Hello, world! No, seriously.

Hi, and thanks for visiting! Here’s the lowdown on what you can expect to find here.

New Website

After four years of neglecting my personal website, I finally took the time to give it a much needed upgrade. I prided myself in coding my original website from scratch, thanks to Girl Develop It, but decided I needed something a little more professional-looking…so I pored over a few WordPress tutorials so that I could make the necessary tweaks I needed to the default theme.

Please, please let me know if you see any bugs. I used the inspector in Chrome to get a sense for how the site looks on phones and tablets, but I haven’t yet had the chance to test it out in the wild, other than on my laptop and phone. So if something looks weird, I’d appreciate a heads-up!

New Blog

In addition to revamping my site, I’ve decided to re-up my blog. For a while, I maintained a regular presence on Tumblr, and I’ve written a few posts on Medium, but I’d like to get back into writing for myself. As you have probably seen, in my professional work, I write on business and technology, but outside of that, I enjoy reading and discussing things related to race, culture, media, music, entertainment, and the arts. I’m especially interested in topics of race and business. (Note: Ellen McGirt‘s raceAhead newsletter for Fortune, which covers this topic, is a great read!) So those are the sorts of topics you’ll find on this blog, in addition to my professional bread and butter.

For now, I’ve turned off comments, because I believe a good comment section requires extensive moderation and engagement, and I admittedly don’t have quite enough bandwidth for that right now. I also have zero tolerance for trolls or inanities. But if you’d like to get in touch with me on a post—or just in general!—please do drop me a line, and provided you don’t fall into the categories above, I’ll get back to you.

New Career Tricks

Lastly, I’m excited to share that I’ve been chosen to participate in the ProPublica Data Institute next month! It’s a two-week program focusing on data journalism, design, and programming. All are skill areas that I’ve wanted to strengthen, so I am so grateful the opportunity to attend. My goal is that I’ll be able to apply them in order to report and write more thorough and engaging stories.

Participatory budgeting for tech projects in Brooklyn

(Note: I’m transferring this post, which I wrote in June for the ProPublica Data Institute, over from my experimental portfolio to my main site for linking purposes!)

I learned how to use Datawrapper to make charts and maps from data sets at the ProPublica Data Institute. As part of my final project, I created the below chart of funding for projects proposed by Brooklyn residents in 10 specific New York City Council districts. Since I cover tech in Brooklyn, I was interested to see how much of that funding went toward tech-related projects.

The chart shows the total of allocated participatory budget funds by council district from January 2015 up to May 2017. As you can see, District 38, which includes Red Hook and Sunset Park, has outpaced the other Brooklyn districts in participatory budgeting. But District 33 (Dumbo, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Brooklyn Heights, and Greenpoint, among other neighborhoods), District 34 (Bushwick and Williamsburg), and District 36 (Bedford-Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights) have allocated the most significant shares of their participatory budgets toward tech-related projects.

Methodology: I downloaded the data set of New York City Council participatory budget items from NYC Open Data. I then narrowed my focus to approved budget items pertaining to Brooklyn locations from January 2015 to May 2017, the latest month for which there were data. Some relevant City Council districts straddle Brooklyn and Queens; I excluded items in those districts that pertained to locations in Queens. From that focused data set, I tagged items that were tech-related. (My rule of thumb: anything that Technical.ly Brooklyn might cover counted.)

Lessons from the ProPublica Data Institute

So…I completely whiffed on my stated intent to keep this blog updated regularly. Sorry about that!

But I promise I have some good excuses for going silent. For one, I’ve been working to regain physical strength and stamina after dealing with anemia and a recurring back issue that’s made it difficult at times for me to walk. The other excuse is, fortunately, a lot more upbeat: as I wrote earlier, I was one of 12 chosen from some 500 applicants to the ProPublica Data Institute. The Data Institute wrapped up last Wednesday, and wow, did I learn a lot from it!

For starters, I knew very little about working with data. I definitely didn’t know about all the superpowers of Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel. Now, my next step is to devise ways of incorporating more data into my reporting. That’s a bit tricky when it comes to private companies, which are the bulk of my journalistic focus. But at Technical.ly Brooklyn, I also write about tech initiatives forged by the city government, which is likely where I’ll start. As part of my final presentation for the Data Institute, I made a chart showing the share of participatory budget funds going to tech projects in Brooklyn. You can check it out below as well as at this link.

The second, and longest, section of the Data Institute focused on coding and design. I had some background in HTML and CSS from classes I had taken through Girl Develop It (which enabled me to customize this very site), so the lessons on those were mainly refreshers for me. The design principles we learned during the Data Institute I found very helpful: I hadn’t considered, for instance, the importance of considering colorblindness in picking a color palette. And it was wonderful to learn JavaScript in a way that made sense and felt applicable to my work. For one assigned exercise, I made a simple interactive photo that uses JavaScript to toggle between “before” and “after” images of the design makerspace A/D/O in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

(I also contributed to this tribute page a few of us put together of some of the most memorable quotes from our time at the Data Institute. It’s rudimentary, for sure — we definitely didn’t optimize for mobile! — but it was a fun way to acknowledge the awesome teachers and speakers we had during our two weeks there.)

