Tag Archives: interview

OPW and Growstuff: Frances Hocutt on open and welcoming open source communities

Two weeks ago, I interviewed Geek Feminism founder Alex Skud Bayley about Geek Feminism, programming, and the Growstuff Indiegogo campaign. As a followup, I’m interviewing Frances Hocutt, who will work on Growstuff’s API if the fundraiser reaches its target.

Frances Hocutt looks at a flask in a laboratory

Frances Hocutt

Frances is the founding president of the Seattle Attic Community Workshop, Seattle’s first feminist hackerspace/makerspace. She prefers elegance in her science and effectiveness in her art and is happiest when drawing on as many disciplines as she can. Her current passion is creating tools that make it easy for people to do what they need to, and teaching people to use them. She is a fan of well-designed APIs, open data, and open and welcoming open source communities.

Frances is entering technology as a career changer, from a scientific career. She’s recently finished a Outreach Program for Women (OPW) internship, and she spoke to me about OPW, Growstuff, mentoring and friendly open source communities.

What did your OPW project go? What attracted you to Mediawiki as your OPW project?

This summer I wrote standards for, reviewed, evaluated, and improved client libraries for the MediaWiki web API. When I started, API:Client Code had a list of dozens of API client libraries and was only sorted by programming language. There was little information about whether these libraries worked, what their capabilities were, and whether they were maintained. I wrote evaluations for the Java, Perl, Python, and Ruby libraries, and now anyone who wants to write an API client can make an informed choice about which library will work best for their project.

I am generally interested in open knowledge, open data, and copyleft, and I admire the Wikimedia Foundation’s successes with the various Wikipedias. When Sumana Harihareswara asked me if I might be interested in interning on this project for the Wikimedia Foundation I jumped at the chance. I was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming and supportive I found the Mediawiki development community. I had a good experience technically, professionally, and personally, and I learned a lot.

What attracts you to Growstuff and its API as your next project, technically?

Growstuff open data campaign logo

I really like creating usable tools and interfaces, and when that comes with the chance to play around with APIs and structured data, that’s gravy.

My favorite tech projects value developer experience and generally usable interfaces (whether for UIs or APIs). Growstuff’s current API makes it hard to retrieve some fairly basic data (given a location, when was a crop planted?), so I’m really looking forward to the chance to have input into designing a better one.

I also enjoy writing particularly clear and careful code, which I’ll be doing with my API example scripts so that anyone can pick them up, include them in their website or app, and easily modify them for whatever their intended purpose is.

What attracts you to Growstuff as your next development community?

The development community is the main reason I’m so excited about working on Growstuff. Growstuff is one of a handful of majority-female open source projects, and I definitely feel more comfortable when I don’t have the pressure to represent all women that sometimes comes when women are a small minority. Growstuff has great documentation for new developers, a friendly IRC channel, and an agile development process where pair programming is the norm. It’s obvious that Skud has fostered a collaborative and friendly open source community, and I’m looking forward to working in it.

What can the technical community learn from OPW and Growstuff about mentoring and supporting people coming to tech from diverse backgrounds and oppressed groups?

As I’ve come into tech, I’ve gotten the most benefit from environments where interpersonal connections can flourish and where learning is easy and ignorance of a topic is seen as an opportunity for growth. I credit much of the smoothness of my internship to being able to work with my mentor towards the shared goal of helping me succeed.

Some particularly useful approaches and skills were:

  • explicit explanations of open source community norms (i.e. how IRC works, whom and how to ask for help, ways that various criticisms might be better received, where a little praise would smooth the way)
  • constant encouragement to put myself out there in the MediaWiki development community and ask for help when needed
  • willingness to share her experiences as a woman in technology and honesty about challenges she had and hadn’t faced
  • willingness to have hard conversations about complicity and what we’re supporting with our technical work
  • willingness to engage with a feminist criticism of the field and orginazation, without falling back on “that’s just how it is and you need to get over it”
  • introducing me to other people like me and encouraging me to make and nurture those connections
  • telling me about career paths that my specific skills might be useful in
  • making me aware of opportunities, over and over, and encouraging me to take them
  • inviting metacognition and feedback on what management approaches were working for me and which weren’t.

