Be counted

This is a guest post from Annina Rust, one of the developers of Be Counted. She is an Assistant Professor of Computer Art in the Department of Transmedia at Syracuse University.

Mary asked me to do a guest post on this blog about a project called Be Counted. Be Counted is a web database to keep track of gender diversity (or lack thereof) at tech events. You can access it at http://b-counted.appspot.com/. I created it in collaboration with Persephone Miel, Hanna Wallach, and Karen Brennan. In the following, I will explain what the project is, how you can participate, what features will be added next, and if there will be more projects like Be Counted in the future.

How does the project work?

If you read this blog, chances are good that you work in a technology-centric profession or have a tech-related hobby. Chances are also good that you go to events connected to your work and/or hobby such as conferences, workshops, and lectures. It is also possible that you might be concerned about gender diversity at tech events.

If you are at a tech event, just count how many women, men, or others are in attendance. Then add this gender ratio to the Be Counted database at http://b-counted.appspot.com/. You can chose to either add a single event or a multi-session event. Multisession events would be bigger conferences or lecture series. Here, you would enter the name of the multi-session event and then add one session after another to this event.

The idea is to collect a lot of gender ratio reports from different events. So far, we have reports from, among others, the 2009 Nonprofit Software Development Summit, which happened in Oakland in the United States, the 2ndQGIS Hackfest which happened in Vienna, Austria, and the Bolsena Code Sprint which happened in Bolsena, Italy. We are interested in collecting more data and finding out together with the visitors of the site how the ratios vary depending on the type of event, the location, the size, etc. We are curious to find out how these variations could turn into patterns and how this could create a picture of diversity in the tech world that is constantly updated with new data.

So, if you go to a tech event, count how many women, men, and others are attending and enter the numbers into the Be Counted database. Do let others know about the project. If successful in terms of participation, this collective scrutiny of tech events and gender ratios will lead to more reflection on the part of participants and organizers.

How did we come up with Be Counted?

In spring 2008, I made a project that had some similarity to Be Counted as my MS thesis project at the MIT Media Lab Computing Culture Group. In summer 2009, I discussed it with Hanna Wallach and Persephone Miel as part of the thesis evaluation process. In the discussion, we found out that each of us had counted the ratio of women and men at tech events, in classes, etc. So I started to set up Be Counted using Django on Google App engine. I had a rough version of the project written around April 2010. Persephone, Hanna, and Karen gave feedback and I revised several times until the most recent version was done in November 2009.

What features will be next?

I want to make a simple API so that people can use the gender ratio information in visualizations, in “guess the gender ratio†games, or in other creative applications. I am hoping that an API will help to disseminate the data, so that the process does not stop after the data has been collected.

Will there be more projects like Be Counted? And if yes, what are they going to be like?

I think I can speak for all of us if I say that we want to be involved in more feminist software/hardware projects.

I personally am specifically interested in the tech work environment. For my thesis, I analyzed several studies. There are studies like one conducted by researchers at the University of Kansas that is reported on in this article which concludes that women are just different from men and that’s why they avoid IT careers. Other studies like the FLOSSPOLS study about Open Source Software and gender or the Athena Factor published by the Harvard Business Review both look at gender dynamics in places where tech work happens. I find those studies more conducive to designing applications that aim at improving diversity in environments where technology gets created. Why? Because if the problem is the work environment — and I am defining work broadly here — this work environment can and needs to be scrutinized and changed.

In the case of Be Counted, we are focusing on numbers. The reason for this is that quantitative data is something that engineers are more used to dealing with than anecdotal evidence. However, I could also imagine technologies that intervene in a more direct way. Gloria W. at some point proposed an aggression detector to be used in difficult work meeting situations. The device would detect aggression in the voice of meeting participants and intervene when this occurs. So the question here would be, how does aggression manifest, and how can aggression be measured.

So, yes I would argue for scrutinizing tech work environments through software, hardware, and other less technical means in order to improve it and make it open to a broader group of people.

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