Not quite ready for the pros, but maybe one day!

Speaking of optimizing for mobile…man, oh, man, does building a website from scratch require some serious tweaking! Our final project involved creating a portfolio website to showcase our journalistic (and personal, if we chose) work. We used GitHub Pages to host our sites. I knew the site I ended up building needed some work to look good on mobile devices and laptops with smaller screens. (We didn’t go over responsive design formally.) I’ve since made some tweaks so that it looks fine when the browser window isn’t fully maximized on my laptop, but it’s still quite a way off from being fully responsive. So that’s something I’ll continue to work on.

The final part of the Data Institute focused on web scraping, which was something I’d heard about but didn’t know what it involved in practice. What it involved was getting a crash course in Python! Surprisingly, the little bit of knowledge I retained from Codecademy exercises in JavaScript proved to be helpful, since from them, I learned about concepts like variables, loops, and functions. That said, in no way would I have been ready to write my own program from scratch. I still don’t feel very ready, but the simple web scraper we wrote together at least gave me a template for things to do on my own. We also got a talk on the ethics of scraping, which I found quite insightful. (In a nutshell: if you can get data without scraping, do that, and don’t write a scraper that runs so quickly that it brings the entire site down.)

In fun asides, I also dusted off my basic InDesign skills and got a tutorial on how to make a GIF in Photoshop (which I’m sure will come in handy for future Technical.ly Brooklyn posts!). The Data Institute also provided an occasion for me to update my resume (as part of our design unit), so if you could ever use my services, please do reach out!

The opening slide from the deck that I made for my presentation. (Click to see the whole deck!) It mysteriously didn’t work when I was presenting, though. Bummer.

(Featured image credit: Photos by Mike Tigas/ProPublica; GIF by Lena Groeger/ProPublica)

On SheaMoisture and whitewashing natural-hair-care marketing

hair care aisle

So…SheaMoisture released this online video, and many of the brand’s black women customers aren’t having it.

I think few people are begrudging SheaMoisture for seeking to expand its customer base. But it’s interesting to me that making this product appealing to the “mainstream” (read: white women) means lessening the presence of black folks in its advertising. (Carol’s Daughter, apparently, has undergone a similar phenomenon.) It’s a pretty tired trope at this point: gain a following among black consumers but abandon them once you seek to make it big, so to speak.

On a broader level, as a business journalist, I’m interested in two things:

  1. I think on some level there has been a move away from racial demographic-based marketing. Now it’s about psychographics and more specific affinity-based segments, from what I’m seeing. There’s some rationale for that: the customer profile for, say, a Luster’s Pink buyer probably looks quite different from the profile for a SheaMoisture buyer. (For one, the latter is more expensive.)
  2. The notion that Afrocentric spaces cannot be inclusive ones is quite odd to me, especially given the extraordinary influence of hip-hop culture. (There’s lots to say about business influence, co-opting, etc., but I think it’s very fair to say the culture is primarily driven by black folks.) Yet this idea persists in so many arenas, from this ad, which claims inclusivity yet doesn’t feature any dark-skinned or kinky-haired women, to criticism of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, in which it’s claimed that the emphasis on black lives is somehow an affront to non-black people.

I’ve spoken to several other natural-hair-care* entrepreneurs, most of whom are black women. Several of them discussed their initial surprise when they saw that women of other races and ethnicities were flocking to their products. Most described their marketing approach as driven by social media and user-generated content (e.g. customers sharing photos of their hair and videos of their styling tips), hence representing their customer base by default. All acknowledged the personal origins of their companies (i.e. they began making hair products for their own hair needs) and their predominantly black and female customer bases, while noting their desire to welcome customers outside that group.

Indeed, achieving sales growth usually means tapping into new markets, yet any business must be careful not to alienate its core customers while doing so. The SheaMoisture kerfuffle demonstrates (once again) that black customers won’t tolerate perceived exploitation for the sake of racial solidarity. But why even flirt with such a marketing hazard? Reaching a broad customer base, in 2017, should not require erasing blackness.

*That label in itself is murky, given that now there’s another segment of “natural” hair products, i.e. juices and berries, that aren’t necessarily marketed to black women!

Update: SheaMoisture has issued an apology and removed the original video from its social media accounts.

The 5 biases pushing women out of STEM

Woman typing on laptop

I think this Harvard Business Review piece is applicable to fields beyond tech. This part especially resonated with me:

Critiquing biased journalism: Shonda Rhimes edition

Viola Davis at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con

Amid all the furor over Alessandra Stanley’s piece on Shonda Rhimes in the New York Times last week, I saw a smart suggestion from Jeff Jarvis about a possible response: use News Genius to annotate the biased/offending text.