Gatherings like AdaCamp have also helped me find people at various stages in their careers who were willing to openly discuss challenges and strategies. I’ve been building a rich network of technical women of whom I can ask anything from “how does consulting work” to “how much were you paid in that position” to “how in the world do I set up this Java dev environment?!” It’s amazing.

I’m looking forward to more of the same at Growstuff. Growstuff’s pairing-heavy style encourages those connections, and Growstuff’s development resources focus on making knowledge accessible and not assuming previous experience. I’ve admired Skud’s work for years and I am delighted to have the opportunity to work with her myself.

How are you finding the fundraising process for Growstuff? How can people best support it?

Frustrating, in a word. The crowdfunding campaign I ran last year only ran for ten days, so I’m adjusting to the longer and slower pace of this one. Like many women, I often feel awkward promoting myself and my projects — even when I would be happy to hear a friend tell me about a similar project she was working on! I try to reframe it as sharing interesting information. Sometimes that works for me, but sometimes I still feel weird.

That said: if you want to support Growstuff (and I hope you do), back our campaign! Tell any of your friends who are into sustainability, gardening, shared local knowledge, or open data why Growstuff is exciting and encourage them to donate! If you garden, sign up for an account and connect with other gardeners in your area! We’re trying to make it as an ethical and ad-free open source project and every bit helps. And if there’s anything you want to do with our data, let us know! We’d love to hear from you.

Growstuff: food gardening, open data and extreme programming the geek feminism way

In 2012, Geek Feminism founder Alex Skud Bayley founded Growstuff, a website and multi-purpose database for food-growers to track what they have planted and harvested and connect with other growers in their local area. Growstuff is now two years old and has launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund API development, which will help outside developers of tools like a harvesting calculator to show you how much money you save by growing food or emailed planting tips and reminders based on your location and climate.

Skud uses open source software and related technologies to effect social and environmental change. She lives in Ballarat, Victoria, where she works on a variety of open tech projects for social justice and sustainability. Skud and I have talked in the past about how Growstuff is among the projects that Geek Feminism contributors have built on principles we brought to and out of Geek Feminism, and I’m kicking off the second week of Growstuff’s fundraiser by asking her more about this.

Q. Which communities is Growstuff modelled on, and what principles has it inherited from them? In particular, how have Geek Feminism and other social justice communities and your work within them influenced Growstuff?

Growstuff open data campaign

Skud: When I started Growstuff, I’d been running Geek Feminism for about 3–4 years, and involved in a few other “women in open source” groups before that. This had led me to watch really closely as different open source communities worked on how to be welcoming and supportive, and to attract participants from different backgrounds and demographics. One thing I saw was that projects founded by women attracted women — no big surprise there I suppose! And, unsurprisingly, Growstuff has attracted a lot of women as developers: roughly half of the 40ish people who’ve made code contributions have been women, and we have lots who’ve volunteered for things like testing and data wrangling as well.

Initially we modeled Growstuff quite heavily on Dreamwidth, which has a majority of women. (Dreamwidth was one of the projects I focused on in my 2009 OSCON keynote, Standing Out in the Crowd.) I also took inspiration from the Agile software development movement.

Extreme Programming, which is the variant of Agile I grew up on, had a lot to say about having real conversations with people involved in the project, working at a sustainable pace, and using introspection to think about the process. I think some of the more recent versions of agile (like Scrum) have made it more business-friendly and, dare I say, macho. But to me, developing software the agile way is about working on the things that are most important, and about honouring each participant’s expertise and their time and energy they bring to the project. So Growstuff has a policy of working closely with our members, getting them involved in the project, and in some ways blurring the lines between tech/non-tech roles. Our choice not to use the term “users” is part of this; we use “members” instead because we feel like “users” distances the people who use Growstuff from the people building the code, and treats them more as consumers rather than collaborators.

Agile development methodologies are probably not what you were thinking about when you asked about social justice movements, but to me, my feminism and the way I work on projects are closely connected. I certainly find agile development (which I do with clients as well as on Growstuff) to be a more egalitarian way of working together than traditional/non-agile approaches.

Q. Your crowdfunding campaign will pay a developer, Frances Hocutt, to work on Growstuff’s API? Why is Growstuff moving towards a paid development model, at least in this case?

Growstuff's Lettuce crop page

Screenshot of Growstuff’s page for the Lettuce crop.

