(Photo courtesy of Ellie Newman)
This story appears as a part of Open Data PGH, a joint reporting project by Technical.ly and PublicSource on open data trends in Pittsburgh, underwritten by Heinz Endowments. Learn more here and get updates here.
As STEM initiatives continue the work of getting more women and girls involved in technology, a similar drive is happening within civic tech.
Bloomberg’s Government Innovation program finds that while women are still underrepresented among public- and private-sector data scientists, the face of the sector is beginning to change.
The organization highlighted women working in local government in San Francisco, Raleigh, Minneapolis and elsewhere who saw a problem or a need that wasn’t being met, and figured out a way to address that need. Its findings: Women in civic tech tend to lead by example, and their work has significant impact on cities.
The women in Pittsburgh’s civic tech scene — and there are a lot of them — have tackled the area’s challenges with similar problem-solving approaches.
For instance, Kelauni Cook founded Black Tech Nation (BTN) because she was frequently the only Black woman at tech events in Pittsburgh. She’s an instructor at Academy Pittsburgh’s Beta Builders who has lived in the region for about two years and seeks to answer the question: “Where is Black tech in Pittsburgh?“
— Mike Capsambelis (@MikeCaps) April 1, 2017
(Cook wasn’t available for comment.)
Here’s how some other women in Pittsburgh’s civic tech ecosystem view the region’s efforts to connect people with data.
Note: This is by no means an exhaustive list. We’re interested to hear about women you think are doing important civic tech work in the Pittsburgh area.
Tutt is the open data and knowledge manager at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh who moved to Pittsburgh for that job, a new position, about two years ago.
She said her internal work at the library involves making sure everyone feels confident using and questioning data.
“When I came here I did a lot of thinking about what role the library and I should play,” Tutt said.
Increasing data literacy seemed to her like a natural fit for a public library.
“Part of that has been a variety of data literacy programs, helping people understand their data footprints,” she said, “and remembering that open data is not necessarily public data.”
For her, that means realizing that just because data is being released into the world doesn’t mean everyone has the skillset to use it, or that those who do have the skills are able to build interfaces everyone can use.
Tutt said she wants to help people realize “you don’t have to learn to code, you don’t have to be a data expert to have a voice in what’s being built” (an idea we’ve heard before, from Carnegie Mellon University’s Hollen Barmer).
She said the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition has been a big influence on what she’s tried to build in Pittsburgh.
McGrane is a web designer who is passionate about making the tech industry, both civic and private, more inclusive of transgender people.
For her, inclusivity begins with design: She spoke at a recent Girl Develop It meetup in Pittsburgh about how prevalent cis-normative web design is. Something as simple as choosing an avatar or a gender on a website’s drop-down menu can be a discouraging experience for a trans or gender-fluid person, she said.
“We need to challenge the idea that white, cisgender, heterosexual men are the default,” McGrane said.
The University of Pittsburgh is an example of an institution that has done a lot of work toward trans inclusivity, she said, noting that public tech often takes its cues from students.
“It’s not easy, but if people in civic tech are thinking about how to better design websites, that’s a first step,” she said.
McGrane has given the talk about trans inclusivity at web developer events before and said she’s greeted by people afterward who thank her for raising the issue: “They’re really grateful to know they’re not the only ones thinking about it.”
Newman, an analyst with Allegheny County’s CountyStat department, said the Pittsburgh area has come a long way since she first moved here in 2001. (She left to attend college, then returned a few years ago.)
“The watershed moment was when WPRDC launched in 2015,” Newman said, referring to the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, the region’s data hub managed by the University of Pittsburgh Center for Urban and Social Research. The Pittsburgh region learned from other cities that simply releasing data to the web wasn’t quite enough — that curation and infrastructure around the data was necessary for it to be actively used.
At the government level, Newman said, it’s sometimes a thankless job to make data public; once you release that list of how many potholes are in a given area, for example, then people start questioning why there are so many potholes.
“Governments are leaving themselves open to criticism, and it’s not always easy to get the political will to do that,” she said.
Her role at CountyStat involves working with departments across county government with their data.
“We were finding a lot of people who were entering stuff into a system but never pulling it back out again,” Newman said. “Actually being able to show them what the data looks like and show that story to them often prompts big changes in how they do things.”
Newman founded Data Drinks, a meetup she described as a purely social by design, for anyone who likes data to get together and talk about it. She’s also co-captain of Code for Pittsburgh, which she said is deliberately focused on the work of technology, whether for people who are complete beginners to tech to skilled coders and developers.
Newman said she views Code for Pittsburgh as a model for how to bring everyone into the tech industry regardless of their level of expertise. And she has a very specific goal for the group.
“I want to train up a new set of people to tackle our region’s challenges and make Pittsburgh a better place to live,” she said.
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