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BU Hosts Second Annual Hackathon for Women, Nonbinary People This Weekend

TechTogether Boston (2019) expected to draw more than 1,000 to Agganis Arena


Last year, women made up a mere 20 percent of those attending hackathons. But a student-run hackathon hosted by BU this weekend aims to change that.

Starting this afternoon, Friday, March 22, more than 1,200 high school and college students from across the country will hole up in Agganis Arena for 36 hours at TechTogether Boston (2019). The requirement to get in? Attendees must identify as female or nonbinary.

During the three-day event, hackers will solve problems like combating fake news, disaster recovery, and reducing environmental waste, among others. In addition to hacking, there will be a series of tech workshops, keynote talks, and networking opportunities with some of the more than two dozen sponsors (RedHat, Facebook, Microsoft, and Wayfair, to name a few) who donated more than $320,000 to underwrite the hackathon. Attendance is free, and in many cases, travel is reimbursed.

Winners will take home more than $19,000 in prizes, such as a Google Home, although some prizes have the potential to be worth a lot more: internships or job interviews at companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield and IBM Research, two of the sponsors. “This year, we are trying to convert the event into long-term opportunities,” says senior Fiona Whittington (COM), hackathon founder and advisor. “We want to get more women into the job pipeline, so that’s why we’re seeing more prizes that are more skill-based, rather than gift cards and things like that.”

Now in its second year, the hackathon began last year and was initially called SheHacks. This year’s event has been rebranded as TechTogether Boston to shy away from pronouns and better reflect a community that includes nonbinary individuals, Whittington says. The organizers are from several universities, among them BU, Northeastern, the University of California, Irvine, and UMass Boston.

Last year’s winners included teams that developed a social media listening tool that can display aid and rescue requests during a natural disaster, an app to support environmental sustainability by building a personal environment that illustrates the direct impact of climate change, and a smart waste receptacle that “reads” whether an item should be trashed or recycled, and then moves it to the appropriate side of the container.

Whittington’s impetus for starting her own hackathon last year was a bad experience when she attended a hackathon—her first—in New York as a sophomore. A guy came up to chat with her when she walked in alone and condescendingly asked if she had ever even coded before. “I told him to look at the coding stickers on my laptop,” she says. “I didn’t see a lot of women there, I didn’t go with anyone, and that, to me, was a reflection of the lack of community. There wasn’t a culture I could join, and I thought, more women need to be attending these events.” The result: SheHacks, in January 2018 at BU.

TechTogether Boston aims to create an inclusive environment that both introduces underrepresented people to the world of technology and mobilizes them to create projects. “Marginalized groups continue to be underrepresented as a whole,” in technology, says senior Isabelle Verhulst (Questrom), TechTogether’s chief marketing officer. “In this era of #MeToo, Time’s Up, and a general shift in the influence of women’s, trans, and nonbinary voices, we are proud to be doing our part in offering resources to the next generation of individuals who want to make a difference.”

“The general reaction from the community to our event has been incredible—the feedback, the amount of money we were able to raise,” Whittington adds.

And TechTogether Boston has expanded beyond this weekend’s event. The students’ new nonprofit, called TechTogether, provides members of its New York and Boston chapters with annual stipends, mentorship, and event planning resources.

TechTogether receives support from several University entities, among them the College of Arts & Sciences computer science department, BU Research, Information Services & Technology, the College of Engineering electrical and computer engineering department, BU Spark! at the Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, and Innovate@BU. BU is the hackathon’s host partner for the next three years and in addition to offering financial support and research, BU Spark! created PreHacks, an event that introduces high schoolers to the field of computer science and provides a how-to hackathon guide. Like many young women, BU Spark! marketing and program manager Elyse Bush didn’t have an introductory computer science program available to her in high school, she says, but if she had, she probably would have studied computer science as an undergrad. Bush works under Ziba Cranmer, BU Spark! director and event supporter.

