Ignite Philly 11: women and open data take center stage

Women and open data were the stars at the last week's Ignite Philly 11, which packed Johnny Brenda's to over-capacity. About half of the 15 talks in the familiar concert venue above the Fishtown bar focused on empowering women or the power of open data.

All photos by Terry Robinson for Ignite Philly.
Women and open data were the stars at the last week’s Ignite Philly 11, which packed Johnny Brenda‘s to over-capacity, according to the event’s organizers, as the local version of the global lightning talk event has done since 2008. (Find four years of Ignite coverage here)

About half of the 15 talks in the familiar concert venue above the Fishtown bar focused on empowering women or the power of open data. And fittingly, Ignite Philly’s big winner, a tradition where a speaker from the previous Ignite gets $1,000, was Girl Develop It, the nonprofit that aims to get women more involved with the tech scene by teaching them how to program.

This year’s event, organized by Geoff DiMasi, David Clayton and newcomer Adam Teterus, was once again sold out — “and then some,” Teterus said, with more than 300 attendees.

For the uninitiated, Ignite Philly invites Philadelphians to give a 5-minute talk to an increasingly drunker — and yet almost always supportive — crowd on just about anything: the good work they’re doing around the city, the merits of fermented foods or even advice on how to sing karaoke (from one very savvy employee at the city’s Water Department), followed by a group karaoke session of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” (Yes, that happened. The whole song. Watch the video below!) The lightning talks are packed with humor, honesty and vulnerability (after all, they are speaking to a 300 person strong crowd of near strangers).

“Begin anywhere,” said Kristin Gavin, who founded Gearing Up, an organization that uses exercise to empower incarcerated women. She was quoting a John Cage “Quotable Card” she got from Whole Foods, at once admitting her weakness for the cheesy cards and inspiring the room (or us, at least).

The talks feel like an intimate peek into the lives of nearly two dozen Philadelphians, and they’re just enough to pique your interest and make you want to learn more about data visualization or Shakespeare in the Park or how researchers are using 3D printing to make organs (more on that later). That’s the call to action, it feels like: Get involved with one of the organizations presented or simply say hi to one of the presenters. It’s maybe the simplest but most powerful ability of the event. It connects people.

And now, we give out some awards. Find a full list of speakers here. We will definitely miss out on some good ones, so please comment with your own awards.

Find more photos of the event here.

David Guinn and the mural he painted that was lost in the fall of 2011 when a developer built a new rowhouse.

David Guinn and the mural he painted that was lost in the fall of 2011 when a developer built a new rowhouse.


In the fall of 2011, Philly lost “Autumn.” It was a mural in Bella Vista by muralist David Guinn and it was replaced by new construction. Guinn took the stage to talk about Freewall, his project to get artists to make art in the public sphere, but when the photo of the departed “Autumn” came up, the crowd immediately booed. Guinn nodded. “It gets me every time,” he said.


Christine Knapp, director of Strategic Partnerships at the city’s Water Department and former Energy Efficient Buildings (EEB) Hub spokeswoman, taught the crowd how to sing karaoke. Among her tips: When it comes to choosing songs, gauge the mood (“If people are crying into their drinks, don’t choose a hip hop song.”), have a few song options (“I don’t wanna hear you do the same song every Friday night.”) and quite importantly, don’t sing a Meatloaf song.

At the end of her lesson, as all great teachers do, she taught by example. Above, watch Indy Hall‘s Alex Hillman and Flying Kite Media‘s Michelle Freeman join Knapp on stage for a raucous rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Journey is always a good choice, Knapp said.


We’ve got to hand it to Jordan Miller, a postdoctoral fellow at Penn. He tried to explain a very complicated issue — how his lab is using 3D printers to manufacture organs — using analogies so us simple-minded folk could understand. Unfortunately, we still couldn’t follow but whatever it is he’s doing looks amazing. Learn more about it here.


The Hacktory‘s Stephanie Alarcon, Amy Guthrie and Georgia Guthrie showed the crowd how you can share the stories of many women (and one or two men, too) in one five-minute talk. The trio presented their project, “Hacking the Gender Gap,” where they encourage women to share their experiences of the gender gap in the tech world on a timeline. They used their Powerpoint slides to share those stories — watch their talk above.

Don’t go to LA, don’t go to New York. You can do that crap right. Here.
Erica Hawthorne, founder of Small But Mighty Arts Grants.

Erica Hawthorne, founder of Small But Mighty Arts Grants.


Seventy-three percent of art in Philadelphia is missing, said Erica Hawthorne, founder of arts microgrant program Small But Mighty Arts Grant. She arrived at this number using data about how many artists said they don’t continue on a project if they’re not getting adequate funding and how many artists in Philly said they aren’t getting financial support from the community. It was a compelling way to frame the problem and the perfect counterpart to one of our favorite calls to action of the night: Artists, she said, “Don’t go to LA, don’t go to New York. You can do that crap right. Here.”


It’s got to be a sign of Philly’s open data age when three Ignite Philly talks focus on the issue.

Above, watch Chief Data Officer Mark Headd explain why open data is important and how you can get involved (go to We’ll also note that city employees (like Story Bellows and Jeff Friedman of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Director of Civic Technology Tim Wisniewski and GIS analyst Sarah Cordivano) were out in full force at the event, further reinforcing the idea that the at least one portion of city government is part of the community and not only working for it.

ElectNext team members Jake Wells and Dave Zega, as well as city budget visualization creator Ben Garvey (find his slides here), also spoke about the importance of data and using it to better understand civic issues and get more engaged.

Jen Childs, artistic director of theatre company 1812 Productions.

Jen Childs, artistic director of theatre company 1812 Productions.


You might say that the odds are in Jen Childs‘ favor. She’s the artistic director of theatre company 1812 Productions and, as expected, a natural on stage. Childs spoke about her forthcoming production, “It’s My Party: The Women and Comedy Project.” The performance features stories of hundreds of women and the role comedy plays in their lives.

Like the women from The Hacktory, Childs, too, managed to give us a peek into dozens of women’s lives, as well as her own. It felt intensely personal, allowing the crowd access to places that only Childs was privy to. “She said that telling these stories made them hers,” Childs said about one woman she interviewed, “not something that happened to her.” Of course, it was funny, too. Explaining the title of the production and quoting one woman she had interviewed, Childs said, “‘When I turned 60, I just said, ‘Fuck it, it’s my party.'”

Companies: Versa / Girl Develop It / Ignite Philly / Indy Hall / The Hacktory

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