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)

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:

(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:

A few musings on racial diversity in tech

dyed eggs

The lack of diversity in tech has been a persistent issue well before I began my career in journalism, but it seems discussion of the topic has lately reached a fever pitch. Right now, I’m doing some research on the rise of startup hubs and its impact on diversity in tech, so I was interested to read this post at the New Yorker about Silicon Valley’s “race problem.”

Among other things, the New Yorker article details how the venture firm Andreessen Horowitz has made several steps to heighten its sensitivity to the issue of diversity. Tristan Walker, the African-American founder of one company featured in the story, was previously an entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz. And the firm recently brought on Allison Munichiello, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Lean Startup Conference, as a partner focusing on “communities and diversity.” The firm’s efforts have already yielded some successes: it has invested in Walker’s consumer-goods company (aptly named Walker & Company), as well as a company called Proven, co-founded by a Chilean immigrant, which makes a mobile app for recruiting restaurant workers.

Despite those efforts, I was put off by a few details. First of all, I don’t think Tristan Walker is the most instructive example of Silicon Valley power brokers becoming aware of the opportunities in communities of color. Before being named entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz, Walker was the director of business development at Foursquare, which though not based in Silicon Valley (but in New York, which is rivaling California’s tech prowess more and more) is still a marquee name in the land of tech startups. He already had ample access to the industry’s resources. But are investors willing to bet on talented entrepreneurs of color who aren’t yet on the inside track?

Secondly, I noticed in the article a persistent conflation of hip-hop culture and black identity. There were repeated references to rappers and hip-hop initiatives—hosting a talk with Steve Stoute, enlisting Nas as an investor in one of Andreessen Horowitz’s portfolio companies, visiting Henry Louis Gates at Harvard’s Hip Hop Archive—as part of Ben Horowitz’s outreach to black communities. But hip-hop is not the sole driver of entrepreneurial ambition in black communities, and it’s misguided to use the former as a proxy for the latter. In fact, black entrepreneurialism predates hip-hop by many decades, if not centuries, as noted by the New Yorker’s reference to Madam C.J. Walker. Simply adjusting one’s “pattern matching” to account for a few people who look like Jay Z is an incomplete solution to diversity, at best. At worst, it may end up pigeonholing black entrepreneurs who identify more with other facets of black culture.

Curiously, the New Yorker article—as well as many of the discussions that I’ve seen, whether in magazine articles, on social media, or in conference panels—doesn’t address recruiting minority tech talent in an obvious place: historically black colleges and universities. There is much hand-waving about the need for Silicon Valley to expand its networks, but I see little evidence of outreach to the organizations that have historically aided networking among black professionals, including HBCUs, Greek organizations, and civic groups such as Jack and Jill and the Links. That omission squanders valuable opportunities to expose talented students and workers to entrepreneurial paths. One cultural factor that I believe even advocates for diversity in tech may overlook is that blacks (and Latinos) often face greater pressure to pursue “safe” careers in areas that have traditionally yielded success in their communities: medicine, law, dentistry.

I sincerely hope that Silicon Valley’s efforts toward greater racial diversity go beyond the surface. But it looks like investors may simply be relying on figureheads and stereotypical tropes rather than actually challenging their assumptions of what a successful entrepreneur looks like.

Update: Tristan Walker responded to this article via Twitter. Here’s what he had to say:

Indeed, organizations such as CODE2040, Black Girls Code, and Close the Divide Project are working to address the lack of diversity in the tech industry. Much of their work focuses on the “pipeline” problem—the low number of blacks and Latinos skilled in computer science—which is a separate, though equally important, issue from how minorities currently in the industry are regarded by potential investors and employers.

As Walker points out, Andreessen Horowitz is one of CODE2040’s partners. So I find it interesting that in an article about “addressing Silicon Valley’s race problem,” we hear a lot about Steve Stoute and Nas, but nothing of, say, recruiting students from HBCUs for internships. Most of the supposed efforts to address diversity that are mentioned in the New Yorker article are cosmetic solutions, at best. Perhaps the writer simply glossed over Andreessen Horowitz’s other work in this area; indeed, the venture firm’s sponsorship of events and programs to boost minority participation in tech is briefly noted in one sentence.