Diversifying the the technology industry is in society’s best interest “given the myriad ways that technology impacts our lives,” says Tracy Schroeder, BU’s vice president of information services and technology. “Without diversity, technology services are built with implicit biases and gaps that can marginalize people and have unintended social and economic consequences.” And, she continues, change is hard: “It requires support structures like TechTogether to encourage trailblazers and change agents.”

TechTogether Boston (2019) will be held at Agganis Arena, 925 Commonwealth Ave., from 5 pm Friday, March 22, until 2 pm Sunday, March 24. Registration for the event is closed.

Amy Laskowski, Senior Writer at Boston University Marketing & Communications editorial department
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

3 Comments on BU Hosts Second Annual Hackathon for Women, Nonbinary People This Weekend

  • A BU Mom on 03.22.2019 at 12:08 pm

    Oh the irony.

    “…TechTogether Boston (2019). The requirement to get in? Attendees must identify as female or nonbinary.”

    And, “TechTogether Boston aims to create an inclusive environment…”

    Although Fiona Whittington felt she had a bad experience at her first hackathon, at least she was invited.

    I wonder if an all-male hackathon would receive the same amount of support from “several University entities”?

    If TechTogether Boston truly aims to create an inclusive environment, how about inviting everyone, and perhaps defining a space at the hackathon for females to gather should they desire?

    There’s lots to learn from everyone. Back in the day I was the only female at my college graduation earning a BS in mathematics (computer science minor). Yes, I’d get the occasional, “You don’t look like a math major.” Or, “Math major? Are you going to be a teacher?” I didn’t take offense. My fellow math majors didn’t question my abilities, and we were great friends. In fact one who was a year ahead of me and co-oping at IBM, recommended me for a co-op the following year, which led to a full-time offer as a software developer at IBM upon graduation.

    My advice for techie women? Don’t rush to be offended. Take time to get to know people from all walks of life, and let your intelligence and hard work speak for itself.

    • Nat on 03.22.2019 at 2:14 pm

      This is about women and other marginalized genders being uplifted in an environment that has neglected them and suppressed them for so long. If you cannot identify the power of a community supporting one another where there is still so much adversity and obstacles to overcome (i.e., preference for male candidates for jobs in literally EVERY field especially STEM) regarding gender, then I am sorry you haven’t experienced that community strength. “At least she was invited” is not the point. The bar really is on the floor, huh? No one is rushing to be offended here, just taking initiative to create a space in which there are more opportunities for women and non-binary people to feel comfortable in their field and balance out the unequal representation and opportunity they may face in institutions, jobs, and other coding/CS related events. I suggest you don’t rush to be offended by an article and even that is clearly meant to help rather than hurt. Women are power! Spaces that have historically been held and occupied by men are inherently toxic and have stifled the advancement of women and marginalized genders so like…… let these girlies live and have their chances to feel empowered by a community that resembles their socialized experiences. All male hackathons (although not explicit) or just hackathons have done a good job in alienating the women that do attend and tokenizing them for being “other”. Genuinely see no harm in this event.

      Even women that are “intelligent” and “hard-working” are glanced over because of inherent bias.

  • Cogent on 04.12.2019 at 9:21 am

    Oh Nat, the irony (to quote A BU Mom) … A BU Mom is the perfect example of a woman who did not need “safe space” to personally overcome every “obstacle” she may have faced to become the ONLY female in her graduating class to get a BS in Math and Computer Science minor. Her accomplishments are a testament to perseverance, endurance and strength that is needed to be successful no matter who you are. Sadly, the progressive mindset of neutralizing the playing field destroys the environment that produced the qualities that A BU Mom mustered to achieve her success. I am a female retired military veteran and my environment was smack in the middle of a male dominated culture. I loved it because it challenged me to find within myself the courage, perseverance, endurance and strength to be successful. It was not “toxic”, I was not marginalized nor tokenized and my opportunities were as equal as the male airmen. When I did face obstacles, I fought harder and accomplished more than if I were just “protected” (which, by-the-way, is tokenization) against adversity. I had a great 20-year career, highly-decorated and post-graduate educated. I am now a data analyst making the same money as my male coworkers. Throw everyone together and let the best rise to the top; whatever your identity.

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