So I decided to do that myself, by compiling many of the criticisms of Stanley’s piece that I’d read and adding my own two cents. The annotated piece is below. (I saved you a visit to the Times!)

The future of Aereo and permissible TV hacks

Studio and transmitter compound of TV station.

The New Yorker recently ran a post on the embattled TV streaming company Aereo. Here are my quick thoughts:

Down with OPP (other people’s pathologies)

African American Union soldier and family

The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates is having a vigorous debate with New York‘s Jonathan Chait. I side with Coates. This post, regarding the erroneous conflation of the “culture of poverty” and “black culture,” is excellent.

However, I still don’t totally agree with Coates’s criticism of Obama’s addresses to black audiences. As I wrote in the comments:

(Not) mocking Thomas Friedman on Silicon Valley

The Santa Clara Valley

Thomas Friedman, a reliable target of mockery for the pundit class, writes a column seemingly tailor-made to be shredded by Valleywag, which is critical of Silicon Valley by default:

The Grammys and hip-hop’s fight for legitimacy

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images via GRAMMY.com

Oh, the Grammys.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis took home four awards, including Best New Artist and Best Rap Album, while Kendrick Lamar went home empty-handed. Observers on the Internet, as anticipated, unleashed a collective raspberry; Macklemore responded with an awkward display of white guilt.

What I find most interesting about the reaction to Macklemore’s wins is that it illustrates hip-hop’s persistent chip on its shoulder. It belies any contentions that the Grammys are irrelevant to the genre. After all, if the awards didn’t matter, then why would the record exec Steve Stoute ever have bought a full-page ad in the New York Times to berate Grammy voters for not awarding Eminem or Kanye West Album of the Year?

In other arenas, hip-hop has made significant inroads into traditional cultural institutions. Jay Z’s book Decoded makes the case for readers (and listeners) to analyze the rapper’s lyrics as closely as, say, Wallace Stevens’s verses of poetry. Harvard has an institute devoted to the study of the genre; last year, the rapper Nas announced an eponymous fellowship there that will support scholars in the field. Others, such as 9th Wonder of the hip-hop group Little Brother, have turned full-time to academia.

Then of course, there’s the world of industry. Long gone are the days when rappers were merely unpaid pitchmen for sneakers and vodka. First, there was the proliferation of hip-hop-infused fashion labels, from Phat Farm to Rocawear, with Diddy even nabbing an award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America for his brand Sean John. In recent years, hip-hop artists have begun to make inroads in industries from media to tech. After reading Danyel Smith’s recent story for ESPN The Magazine on the convergence of sports and hip-hop culture, I couldn’t help but remark on Twitter, in a nod to Netscape founder and investor Marc Andreessen, that “hip-hop is eating the world.”

Oddly enough, hip-hop has struggled to attain that influence in its most immediate backyard—at least among those considered the gatekeepers of music’s legacy. By now, it’s ancient news that hip-hop acts can top Billboard sales charts (though this past year has revealed an interesting disparity in the makeup of songs versus albums charts) and achieve some measure of crossover success. Yet hip-hop artists have largely been confined to receiving genre-specific awards: no hip-hop artist, for instance, has ever won for Record or Song of the Year.

At the same time, however, there has been a gradual trend toward the collapsing of genres altogether. In recent years, the Grammys have made a big show of pairing artists from distinct genres in seemingly improbable collaborations. This year, for instance, featured the snubbed Kendrick Lamar alongside the alternative-rock band Imagine Dragons, as well as Metallica and concert pianist Lang Lang. The Grammys have also, controversially, minimized the recognition of genres it considers to be niche: the number of awards for R&B, for instance, has been slashed by half.

This blurring of genres has extended to the sales charts as well. In 2012, Billboard expanded its criteria for defining record airplay, and in many cases, crossover acts have overtaken artists with followings primarily within one genre. The change has arguably hit country and R&B hardest, but hip-hop hasn’t been immune from its effects: for instance, the Korean artist Psy quite dubiously topped Billboard’s rap charts for “Gangnam Style.”

Macklemore has been beset by a similar genre controversy, as he draws his fan base largely outside of the core hip-hop community. For this reason, the Grammys’ rap committee reportedly sought to bar his nomination in that category. But it’s hard to argue that Macklemore isn’t a rapper, at least in strictly technical terms. (During the awards show, a friend of mine wondered if his song “Same Love” should be considered spoken word rather than rap or hip-hop, but I suspect that distinction would be lost among Grammy voters.)

All of these factors produce an environment in which hip-hop is, paradoxically, both mainstreamed and marginalized. Unlike in decades past, when blues artists received neither recognition nor compensation after their songs became fodder for hits by rock ‘n’ roll acts, the stakes for today’s hip-hop artists aren’t financial. But for a genre—and culture—seeking to burnish its legacy, the slight still wounds.