However, I’m not convinced that the New Yorker is solely to blame. As a business journalist, I know that companies and organizations—particularly well-financed and highly visible ones like Andreessen Horowitz—are quite deliberate in how they present themselves, and they will do everything they can to ensure that their press clippings align with their carefully scripted narratives. So I’m hard-pressed to believe that Ben Horowitz waxed at length about diversifying the pipeline of tech talent and scouting for potential investments in new areas, but somehow all of those comments were left out.

Moreover, even the outreach efforts described in the article are limited to his own network:

Horowitz told me that he recently started an African-American “network” at Andreessen Horowitz. (“I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it out loud,” he said.) Made up of prominent black figures drawn largely from his own address book, the network includes everyone from hyper-connected C.E.O.s to rappers to entrepreneurs. [emphasis added]

Many aspiring entrepreneurs seeking to conquer Silicon Valley, especially those of color, face roadblocks because they lack the connections to gain entry into the networks investors like Horowitz operate in. Yet Horowitz’s solution is to rely upon those same closed networks to diversify his pool of potential investments. That limited approach is exactly what yields tokenism: finding a few brown faces to fit the bill without examining why so few people of color gain consideration in the first place.

If organizations such as CODE2040 are working to address systemic issues such as the lack of diversity in the talent pipeline, does it matter if firms such as Andreessen Horowitz take a cosmetic approach? I believe it does. It doesn’t take much funding to start an Internet company, but rapidly scaling such a company into the likes of a Google or Facebook requires significant capital. Those who are systematically overlooked by investors thereby face dampened prospects for their businesses’ growth. Even skilled technologists of color, whose numbers CODE2040 seeks to increase, aren’t immune to the effects of that bias.

Art and engineering: they’re closer than you might think

The Dream Series. (Courtesy Designs By Dash)

In judging people’s talents, we often make a rigid distinction between the “right-brained” (the creatives) and the “left-brained” (the geeks). But those labels are artificial, and nowadays, those boundaries are as blurred as ever.
Durell Coleman hopes his new company, Designs by Dash, can thrive in the margin between art and tech. So far, he’s off to a promising start. Coleman has raised more than $10,000 on Kickstarter for his company’s first product, the Dream Series: a set of laser-engraved wall maps, inspired by his travel to Nicaragua as a mechanical engineering student at Stanford.

Coleman says the reign of smartly designed tech, first championed by Apple but now evident in products from Google Glass to the Pebble smart watch, prompted him to start his company. “There’s been a shift from engineering to art,” he explains. “There’s a lot more thinking about how to make things more aesthetically pleasing, user-friendly. Designs by Dash is the reverse: taking art and moving to incorporate more engineering into it.”

With the Dream Series, Coleman sets out to merge art and technology through the manufacturing process. He first draws the landmasses for each map in Adobe Illustrator and uses a CNC laser to carve those shapes into acrylic glass. But the final production of each map is done by hand. Coleman arranges the individual cutouts onto backlit panels of acrylic glass to produce pieces that are at once industrially designed and manually assembled.

Coleman has a master’s degree in industrial design, but he wasn’t originally drawn to art. Through his first company, Project Spark, he sought to develop affordable power generators for the developing world, and he was accepted into StartX, Stanford’s business accelerator. But the renewable energy market proved tenuous, and Coleman put Project Spark on hiatus. In the meantime, he pondered the question of producing affordable yet functional and beautiful products. What if he approached the problem from the opposite end of the spectrum: producing inspirational art with a functional purpose?

The concept of engineering-inspired art isn’t new. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí have used common products to explore the connections between industrialism and art. That theme continues to resonate in the art world today. One recent reminder of this is Carl Swanson’s profile of Jeff Koons in New York magazine. Swanson describes how Koons’ works are meticulously manufactured, so as to bear virtually no traces of the human hand.

Few items, however, are designed at the outset to serve as functional art, though they may acquire that label retroactively. The company closest to achieving the union of art and engineering may be Apple. (The iPod, after all, found its way into MoMA.) But there’s a big difference between elegantly designed products and items made chiefly for aesthetic appeal. In the tech world, function still takes priority over form.