So far, Growstuff’s been built by volunteers. My work on other projects (mostly doing tech contracting for sustainability non-profits) has funded my work on Growstuff, and other volunteers have generally been funded by their own day jobs. Unfortunately, requiring people to volunteer their time not only means you’re relying on their rather variable availability, but those who are likely to have the most availability are generally relatively privileged. That means that the contributor pool will be demographically tilted towards those who happen to be the most affluent and time-rich. In the feminist tech community, we’ve been talking for a while now about labor issues in open source: Ashe Dryden’s The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community is important reading on the subject.

As a matter of principle, I want to be able to pay people to work on Growstuff. Maybe not all people all the time — it’s still an open source project, and our volunteer community is important to us — but I want our contributors to know that they’re not expected to go to extraordinary lengths without remuneration. That includes myself! I guess like many women I find it hard to ask for money for my own work, especially work for a “social good” that is so often undervalued and unpaid. It’s easier for me to ask for money on other people’s behalf.

Frances is exactly the sort of developer I want to work with on Growstuff. She’s come from a career in organic chemistry and switched to open tech. I got to know her through her co-founding Seattle Attic (a feminist hackerspace in Seattle, Washington), and through her Outreach Program for Women internship at the Wikimedia Foundation. By the time I met her I already knew she was a developer with a strong interest in community and collaborative projects, with the right combination of high level thinking, code, documentation and outreach. Her work developing “gold standards” for Wikimedia’s APIs (including the Wikidata API) seemed like a perfect lead-in to working on improving Growstuff’s APIs and helping people build things with them. When I heard she was looking for a short-term contract, I jumped at the chance to see if we could raise the money to pay her to work on Growstuff for a bit.

What principles and techniques could other software projects adopt from Growstuff? And how does Growstuff fit in — or rather, not fit in — to the current venture funded hypergrowth model of software companies?

We’re still trying to figure that out. Growstuff is structured as a sort of hybrid business/social enterprise: the website’s direct expenses are funded by memberships, while my work as Growstuff’s lead developer and organiser is funded indirectly by consulting on other projects. We don’t have any outside investment though we have received a couple of small grants and some support from a government startup program. We’re not seeking traditional VC investment, which makes us rather at odds with most of the “startup scene”, but I would much rather that Growstuff as a whole were funded by the community it serves, than by an external party or parties (investors, advertisers, etc) whose goals and values might be at odds with ours.

The bigger-picture answer, I guess, is that 21st century western-style capitalism increases inequality. The rich get phenomenally richer, and the rest of us get screwed over. If someone offered me the chance to get super rich off Growstuff at the expense of our members and community, I sincerely hope that I’d be able to resist that temptation. Though to be honest, I think Growstuff’s insistence on copyleft licensing and other choices we made early on (such as not to serve ads) mean that nobody’s likely to make that offer anyway. I’ve intentionally set Growstuff up to be more cooperative than capitalist. The trick is to figure out how to fairly support our workers under that model.

I think it depends a lot on our members: people are used to getting online services “for free” in return for their personal information and marketing data, which is used to make a handful of people very rich indeed. Are they going to be willing to resist that easy, attractive evil and become more equal partners in supporting and developing an online service for their/our mutual good? That’s what we still have to find out.

How is food gardening a part of your feminism? (Or feminism part of your food gardening?)

Photograph of Skud wearing a sunhat

Growstuff and Geek Feminism founder Alex Skud Bayley in her garden

I think the connection, for me, is through the idea of DIY — doing it yourself. My feminism is closely tied to my dubiousness about our current capitalist system. As I said, a system that concentrates wealth in a small segment of the population increases inequality. As businesses get bigger, our choices are fewer. I think growing your own food, even in a small way, is an important area of resistance: every pot of herbs on your windowsill means one less thing you buy from a giant supermarket chain. Incidentally, I feel the same way about building our own software and online communities! And I think that those who are least well served by the mainstream capitalist system — women, for instance, who are constantly bombarded by really screwed up messages about what we eat and how we feed our families, trying to sell us highly processed foods that ultimately benefit the companies that design and package them far more than they benefit us — have the most to gain from this.

How can Geek Feminism readers contribute to or support Growstuff?

Well, of course we have the crowdfunding campaign going on at present, to support Frances and myself as we work on Growstuff’s open API.

