscious as possible throughout the running of the hackathon. All JustHack participants must agree to its Code of Conduct, which outlines social rules, a harassment policy, and the reporting procedure to be used in the event of someone violating the Code. The document covers everything from language that insults people for being less knowledgeable to microaggressions, gender assumptions, hate speech, and sexual harassment.
De Witte said the Code is necessary, as tech fields are often not very inclusive, especially for women, people of colour, people with disabilities, and queer people. “Hackathons might just be a microcosm of those unfavorable percentages and distributions in a small space. It becomes a very visible sort of manifestation of the inequality,” she explained.
“Hackathons might just be a microcosm of those unfavorable percentages and distributions in a small space. It becomes a very visible sort of manifestation of the inequality.”
As a queer woman of colour, Lee said she has often felt “invisible and hypervisible” when attending hackathons. “You’re invisible because the dominant part of the culture does not cater to you and does not think about your needs or accessibility, but at the same time you’re hypervisible because people notice your presence, notice your identity, and have an opinion about it. It is really hard being in that position,” she explained.
Bergmann said, “You read these experiences of people who go to hackathons with these offensive shirts that have fake boobs printed on the front – that really just doesn’t make a comfortable environment for everyone.”
“You’re invisible because the dominant part of the culture does not cater to you and does not think about your needs or accessibility.”
Organizers opened registration to both students and community members to make the event more inclusive, a twist from most hackathons, which are often student-only.
Additionally, participating in a hackathon often means neglecting self-care. De Witte likened some hackathons to a “factory,” where people are expected to code for hours and hours on end, barely sleeping or eating.
Bergmann described her experience, saying, “I’ve been to some hackathons where you’re inside a gym or stadium with only just dozens and dozens of tables set up, and you’re under fluorescent for 36 hours straight, and you’re supposed to code, code, code and drink as many Red Bulls as you can [to] make the best app to win the cash prize. […] That really is not what we want to go to with JustHack.”
To avoid this, all participants will be provided with free vegan meals and there will be set times for people to discuss topics over lunch and take a break. There will also be a quiet room for people to go to if they feel overwhelmed or need to rest.
Confronted by the idea of this alternative space, hackathon veterans had mixed reactions. U3 Computer Science student Andrea Horqque liked the idea of a community-based hackathon, though she wasn’t sure how an inexperienced hacker like herself would be able to help develop hacks to help communities. Having attended three hackathons, Horqque said she personally has not felt discriminated against or uncomfortable in hackathon environments. “I think if anything, there was about one-third women and then the rest men, so it’s not that bad. […] It’s not like I was the only girl.”
“You’ll get a really interesting group of people who might otherwise not come out, so I think that aspect is really cool.”
Megan Beneteau, also a U3 Computer Science student, who has also attended three hackathons, said she really liked the self-care aspect. “I love that they’re doing healthy food, reminding you to sleep and drink water. […] Being healthy is probably more important than creating good code, or getting money, or doing a hack that helps a corporation.”
“You’ll get a really interesting group of people who might otherwise not come out, so I think that aspect is really cool,” Beneteau said. However, she noted that she still thinks corporate hackathons have value, as they provide a “phenomenal networking opportunity” for university students.
Ultimately, Bergmann and De Witte recognized that JustHack is just one small step to creating inclusivity in tech. JustHack is “for people who might be interested in the tech world, but feel that it’s sort of an unwelcoming place,” De Witte said. “[It’s] to show [them] that maybe that doesn’t exist just yet, but you can create spaces like that yourself if that’s what you want to do.”
JustHack will take place in Montreal on September 19. Capped at 100 participants, JustHack organizers say their rosters are full, though you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org to see if you can snag a spot.
A previous version of the article stated Rachel Bergmann is a Computer Science student. In fact, she is a Cognitive Science student. The Daily regrets the error.