With Designs by Dash, Coleman seeks to break that hierarchy. By doing so, he believes, he will be better equipped to design products that elegantly serve real-world needs. “The laser maps,” he says, “are just the first step in the process.”

Update: Durell Coleman’s company is now known as DC Design.

Thoughts on the #PyCon debacle

The crowd at PyCon 2013
The crowd at PyCon 2013. (Photo by Ed Schipul)

So yesterday, I caught wind of all the uproar regarding Adria Richards at PyCon. (Recap here.) There have been several low points regarding women in tech and minorities in tech, at which I have shaken my head and sighed, but for some reason, this incident has particularly troubled me.

At first, I agreed wholeheartedly with this cogent take by Amanda Blum, in which she argues that the whole sequence of events is a total loss not only for the participants but also the tech community as a whole. But then I read these rebuttals, which made me rethink my position.

I believe that I, personally, would have sought to address the jokes directly with the men first. But then, I don’t work in the tech industry (although I do talk to a fair number of people who do, by nature of my job). I’m not exposed to the particular set of microaggressions—seemingly minor slants that over time compound themselves into a giant wound—that Richards, apparently, has been subjected to. I can, however, relate to the dilemma of how to respond when certain microaggressions simply become too much—and the inevitable backlash that comes from those who proclaim that you’re simply turning a mountain into a molehill.

Toward the end of my junior year at Yale, our campus tabloid (yes, we had such a thing) published an article entitled “Me Love You Long Time,” which supposedly sought to explore—and lampoon—how women of Asian descent are fetishized. But all it did was reinforce stereotypes of Asian women as sexually submissive (“they’re easy”), and it even included a crass reference to Hurricane Katrina as its kicker. I’ll never forget that line: “Asian girls are like New Orleans levees: they only stay tight for so long.”

The article, rightly, outraged a significant group of students. Especially problematic was that it was published and distributed on the same week that high schoolers who had been admitted to Yale were visiting campus. The article had also come on the heels of others, albeit in different publications, that reinforced stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans. (For instance, one newspaper comic expressed incredulousness that an Asian-American student would run for student council—don’t they spend all their time in the library, it asked.) So in response, Yale’s Asian-American Student Association (AASA) organized a protest, in which students would wear black clothing and gags and be silent for the day, even in class. Some participants, like me, chose to participate in class discussions but wore black in solidarity.

The day of the protest, the university also held a forum for students and faculty to address the article and the reactions it had garnered. And what comments did we hear? That we needed to lighten up—it was only a joke. That the truly bad thing was the pushback the members of the tabloid’s staff had gotten—not the ugly stereotypes their story had reinforced or the impact that might have on women of Asian descent on campus. But of course, all these are par for the course when pointing out incidences of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. What really stuck with me happened months later. That summer, I went to London as part of a university-sponsored internship program. I stayed in a flat with three roommates. One day, three of us were having a conversation, and the AASA protest came up (I don’t remember how). One of my roommates said something to the effect of, “What they did should be reserved for actual political protest.” In other words, the response was too extreme.

I remember countering that we were in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation: no one paid attention when people had written letters to the editor in response to past articles that reinforced stereotypes. (I remember it even being suggested that the tabloid in question had a history of publicly mocking criticism from others, so a simple letter might even backfire.) It was only when we went nuclear—for lack of a better term—that the issue came to the forefront in a serious manner.

So I sympathize with Adria Richards on the call she made. I may have made a different one, but that in no way excuses the subsequent retaliation she has faced.

That said, the question remains: why am I so worked up over this particular situation? Maybe it’s because as a black woman, I have a keen understanding of how intersectionality (in this case, race and gender) can play out in instances such as this. But I think it’s mainly because as a business reporter, I play some role in exalting companies and individuals that too often uphold the culture that produces sexist and racist debacles such as this. It makes me uneasy.

Last words: some insightful (and less rambling) posts on the situation:

Adria Richards, PyCon, and How We All Lost

“Let me get this out of the way. I don’t like Adria Richards.”

