By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter
Hackathon. The word elicits a range of responses; from honest confusion, to misguided fear, to giddy enthusiasm. One thing is clear — the event trend exudes a reputation of being created by and for technophiles entrenched in the world of coding, data, and computer programming.
Aiming to shift this perception, two members of Oakland’s QTPOC (queer, transgender, people of color) community are working to make hackathons feel more relevant and accessible to different demographics. While Kortney Ziegler and Krys Freeman leverage the uses of technology in different ways, both are making sure that the “tech movement” exists as an inclusive one.
From September 13-15 in downtown Oakland’s Betti Ono Gallery, an art space known for presenting visionary art and community events, the first transgender-specific hackathon will take place. Ziegler, a self-identified entrepreneur, artist, activist, Black transman, and the creator of Trans*H4ck, said he’d participated in hackathons before and decided to bring the model to transgender advocacy.
“People are increasingly using hackathons, especially in the entrepreneurial sector, to tackle social issues,” Ziegler, 32, said. “This hackathon has the specific goal of creating technology that benefits trans people.”
A hackathon generally consists of individuals from various professional backgrounds convening under a theme and mission. Set up as a competition, the winner is awarded for creating the most innovative new use of technology applied towards the event’s focus.
“In this case, it could be an application that documents trans-friendly surgeons, an aggregator that collects YouTube videos of transgender testimonials, or a website that maps gender-friendly bathrooms, anything that takes technology that’s already available, and remakes it into something new,” Ziegler said.
Ziegler stresses that the lived experiences and needs of transgender people are unique. Day one of Trans*H4ck will include an overview of specific issues affecting the transgender community — from rampant unemployment (especially among transgender people of color), to gender violence, to finding sufficient and identity-positive healthcare. And Trans*H4ck, he said, is about including those lived experiences in technology.
“Technology is driving the world we live in,” he said. “Different types of resources become available through engaging in certain types of technology. As a transgender person, my whole life has been shaped around creating community through technology, from meeting people who are not in my immediate geographical area, to finding out how to take care of my body. It’s important for any marginalized group to be both creators and consumers of that technology.”
While acting as an incubator for creative ideas and innovative projects, Ziegler also intends for Trans*H4ck to advance economic development for the transgender community. Attendees can network as a precursor to breaking into the tech industry, and also listen to the experiences of trans-identified people already working in the field. Janet Mock, creator of #GirlsLikeUs; Sarah Prager (a cisgender ally), creator of the Quist mobile application; Micha Cardenas of Autonets, Lukas Blakk of Mozilla, and others from Twitter and Google will share their stories.
Krys Freeman, a self-identified masculine-of-center woman of color, technologist, and entrepreneur, is also no stranger to queer narratives within the tech world. She, herself, lives one. When she moved to the Bay Area five years ago, she didn’t have much, but was able to identify technology as a potential career field.
“Technology was the way I was able to pull myself out of an undesirable financial situation,” Freeman, 28, said. “I came here with literally nothing but was able to get a job doing the stuff I’d taught myself during free time.”
Now Freeman is the Director of Systems and Technology for GreenBiz Group, an Oakland-based company that creates events for businesses to come together to develop eco-friendly best practices. She’s also producing GreenBiz Group’s second annual Hack City hackathon that will run from September 20-22 at the Code for America offices in downtown San Francisco.
Aside from being the company’s “chief hacktivist,” Freeman is in the business of making technology relevant to communities that are underrepresented in technology. Hack City’s theme this year is “Resilient Cities,” and the event’s main objective is to bring together professionally diverse individuals around open sets of data to impact positive change in urban environments. Even though the event isn’t identity-themed or population-specific, last month Freeman decided to do a Hack City mixer at the Betti Ono Gallery in Oakland — not in San Francisco — to make a statement.
“There was a lot of intent behind the mixer,” she said. “I talked to people about the opportunities around hacking. I also gathered information because people don’t typically talk to application users about their needs. It’s important that while people are dreaming up amazing ideas, they have grounding in a real reality for other people.”
The needs of Oakland residents compared to those of San Francisco residents are undeniably different. Oakland, largely a community of color, is where Freeman wants to emphasize conversations around how technology can affect positive change.
“I, typically, am the representation of marginalized communities at hackathons,” Freeman said. “Maybe they don’t know about them, don’t feel welcome, or don’t feel like they have enough tech skills to attend. So, I’m hitting the pavement talking about how hackathons aren’t just for techies.”
While it’s clear that Zielger and Freeman’s work is different, as are Trans*H4ck and Hack City, both understand that technology is a powerful tool, and is more tangible than people think.
“Also, we’re both really trying to ground something here in Oakland,” Freeman said. “Trans*H4ck will be at Betti Ono, as was my mixer, which says something about our particular commitment and investment here.”
Registration for Trans*H4ck is free and still open. Allies to the transgender community are welcome to register and/or attend the SPECTRUM Queer Media-sponsored public exhibition panel that will showcase Trans*H4ck projects on Sunday from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the New Parkway Theater, 474 24th Street in Oakland. To learn more about this event, visit http://transhack.org.
Registration for Hack City is $20 for the entire weekend and is still open. To learn more about this event, visit http://hackcity.eventbrite.com. No one will be turned away for lack of funds.