I attended day two of my first Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) last week and found myself surrounded by a combination of politicos and digirati. The theme was “think bigger,” and the concept was leveraging technology and, wait for it…”big data” to tackle the world’s biggest problems. Ironically, in many of the sessions I ended up listening to, the ongoing issue of diversity in tech or lack thereof (and at tech conferences) still seems like a problem that requires a human solution.
The woman problem
The lack of women in technology is one of those persistent issues that was addressed in several sessions at PDF, perhaps even as a way for the conference to demonstrate that it’s working on the issue by diversifying its speakers. Jaclyn Friedman spoke about “the woman problem”—where women (and people of color) are fewer in tech and political spaces, the environment can be hostile. She addressed the need to not just hire people who are like you, arguing that organizations will get better results by including diverse perspectives. This theme was also present in other talks from Ethan Zuckerman and Catherine Bracy of Code for America.
The power of the hashtag
The web is all about making connections, and sometimes the glue can be as simple as a hashtag. Anne Wizorek spoke about the evolution of the hashtag #aufschrei, which means “outcry” in German. Women began tweeting about sexist acts that they experienced, and the hashtag became viral and international. You can read this Forbes story for more on how #aufschrei became a phenomenon. In a similar vein, Mark Kaigwa spoke about how #KOT or Kenyans on Twitter became a force by rallying Africans to speak out against CNN’s coverage of the Kenyan election. If you’re interested in African politics at all or just want to diversify your Twitter feeds, it’s worth a follow.
A mish mash of interesting projects
Nancy Lublin from DoSomething spoke about the Crisis Text Line, which will launch in August (full disclosure: I am on the advisory board) and using the power of the data they plan to collect (stripped of any identifiable information) to inform educators, clinicians, policy makers and others about the emotional issues teens are grappling with across the country. She also took a few shots at foundations for only funding projects that fit in their existing buckets and investing their dollars in big fancy buildings such as the Ford Foundation (who happened to be a sponsor of the event).
Upworthy’s editorial director Sara Critchfield spoke about how the site, which curates social impact stories, has used data and emotion to become one of the fastest growing social “news” sites out there.
Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, closed the conference with a rallying call for co-design: instead of designing for people in need, they should be empowered to design the solutions that will improve their own communities. He gave stirring examples of volunteers in Fukushima working with engineers to create radiation monitors, and youth in Detroit co-creating roving street lights. Rather than merely diversifying the tech industry, Ito saw promise in involving all people in innovation.
Finally, a few attendees played a backchannel bingo game with buzzwords used throughout the event including: big data, transmedia, gamification and democratize. If the work you do straddles tech and politics or government, definitely check out PDF in 2014.
Note: Digital Project Manager Brian Redondo volunteered at the Personal Democracy Forum and contributed the summary of Joi Ito’s talk.