Barcelona Music Hack Day – Project Jane

Google announced its Project Jacquard recently. The project covers several research and development topics leading to the mass production of fabric sensors that can detect hand gestures. I think it’s a defining moment in e-textile research as it’s attracted the popular press and introduced the field of e-textiles to a consumer audience that might not have been aware of it before.

However. The announcement came via a video largely starring Ivan Poupyrev, the project’s founder. I don’t really think of project managers in Mountain View when I think about e-textiles. I think of the amazing work grown from a grassroots level that is shared with the community. Work that has historically had far more women involved than what is typically seen in tech spheres. Project Jacquard feels a little like an erasure of those contributions, so I wanted to honour them in my hack.

I decided to make a soft sensor that detects hand gestures in 24 hours at the Barcelona Music Hack Day. This is Project Jane.

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Open Source Hardware Panel

A couple Fridays ago was an informal panel discussion of things related to the Open Source Hardware movement and included some big names from the community.

I think it’s important to understand the tone of the panel: there was a declared drinking game that you had to drink whenever anyone said “community”. It was a light-hearted event that generated some excellent discussion. Early on the in evening Bre stated:

Open source hardware is not about the hardware, it’s about the infrastructure to participate.

I’ve had very little (arguably no) direct involvement in OSHW (open source hardware) and this declaration just seemed incredibly profound to me and really underlines the difference in communities between OSHW and FOSS (free and open source software).

There was a fair bit of discussion comparing the two communities, and of course given the crowd, there was a strong bias towards how the OSHW community operates. After learning more of the philosophy of OSHW, I’m inclined to prefer their approach over FOSS’s.

It was said that a lot of the differences come down to atoms vs. bits. It allows for business models to be more obvious because there’s a physical product with a more explicit cost while software isn’t tied to the physical. This also allows software to be a religion in ways that hardware cannot.

Another difference is that the next TODO of FOSS is documentation while the next TODO of OSHW is the consumer product. There are probably those that disagree with this statement, but I found it to be valid and to point out what I feel is a hugely discriminatory factor in FOSS. Overall, FOSS is poorly documented. It’s just not a community priority. Of course there are exceptions, but there is a large contingent of FOSS that seems to pride itself on steep learning curves and insider knowledge. This makes it very difficult for “outsiders” to join. In particular, it makes it more difficult for individuals who don’t exhibit the stereotypical white male nerd traits to participate. OSHW seems much more conscious of inclusion and group contribution.

My limited experience with the OSHW community has been through publications like Make Magazine, Maker Faire and the London Hackspace. All of these are male dominated spaces, so I didn’t expect the gender parity of the OSHW panel. FOSS panels would kill for this kind of gender representation. I find hackspaces (or at least the one in London) to be incredibly similar to FOSS demographics. I’ve even seen it drive away men from Big-C Creative industries because of the huge embrace of nerd culture.

My assumptions of the gender dynamics of OSHW fall apart when I actually think about them. I can much more easily name female contributors to the hardware world than software. Off the top of my head: Leah Buechley, Limore Fried, Becky Stern and now can add the panelists listed above.

I think once you’re inside the engineering club to some degree, in the process of assimilating it can be easy to forget how to be inclusive to those without engineering backgrounds. While at the ITP Camp, and especially by attending the sessions taught by Tom Igoe, I’ve certainly come to appreciate the tools that have been developed for those without computer science or electrical engineering backgrounds, in particular Processing and Arduino. I previously was frustrated with the platforms as I thought it dumbed-down the content excessively and didn’t ensure that proper engineering concepts were taught. However, I now appreciate that they get people writing code and working with microcontrollers without requiring entry into the exclusive clubhouse that is engineering. Learning the technical bits can come later. Finding an initial passion for creating and engineering needs to fostered first.

It’s the Small Things That Count

I’ve just returned from the San Francisco Music Hack Day 2011. This was the 13th in the series of Music Hack Days and the 3rd that I’ve attended. I was at the very first MHD in London in 2009 and then the London MHD last summer. Along with the MHDs, I’ve also attended a Yahoo! Hack Day and a Culture Hack Day in London, so I feel fairly comfortable at these events. I have hacked at all but the first hack day I attended (the Yahoo! one) and have presented a hack at 3 of the 5 I’ve attended.