We’re always looking for people to join our community as contributors: testers, data mavens, coders, designers, writers, and more. Even just diving in to our discussions and weighing in on some of the ideas there helps us a lot — we’re always keen to hear from food-growers (including aspiring/potential ones) about what they’re looking for in Growstuff and how we can improve, or from people who’d like to use our data, to discuss what they have in mind and how we can support them.

Apart from that, just help us spread the word :)

More about Growstuff

You can learn more about Growstuff and its philosophy in the pitch video for the crowdfunding campaign (audio transcript follows):

Hi, I’m Alex Bayley. I write software and I grow vegetables in my backyard. I founded Growstuff in 2012.

More and more people are taking up veggie gardening all over the developed world, especially in cities. That means millions of new gardeners trying to eat and live more sustainably. People are growing food in their backyards, on balconies and in community gardens.

I started to grow my own food because I want to know where it comes from and that it hasn’t been grown with environmentally damaging fertilisers and pesticides. Like a lot of people these days, I worry about food that’s not local. The costs of transportation and the waste from overpackaged food are huge. I think it’s important that we have alternatives to the big supermarkets. And of course homegrown food just tastes so much better and it’s so much better for you.

Like most gardeners, I’m always searching online for information. Most of the growing advice I find isn’t suitable for my climate. I need local information, not something from halfway around the world.

Growstuff started when I met a guy called Federico from Mexico. He’s also a software developer and a permaculturist and he has trouble finding growing information for his local area. So he asked me if I knew of any open databases that had planting information about where to plant any kind of crop anywhere in the world.

We looked around and we couldn’t find anything. Some governments release open data, but it’s usually aimed at big farms. The stuff aimed at home gardeners was usually either just for one region or else the websites had really restrictive rules about what you could use the data for.

I’m a software developer so when I look at data I want to build things. If that data’s locked up where no one can use it that stifles innovation. Growstuff crowdsources information from veggie gardeners around the world. We gather data on what they plant, when and where they plant it, and how to grow it. We use this information to provide local planting advice back to our members and anyone who visits our site.

Growstuff is 100% open source and our data is also open. You can download it straight from our website and use it for any purpose, even commercially. But we want more people to use our data. We’re raising funds to improve our API which lets third party developers use Growstuff to build apps, mashups, tools, or to do research.

With your help, we’ll be creating a new version of our API with more features, building demos, and running workshops for developers. I’ve been working with open data since about 2007 and I think making food growing information freely available is one of the most important things we can do.

Whether you’re a gardener or a software developer or you just care about sustainable food please support Growstuff’s crowdfunding campaign.

Disclosures: in addition to working with Skud on the Geek Feminism project, I’ve worked with her when she was an advisor to the Ada Initiative, an AdaCamp staffer, and in several other capacities over many years.

Are your lulz low quality? Valerie Aurora is here to help

Warning for mention of sexual assault, and extensive discussion of harassment.

In May, my GF co-blogger and Ada Initiative co-founder Valerie Aurora posted Handy tips for my Internet harassers on her blog. They included:

Threatening my job: Unfortunately, I am my own boss. Try emailing one of the Ada Initiative sponsors? Although they might take that as a sign that the Ada Initiative is doing important work and make another donation. Hmmmm. Maybe create a Yelp page for my file systems consulting business and leave bad reviews? Endorse me for CSS on LinkedIn?

Rape and death threats: Run spell check! There’s nothing more jarring than reading an otherwise creative and well-written death threat and then seeing “decapetate.” Also, chain-saws are so last year. Remember, Gmail won’t display images by default. P.S. I happen to know one of the members of Nirvana and your bright idea has already been done.

Why did she do such a thing, and what resulted? Geek Feminism obtained an exclusive tell-all interview.

Q. Have you received any harassment as a result of this post? Was its quality indeed improved?

Sadly, no. Part of the problem is that my friends loved it — I’ve never had so much positive feedback on a post — but they didn’t want to share it with other people online. I like to joke that it’s the ultimate in dark social since people only talk about it offline using vibrations in the air called “sound.” I think that my friends are more afraid of me being harassed than I am.

