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News1 GT1501 Hack Hackathon expands as organizers strive for diversity in world of tech

In the era of pervasive, portable technology, seemingly everyone can access a wealth of information with their fingertips. But a disparity exists between the number of men and women who design these devices and applications that shape our everyday lives.

“Unfortunately, it is still male-dominated,” says UCSC freshman Anjali Kanthilal. “But we are 100 percent trying to change that.”

Kanthilal is a student organizer for the 2015 HACK UCSC, a hackathon taking place at the Merrill Cultural Center on the weekend of Jan. 9. Generally held over a period of 48 hours, hackathons are events where teams of coders, designers and various out-of-the-box thinkers unite for an almost sleepless two-day tech bender. Teams create mobile and web applications with the prospect of cash prizes, prestige, and possibly a job offer. Wikimedia Executive Director Lila Tretikov will speak on Sunday Jan. 11 at an awards ceremony, which is invitation only.

At last year’s hackathon, organizers noticed a lack of women participants, and doubled their efforts to reach out to female students for this second annual event.

“Hackathons and engineering by their very nature are male-dominated,” says HACK UCSC organizer Mark Adams. “It’s specifically white men and Asian men, so anything we can do to increase the presence of people outside of those two categories is a great feat.”

According to a 2011 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce, only 24 percent of jobs in science, engineering, technology, and math were held by women. The study also states that there were approximately 2.5 million college-educated women in science and technology fields compared to 6.7 million men.

Organizers like Kanthilal connected with UCSC student organizations such as Project AWESOmE (Advancing Women’s Education in the School of Engineering) and others to encourage young women to participate in the hackathon. And they’ve also taken other small steps to pique the interest of aspiring female engineers. This year, for instance, HACK UCSC will have T-shirts in women’s sizes.

“Now, that may not seem like a big thing, but it is actually a really nice thing to do for inclusiveness,” says Adams.

Although there were fewer than 10 female participants at the first HACK UCSC last year, there are more than 50 signed up for this year’s event, which has gained a wide range of sponsors from across the Monterey Bay.

Approximately 30 percent of student participants at the first HACK UCSC last April were approached with job offers by tech professionals in Santa Cruz and over the hill. With an estimated 300 to 400 participants at the hackathon, organizers are expecting upward of 100 projects at the event, and have recruited about 25 judges so far, compared to the nine judges the event had last year.

Doug Erickson, a HACK UCSC organizer, anticipates that they will need even more, and wants to ensure that women are represented among judges as well as participants.

“We’ve reached out to as many women as we can in engineering,” says Erickson. “We have quite a few women judges, like Sara Ross—a UCSC graduate who is an engineer at Yahoo, and Margaret Rosas from Looker. We have at least six women judges, but we’d like it to be 50/50, and we continue to look.”

Diversity in the field of science and technology is key, says Jacob Martinez, founder of Watsonville-based tech incubator Digital NEST, which will be sending about eight college-aged students to HACK UCSC—half of them young women. Although Martinez says that the young Digital NEST team is slightly inexperienced in the realm of coding, he hopes that the event will serve as a learning experience, and will demystify it for the group.

Martinez believes that events like HACK UCSC will serve as a model for other areas seeking to increase the gender and racial diversity of professionals in the science and tech field.

“Right now the people who are creating technology are not representative of the demographic of the state or the country. Over half of the population is female, but yet only a small percentage of them are in tech, and if you look at California, the growing population of Latinos is not represented as well,” says Martinez. “I actually think that Santa Cruz County and the tech scene here are in a really unique position, where we can be a model to the country on how to engage Latinos and how to engage women in tech.”

Cashing in

This year’s hackathon will have hefty community support, with pay off for those who enter.

With an influx of sponsors, including the city of Santa Cruz Economic Development Department, this year’s HACK UCSC boasts $80,000 in prizes, compared to $10,000 at its first event. Sponsors have also inspired two new prize categories: Ag Tech, and Tech Cares.

The Ag Tech theme was inspired largely by Driscoll’s, which is headquartered in Watsonville and sponsoring the prize category.

Driscoll’s and other sponsors, like local tech startup Cityblooms, have already posted potential projects on the HACK UCSC Facebook page. Suggestions include an app that would measure and control moisture levels in growing plants and one that would determine how much light a plant is receiving.

The Tech Cares prize category is sponsored by the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County. Winners in the Tech Cares category will receive their own cash prize and are also able to donate a matching amount to a local nonprofit of their choosing. Judges in the Tech Cares category will be looking for applications that solve community issues, like an app that would help K-12 and college students choose healthier local food options for their lunches.

“This is the philanthropic side of technology,” says Erickson. “If we are doing as well as we are all doing here, let’s give back. Let’s help our community and find different causes we can contribute to.”

To inspire hackathon participants who may not have their own idea for an app, technology sponsors like Plantronics Inc. and Pebble, which makes smart watches, will bring in an assortment of wearable gadgets to the event, like prototype Bluetooth headsets. Students will be able to hack into them and find ways to improve or complement them. Tech sponsors will also have their own experts on standby to help participants with project development.

A 2 p.m. talk Friday with entrepreneur Pratap Ranade will be followed by an hour-long pitching session where working groups spontaneously form. The hacking will commence at 4 p.m.

“When the hack begins, people will have their heads down, with heavy-duty Red Bull, and then it’s two-and-a-half days of very little sleep,” says Erickson.

Organizers like Adams want all students who participate to know that they may just have the time of their young lives.

“It’s just one weekend. You will definitely find a team that will want to have you. And it will be the craziest weekend of your life,” says Adams. “I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that. A hackathon is probably the craziest weekend you will ever have. There will be moments where you’ll be with a friend or someone you just met, and they will solve a problem that’s been vexing your team at 4 a.m., and in a flash of insight brings everything together. You will make it to the finals, or you won’t. You’ll see people put together amazing ideas that you never thought were possible—things that seem so obvious in retrospect. So go in and find out what you can do. It’s the first weekend of winter quarter, so you have very little reason not to go.”


PHOTO Anjali Kanthilal and other organizers of HACK UCSC are trying to bring gender diversity to the event at Merrill Cultural Center. CHIP SCHEUER.

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