A Few More Thoughts on Adria Richards

Rachel Sklar: The Firing Of Adria Richards Looks Like Kneejerk Appeasement To The Troll Armies

Apparently We’re Not Ready to Be Adults About Anything

How Adria Richards Spoke For Me

Thinking About Adria Richards and Other Black Women In STEM Fields

A Woman Walks Into A Tech Conference

Why Asking What Adria Richards Could Have Done Differently Is The Wrong Question

Some Of Us Are Brave, Honest, & Transparent: The Adria Richards Edition

On Adria Richards, PyCon, and SendGrid

Sexism in tech is like an onion–it has many layers and makes people cry

Terrifying, Escalating Sexism

On PyCon

In Defense of Adria Richards and Call-Out Culture

Adria Richards and Donglegate – Right or Wrong?

Black in America, Silicon Valley edition: thoughts

Black women in tech gather for discussion

Last night, the much-ballyhooed Black in America 4, which followed the participants of the NewME Accelerator, finally aired. (I caught the 11 pm re-airing after catching up on violin practice and refusing to watch the NY Jets get blown out in the second half of Sunday Night Football.) It generated some advance controversy, courtesy of Michael Arrington (more on that here), but in the end, I thought it was a solid take on the challenges for black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Some random thoughts:

  • I would have liked to learn more about how the accelerator was put together, especially given the pretext that blacks lack influence and stature in Silicon Valley. Despite that, NewME seemed to have a solid set of advisors.
  • That said, what was the real point of Vivek Wadhwa’s talk? All I got from the documentary was “black entrepreneurs should get white frontmen for their companies” and “black folks don’t support each other.” The second point is valid, but I really hope there was more meat to his talk that CNN just didn’t show.
  • NewME co-founder Angela Benton has a really inspiring story: from teenage mother to Web entrepreneur. The documentary makes note of the difficulty of her and Wayne Sutton (the accelerator’s other co-founder) having to leave children/family behind to work on their startups. There has been discussion around whether motherhood is a barrier for women in tech, and I wonder if family concerns are a similar issue for blacks in tech. Plenty of people argue that youth is an advantage for entrepreneurship: there isn’t as much risk in failure because founders rarely have family responsibilities. But that isn’t really true for a lot of black and Latino 20-somethings. And even those without kids of their own may have other family members to support.
    *Note: this is a class issue as much as it is a race one, but of course, race and class tend to be closely linked.
  • In hindsight, it’s really a shame that the Michael Arrington bit got the most attention leading up to the air date, because it was by far the least insightful segment. He was unprepared and made clueless (and somewhat offensive) remarks, but then I wasn’t impressed with Soledad O’Brien’s questions to him, either. Given the scarcity of black tech entrepreneurs, I don’t think asking who Arrington thinks is the “#1 black entrepreneur” was bound to yield a useful response. (Though it is still ridiculous that he couldn’t name any black entrepreneurs at all–really?)
  • I’d really like an explanation of how even the organizers of the accelerator were unprepared for the dragon’s den at the Google event. I agree with Navarrow Wright, one of the panelists at the event, that entrepreneurs should be ready to pitch at any time, but there is a difference between speaking one-on-one with a potential investor/advisor/customer and having to make a formal pitch on stage. Does Y Combinator or TechStars spring this on its participants?
  • Also, I’m curious what it was like for Benton and Sutton to run the accelerator and work on their companies at the same time. How much support/advice were they able to give the others?

If you saw BIA 4, what did you think of it?

The Stephen Colbert of tech

Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report"

“I don’t see race.”

That’s Michael Arrington’s response to the CNN Money post regarding his statement that he doesn’t know a “single black entrepreneur” in the upcoming Black in America 4 special.

In all seriousness, though, I agree with him that Soledad O’Brien’s question “Who would you say is the #1 black entrepreneur?” was a gotcha. I’m not a big fan of the Black in America series on CNN, and this dust-up is exactly why. Sensationalism wins out over providing any real insight.

That said, I’ve recently heard/read a pair of anecdotes about TechCrunch summarily dismissing pitches regarding black entrepreneurs. (One of them, regarding NewME Accelerator, the subject of the BIA special, is here.) So I’m not 100 percent convinced that TechCrunch and Arrington just aren’t hearing from any black folks.

However, in the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t matter all that much. I’ll have to co-sign NewME Accelerator co-founder Angela Benton: ignore the drama. Better yet, come up with ways to encourage black people to get into tech, wherever they are. Hint: most of them won’t be in Silicon Valley.