Q. The post is pretty out there! Why did you put this post up? What point are you trying to make?

“Self-doxxing” myself (thanks, Kate Losse for the term) was inspired in part by how incompetent and bad the online harassment that I’ve received has been. Most people doing online harassment are just trying to impress other online harassers, at the same time that what they are doing is, frankly, totally unimpressive. The reality is, anyone can spend $25 and get another person’s home address and a bunch of other personal information, but we act like it is some kind of amazing act of computer hacking. By showing how bad people are at online harassing, I’m hoping to remove some of the motivation for people to do the harassment, or at least make them spend more time on it before they get the reward of “so cool, bro!”

I was also inspired by Krystal Ball , who ran for U.S. congress in 2010. When her political opponents tried to slut-shame her into quitting her political campaign over “sexy photos” of herself that they published, she turned around and shamed THEM — both her opponent and the media outlets that published the photos. It was glorious, and it hit home for me: if we let the existence of sexy photo of a woman prevent her from serving in political office, then I and every woman born after 1990 were out of luck. Women’s representation in political office would go down.

Q. Should other people do this?

For most people, no, I wouldn’t recommend it. It was okay for me for a lot of reasons: I already went public about sexual abuse in my family, I’m white, I’m my own boss, I don’t have children or a partner, I have skills that are in high demand, I have lots of friends and a huge support network — my emotional, physical, and economic safety is pretty good. Most women have a lot more to lose.

However, I think it is a very good exercise to think about worst cases like this: what if the thing I am most afraid of other people finding out got published all over the Internet? Because a lot of times, that thing actually doesn’t reflect on you – the shame is on the person who did the original act or publicized a private matter. It can be healing to plan what you might do, even if you don’t actually go public with it yourself.

Q. Why won’t you accept my endorsement for CSS on LinkedIn? I taught you everything you know, dammit.

I’d hate to embarrass you by letting anyone else know that you are the source of my mangled <div>’s! [Ed: good point, well made.]

Q. When are you monetising this? How can investors contact you? How big is your Series A and at what valuation?

Actually, that is a great idea. Instead of vetting a political candidate and saying yes or no, you investigate them and then publish everything that might be a problem in a funny blog post.

Or better yet, here is my favorite idea: If I ever run for political office, I’m going to scan in all my embarrassing naked photos, then watermark them with the email addresses of various journalists. Then email them anonymously to said journalists. Then when the photos get published (it’s “news,” someone else would have, etc.), I can expose the specific person who decided that slut-shaming a candidate was “news” and put the shame where it belongs. Sexism-shaming as a service, SSaaS. I’m accepting funding now.

Model View Culture banner

Model View Culture: where tech intersects with social and cultural lenses

If you’ve been following our linkspams recently, you’ve probably noticed the density of links to Model View Culture, an independent media platform covering technology, culture and diversity. MVC has brought us Frances Hocutt’s story of unwillingly leaning out of her science career. Suey Park’s defense of Twitter Feminism and Kate Losse’s exploration of sexualisation and gendered labour as a pervasive force in tech. They’ve also published no less than four Geek Feminism contributors: Ashe Dryden, Leigh Honeywell, Liz Henry and Tim Chevalier, with more to come! If you’re a linkspam lover, you might be following their Blameful Post Mortem (“Everything that’s wrong with the tech industry this week, and who’s to blame”), including the weekly Hacker News fail feature.

I’m excited to see MVC emerge as part of the geek activist landscape, it’s part of the huge changes since 2009, when here at geekfeminism.org we talked about being the site at the time that was willing to use the f-word (“feminist”, although “fuck” complies with our comments policy also) in geekdom. Now we’re part of a crowd.  And MVC is publishing amazing writing.

The founders of MVC are: Amelia Greenhall, product leader, data scientist and user experience designer/developer with extensive experience in feminist community organization and literary publishing; and Shanley Kane, cultural critic, organizer, writer and feminist with over five years of experience working in the technology industry across academic, startup and open source communities. I interviewed Amelia and Shanley about MVC, its publisher Feminist Tech Collective, and their place in geek diversity activism.

What is Model View Culture?

Amelia and Shanley: We are a media company focused on tech, culture and diversity. We publish online issues with original articles, critique, analysis, news, commentary and sometimes political cartoons. They come out every three weeks. In addition, we publish a Quarterly print edition, locally-printed books with new Model View Culture content that gets sent to subscribers four times a year. We’re also working on building a community events program — our next event is in San Francisco for the launch of our first Quarterly. We also want to develop a podcast where we interview technologists, and talk about current events, news and trends. We’ve been pretty busy since we launched two months ago, but that is coming soon.