I’m no stranger to the gender dynamics of these kind of events and the communities that attend them. Multiple engineering degrees really drive home the point that women are thoroughly the others of the community. However, the last MHD in New York created a little bit of a discussion after Matt Andrews from the Guardian posted a short piece noting the overwhelmingly white male audience of the MHD. There was a twitter discussion that followed which included a complaint that no one seems to be offering advice to improve the situation, only observational commentary. So I wrote up a short list of actions that I thought would help and it received a fair bit of traffic, but the discussion never carried on into planning of another hack day.

When I arrived at tokbox for the hack, I was amazed at the gender disparity. It was certainly the worst female to male ratio that I have seen at a hack day. I just didn’t expect that from the Bay Area, though when discussing it with locals, they said it was very representative of the Silicon Valley culture and they thought nothing of it. Dave was doing a full female headcount of the room and I never caught the final number, but my estimate would be of the approximately 150 attendees, fewer than 10 were women (that were there to participate in the hack, the registration desk and kitchen were staffed by women which raised the total number of women in the room).

To reiterate the statistics in another way, of the 54 hack presentations, 4 involved a woman with two of those hacks involving me (HueSound,Shooting from the Hipster, Music Grid, and DJ DJ Revolution. That means that there were 3 women involved in a completed hack. 2 of those hacks received prizes. 100% of the mixed gender teams (2 of 2), roughly 25% of the male-only teams (about 12 of 50), and 0% of the female-only teams (0 of 2) received prizes. Small sample sizes give weak confidence measures, but still numbers to think about.

I refuse to accept that women just don’t want to attend these events and that there simply aren’t any women in the hacking communities. That’s demonstrably untrue and incredibly insulting to imply that it’s women’s problem if they don’t feel welcome. Talented women do show up, it would just be great if more would join them.

The following things occurred this weekend:

  • The Friday evening before the hack, Elissa Barrett from the main organizer tweeted this:

    Hey #musichackday folks, get some rest while you can! Let’s split the men from the boys and see who’s standing at 5am on Sunday.less than a minute ago via HootSuite Favorite Retweet Reply

    I responded with this:

    RT @elissab: #musichackday … Let’s split the men from the boys and see who’s standing at 5am on Sunday. // not sure where that leaves me.less than a minute ago via Twitter for Mac Favorite Retweet Reply

  • Early into the hack on Saturday, the women’s restroom at Tokbox underwent gender reassignment. I don’t understand why they were gendered in the first place, they were each a room with a sink and toilet. Permitting the men to access the women’s restroom was absolutely fine, but the way the problem was “solved” left the building without a restroom for women. The women used both restrooms as well, but no where else in the building was it so blatant that you weren’t expected to be there.
  • During the lightning API presentations, MusixMatch gave a talk introducing what they do. They felt it necessary to use a porn reference to add some excitement to their presentation and it predictably generated some twitter traffic. They threw out the statement that lyrics are googled more than porn and accompanied it with an image of a woman in a sexual position with another woman. two people in a sexual position. (Ed: the creator of the slide informs me that’s a teenage boy, not a woman.)


    I didn’t act fast enough to take a photo of the slide, but afterwards looked to see if they put it up on slideshare (the above photo is by Thoms Bonte). They hadn’t, but I did find the slidebook for what they showed at SFMusictech the day after the hack. While it had the same text, they had removed the image. Why did they feel it was appropriate for the MHD audience and not for SFMusictech? (Ed: my mistake, that is a slide presentation from last year’s SFMusictech, not the one directly after this hack day.) If you feel you need a porn reference to spice up your presentation, perhaps you should reconsider the initial point you’re trying to make.

  • Before the last London MHD a couple of the regular female attendees requested women’s sizes in the MHD shirts and they were supplied without any great issue. This seemed to have been forgotten for San Francisco as there were no women’s sizes for MHD shirts and most of the other free swag available shirts were in men’s L and XL sizes.
  • I was timidly asked multiple times what I was doing at the hack. The person asking the question seemed to expect me to say I was in business development or the press or someone’s girlfriend. (I was seriously asked if I was there to represent my boyfriend since he wasn’t able to attend.) When I replied I was there to hack, I was met with visible surprise. This happened more than once.

