Hacking migration: Bringing Silicon Valley’s hackathon vibe to the study of migration

I’m the least tech-savvy person I know, next to my mother. I rely on my laptop and Blackberry to get me through the day but the thought of programming code gives me the shakes. I am in awe that there are people in this world who don’t just like to code, they often do it for fun or to help build their community – sometimes at the same time.

Yet here I am, organizer of a two-day hackathon that’s bringing together geeks of all stripes: tech, media, migration and more. I’m doing this because I’ve learned that those code-happy campers known as programmers or developers can do magical things when you bring their skills to bear on interesting and important topics. They are the backbone of what are known as “hacks for good” in the tech world, creative blitzes with a social conscience that have developed apps, maps, portals and more for causes such as campaign finance, reuniting refugees and environmental conservation. Hence Datafest Ottawa, Canada’s first hackathon on the theme of migration.

I didn’t dream up the migration angle. Others much smarter than me have been there before, including Teresa Bouza, a Spanish journalist who organized Americas Datafest last fall and inspired Datafest Ottawa. When I read about Teresa’s international, simultaneous hackthon, it immediately made sense. In my work as journalist covering immigration in Canada, I have seen how fragmented our data is, how behind the tech curve our settlement sector is, and how much the policy debate over migration could benefit from the injection of more evidence-based arguments.

I recently Skyped with Teresa to talk about how she came to organize a migration-themed hackathon, why it was such a success, and why it was something worth trying. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

Americas Datafest, Washington, D.C. Credit: Will McCulloch

Americas Datafest in Washington, D.C. Credit: Will McCulloch

Tell me how and why you came to organize a hackathon on migration.

In 2010 I was working in Washington DC as the correspondent for EFE, Spain’s international news agency. My main beat was the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Another reporter did something new, publishing a story based on the IMF’s database. Data journalism wasn’t so common around that time, especially among Hispanic journalists. We journalists run the risk of becoming irrelevant, but I saw that embracing technology gives us the opportunity to do exciting things. I applied to the Knight Fellowships Program at Stanford for 2011/2012 and discovered hackathons while I was there. They’re very popular in Silicon Valley. It is a very powerful formula and I realized it could be very valuable for journalism, mixing people with different skills – a web developer, a coder, a statistician, a subject matter expert – to see what they can accomplish in a short period of time. So I organized a hackathon on campaign finance.

How did that first hackathon go?

We brought together 80 or 90 people and I was thinking ‘I don’t know any of these people, how will I organize this crowd?’ We had put white boards around the room and in an hour people had organized themselves and started working together. They did that for a weekend. It was amazing, very powerful. Later I co-organized a second, bicoastal event held at Columbia and Stanford. Eventually I came up with this idea of the Americas Datafest, an international hackathon on migration.

Why migration?

Migration is a very, very important subject. It affects all countries: those of origin, transit and destination. And the situation is very dynamic. For example, Mexico is becoming a destination country as its economy grows. Migration also intersects with economics, culture, health, climate change. You can explore it from so many different angles. I thought it was timely to do an event that connects the migration reality from different parts of the world.That’s why we made it an international hackathon, with events happening simultaneously in 11 countries and 20 locations throughout the Americas and Spain.

Did people understand the hackathon concept?

Many of the organizers had previous experience organizing hackathons, but a lot of people didn’t quite understand, especially people in non-governmental organizations. It was a process over many months. I told NGOs ‘We’re going to have a computing contest with all these people who are very good with computers willing to help NGOs or migrants. Tell us, what tools you would like to have?’ People working with migrants described their needs and we posted those needs on our web site as challenges. Computer scientists, most of whom don’t know the needs of NGOs working with migrants, could go over the challenges and see what appealed to them. They weren’t obliged to do any of them but many of them did.

Around 70 projects came out of Americas Datafest. Later I got a grant from the Avina Americas foundation to create an accelerator program. Judges are going to choose two projects that will receive around $10,000 each to advance their work.

How did the hackathon unfold?

We did some brainstorming in advance and created a web page listing some project ideas. We invited people who had registered for the event to have a look at the challenges page ahead of time and see if there was anything there they wanted to work on. On the morning of the hackathon, we started with a small presentation. We invited people with some ideas to pitch their ideas. People who had ideas wrote them on white boards. People who didn’t have ideas walked around the room looking at the white boards to see if those ideas were appealing to them, and they created teams.It’s nice to know you’re working on the same subject with people in Guatemala, Mexico, Washington and Alabama, and we did some Google Hangouts during the day just to see how the day was going at other locations. Participants were very excited to work with new people and some have even asked me when there will be another migration hackathon.

Did any particular themes emerge?

The overarching theme of the hackathon was that we need more and better migration data. This is what the experts from the United Nations, NGOs and universities told us and we had a number of projects that focused on that topic.

Also, there was a very strong interest in coming up with ideas to protect the security of migrants. It’s a big problem for Central American migrants who are living in or transiting through Mexico. Also, some projects, while having a local focus, were scalable. A team in Alabama prototyped an Android app that takes a photo of a medicine lable and instructions and can translate them into multiple languages. Such an app can be used virtually in any part of the world.Another theme was helping migrants integrate into the local society.Data visualizations were also popular, as well as creating services to help migrants with their needs. For example, a project in Brazil mapped local health clinics. You can read about the winners on our web site.

What do you think hackathons can bring to migration as an issue?

The debate around immigration is very heated, very controversial, especially here in the U.S., and it’s important to put the facts on the table. Is it true and based on data that migrants are not contributing to the economy, that they are taking advantage of health care? That’s a big contribution in any field, that whatever you’re saying is based on data and not your opinions. Opening up more data is very valuable. Also, all these teams were developing tools that can be helpful for people working with migrants. Last but not least, a migration hackathon also brings a variety of ideas for understanding migration. For example, we had a project that proposed a simulation of migration patterns in the case of a hurricane. Another was an app that allows a  migrant not only to send money home but also do financial planning and budgeting for those left behind.

One of the criticisms of “hacks for good” is that they create buzz for a weekend and then they’re over and nothing long-term has been created. Was sustainability a concern for you?

I believe foundations that are giving money to hackathons are starting to ask for results. There needs to be a stronger focus on what happens after the hackathon, a follow-up process to helpthe teams to bring their prototypes to the point where they become real products or tools.  A hackathon is a very powerful tool for collaboration, innovation, creativity. It’s also a lot of fun.
What was the highlight of Americas Datafest for you?

Meeting and collaborating with so many wonderful people across the Americas was one of the best parts. I feel proud and lucky to be part of an incredible network of brilliant and generous people who are willing to donate their time and expertise to a good cause. It was so powerful when the event happened. When we saw that we were here working in DC and talking to people in Alabama, in Quito, in Guatemala, and elsewhere everyone was very excited. It’s also very nice that we got this grant for the accelerator, so what we started has a chance at becoming a reality.


For more about migration-related hackathons:

Migrahack – a Chicago-based hackathon for migration journalists

UNHCR Innovate – an ideas lab within the UN agency

DREAMer Hackathon – organized by FWD.US, the immigration-reform advocacy group created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.



One comment

  1. Such a great idea of connecting tech-savvy people with migration people. Thx for sharing!


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