How do you see MVC as complementing and adding to existing diversity-in-tech projects and activism?

We are just one of many such programs — we identify very strongly particularly with the Bay Area community of technologists focusing on issues around diversity and social justice. We are also increasingly making connections with complementary tech communities and projects around the world, which is very exciting.

Existing organizations and projects like Geek Feminism, Double Union and other feminist hackerspaces, DiversiTech, Lesbians Who Tech, Trans*H4CK, LOL Oakland Maker Space and many independent activists are doing critical work right now across many different axes. We think that a diversity of tactics and focus areas is essential — we need people working within corporate structures and outside of them; on specific communities and across broader groups; in online and in-person spaces. We strive to highlight much of this organization from a media perspective, and provide a platform for the type of thought, analysis and critique that is inherent in it.

What is unique about Model View Culture in terms of its approach?

Our specific focus on producing high quality, critical writing and analysis that comes directly from technologists, activists, artists and writers in the field is fairly unique in the space. From an editorial perspective, we concentrate largely on where tech intersects with various social and cultural lenses — i.e., how feminism relates to quantified self; how social media reflects power dynamics; the politics of digital spaces; the implications of access around hardware hacking; the role of culture in management, etc. Especially compared to mainstream media, we strive to be unique in providing tech coverage that is critical, that is socially and politically conscious, and that is invested in the health and progress of the community.

Does Feminist Technology Collective have any plans or ambitions beyond MVC that you can tell us about?

Right now, Model View Culture is our number one focus. However, we founded Feminist Technology Collective with the goal of building and funding community infrastructure for underserved communities in tech – both creators and consumers. We think there is a huge market – multiple markets – that aren’t being addressed by the mainstream technology industry. That’s a giant opportunity — social, technological and financial — for new kinds of businesses, including ours. So, we hope in the future to grow larger and create other products in those spaces.

What communities and perspectives are underrepresented in MVC at the moment and what plans do you have to include them?

Right now, Model View Culture is fairly focused on the United States tech industry, and it is also fairly Silicon Valley-centric. We are a very small company, so working in a certain context makes sense – we live and work in the Bay Area, but have had writers from many areas of the US as well as a few pieces by authors in Canada, France, and the UK. In the future, perhaps once we get to the point where we can add additional staff, we would love to have more coverage of events, trends, and critique from other areas of the world. As for other perspectives and communities, we always love to hear from our readers about what they would like to see more of and about!

What’s MVC’s biggest success to date?

Our third online issue was focused on the theme “Lean Out,” in response to the pervasive brand and ideology of “Lean In” within the tech industry. We had articles on choosing to quit STEM and how to support people who do leave, on the impact of Lean In on our relationships, on feminist quantified self, and other topics. It was our most successful issue to date – we think that the theme itself really resonated with a lot of people in a time of growing skepticism around the messages that dominant tech culture is telling us about workplace advancement and the progress of underrepresented and marginalized groups in the industry. For example, with over 56% of women in the field leaving the industry due to discrimination and other endemic issues, there’s a lot of questions about why we should be “leaning in” to corporations. We are also proud of the work that just came out in our Mythology issue — our authors really did an exceptional job critiquing myths, tropes and stereotypes within the industry. We learned a great deal from them and it seems the community is learning a lot from them as well!

How do you run Model View Culture from an editorial perspective?

Every few weeks, we announce a new issue theme. Often, we will proactively solicit work based on the theme from people we know are doing amazing things in tech; and we also accept submissions — anyone can email us an idea or pitch. If it’s a fit for us and we have space, it’s a great way to meet, work with and showcase the work of people we haven’t necessarily ever met before. This is important because tech is a huge community and there is no way to know everything that’s going on or that’s relevant. Most of our authors are not professional writers, which is also something unique about our publication. We love how it ends up being much more authentic and approachable than so much writing about tech, and we work closely with authors to help bring their work to fruition. It’s also a core value of our company that we pay our contributors. If people are interested, they are welcome to submit ideas to us.