Everyone likes to say — gasp, oh noes, there are mostly men here! how horrible, something should be done!!!1! But nothing ever seems to be consciously done by the organizers (or by frankly anyone in a hiring position at any music tech-related company) to address this. Instead, all these little things seem to slip by under the radar which scream at women: it is not normal nor expected for you to be here. It’s easy to improve the situation, just don’t do the things listed above.

What if every MHD attendee just did this one thing: when another MHD is announced, mention it to a female friend or colleague and say “These things are good times, I think you should go. You would enjoy it.” And then the next time you attend one, make sure the basics like restrooms are available to all attendees regardless of their gender identification.

Nonetheless I had a good time this weekend. I saw friends I hadn’t seen in years, met new ones, and even returned with a little prize money for one of my hacks. But using one of my favorite phrases from the UK, Music Hack Day, pull your finger out.

Hacking While Female

A recent Twitter conversation has been sparked by an article posted on the Guardian by Matt Andrews where he noted the maleness and whiteness of Music Hack Days. He concluded by hoping people would respond. This is my longer-than-140-characters response.

There aren’t many women that participate in Music Hack Days no matter what statistics you choose to use. To my knowledge, women have not been largely involved in orgranising them; there are usually fewer that 4 women presenting hacks at the conclusion of a MHD (out of about 50 presentations); the general numbers on the floor of MHDs that I’ve attended average at about 15% women.

I don’t think the Music Hack Day community can be blamed for the lack of female participation. It is a problem much, much bigger than the Music Hack Day and extends into problems with attracting girls in school to tech fields and more general societal issues. It’s difficult to get women to attend if there isn’t a large pool of women to drawn from.

Much to their credit, I find MHDs to be far friendlier places than a lot of other hack days and other spaces where all geeks are supposed to feel welcome. I think this has a lot to do with the higher average social skill set and societal awareness of the MHD crowd as compared with something like a Yahoo! Hack Day. Also, much to Dave’s credit, when women sizes of MHD shirts were requested at the last London MHD, he immediately supplied them. He’s also tweeted during past MHDs his disappointment in the lack of women giving presentations.

There isn’t direct prejudice against women at MHD and certainly none directly from the main organisers. However, there are places where better encouragement could happen. These are things I think might help the situation. I will make no claims to being an expert (I just work in the field, attend hack days and read a lot of literature on the intersection of gender and technology). I do hope we can have a conversation that results in even better events.

  • Transparency It is easy to assume that everyone associated with planning and running a MHD is a white male. This might not be true, but it is difficult to confirm or deny as there aren’t very transparent methods of organising a MHD. Who helped put it together and, even more importantly, how can people become involved in planning future events? MHDs can be feel like a boys-only club however unintentional this may be. There might be a huge group of people with different backgrounds that help make these events happen, it’d be nice to know who they are.
  • Education There aren’t a lot of women with formal training in programming and those that do have formal training may only feel comfortable with MATLAB. Most of the women in computing I know are in academia (admittedly I have a very biased sample set). Teach web programming basics and provide tutorials on how to use a web API. There are a lot of really smart people that could build amazing things, they’ve just never used particular tools before.
  • Emphasise non-coding Good software is so much more than good code. Most hackers are willing to admit that a shiny interface covers up a whole lot of malfunctioning code. It is more likely that women have studied or have experience in design or other non-coding skill sets that greatly contribute to a project. They just might not realise that their input would be valued. This also leads into the next point.
  • Structured networking Community learning is difficult if the potential collaborators think you might want to sleep with them. Unlocking the Clubhouse noted that female (and minority) university students in a computer science degree are at a disadvantage as a significant part of the learning happens within peer groups. Students that don’t fit within a narrow definition, may find it more difficult to assimilate into a group and find it more difficult to learn. Providing more formal, structured spaces for people to meet may help eleviate some of these issues. It may also help with the above point by bringing together disparate skill sets.

In addition, there are many good guidelines and resources addressing these issues. See for example how to host women-friendly events and how to encourage women.

An excellent side effect of doing things that should help attract female participants is that the same things tend to encourage all kinds of people that don’t fit into the stereotypical participant profile. By actively trying to make MHDs as inclusive and positive as possible, we can hopefully attract all kinds of people who wouldn’t previously find themselves surrounded by hackers.