Model View Culture’s latest online issue is Mythology. If you want to support Model View Culture and its writers and staff, subscription sales for 2014 are now open.

Plover: Freeing Stenography

Mirabai Knight is a Certified CART Provider (realtime stenographer for the deaf and hard of hearing) in New York City. When she was 11, her older brother introduced her to the concept of free software. At the time she mocked him for being a soppy idealist, but the idea quietly took root, and now 18 years later she’s thrilled to be responsible for launching the world’s first free stenographic keyboard emulator.

Leigh: I’m very excited to be able to pick the brains of open source pioneer Mirabai Knight, whose project Plover just had their initial public release. Can you tell us about Plover and stenography?

Mirabai: I’ve been geek-identified and hacker-adjacent all my life, but never actually wound up learning how to code until, after years of frustration with the DRM-riddled $4,000 proprietary steno program I use in my CART business, I decided that the world needed free steno software, and that if I didn’t get it going, it probably wouldn’t happen. That might sound conceited, but the overlap between the stenographic and computer geek worlds is bafflingly small, considering how vital efficient text entry is to virtually every tech field.

Before Plover, the price of even a bare bones computerized steno system was around $1,500, so only people who intended to go into a stenographic career (court reporting, captioning, or CART) could justify the expense. There were no opportunities for amateurs, tinkerers, or dabblers, and it frustrated me, because I could see so many non-commercial applications for stenographic technology. That’s when I decided to start up The Plover Project. I knew I needed someone who could wrangle both hardware and software, and I was hoping I could get some elementary instruction in Python along the way. By a great stroke of luck, Joshua Harlan Lifton, a freelance programmer with extensive hardware hacking experience, was renting space two floors above my Brooklyn coworking co-op, and after noticing the call for a Python tutor/developer that I posted on the building’s elevator corkboard, he enthusiastically agreed to help out with the project. A little less than a year later, we have an actual functional realtime steno program that lets you type at 200 words per minute directly into any X window using a $45 off-the-shelf keyboard.

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Antipodes robotics team

Team Antipodes is a team of three girls “headquartered in Pacifica, California, USA, but dedicated to collaboration with similar teams from around the globe.” They competed in the 2009 FIRST Lego League, placing third in their regional championships, and have extensively documented their work in the form of notes, video and CAD models to encourage others to experiment and compete.

Team antipodes portrait

Team antipodes portrait

We caught up with Violet, Emma, Kjersti and their coach, Ken, for an interview via email.

GF: When and how did you take an interest in robotics?

Violet: Ever since I was little, my dad has been exposing me to all sorts of technology. One of these things was robots. Robots fascinated me because they had a mind of their own. I wanted to be a part of making these machines and learn more about them.

Emma: The year before we started the team Antipodes my dad was doing a project with it. At first I didn’t want to do it but one day I got bored and started helping him out with the programming. Now I’m here.

Kjersti: The beginning of my 8th grade year. My friend’s Dad started a team, and he invited me to join it because he found out about robotics through my mom. It seemed like a cool thing to do, so I tried it out. This year was way cooler than my first year.

GF: How did the three of you come together to form Team Antipodes, and compete in tournaments?

Violet: Last year, our coach went to an event at NASA Ames and saw one of the FIRST robots. He got interested and was inspired to start a team. At first, it was through 4-H, which both of his daughters are involved in. Two of our team members, Kjersti and Emma, were on the team that year. It was not as successful as they had hoped. They had many people who were not very dedicated or interested.  He gave Kjersti and Emma the choice to craft this year’s team, and they decided to shrink the team and only include people who were extremely interested  in robotics, so they invited me onto the team.

Emma: Kjersti and I did it the year before and Violet was our friend who was interested in it also. We competed really well. We are all really good friends and helped each other out.

Kjersti: Emma and I were on the original team in 8th grade, but we split off from that and decided to form our own team independently. Violet was our friend who is super smart and seemed interested, so we recruited her. We felt satisfied with just the three of us, so  we stopped there.

GF: What have been the most enjoyable, and most difficult, times in the
team’s history?

Violet: The most enjoyable are the meetings, because there are always jokes going around, and the car rides back from the tournaments are always fun because the stress is gone. Seeing the robot, named TOR, do well in the competition is always rewarding, too. Though I have to say, our recent trip to Istanbul was one of the most memorable things in the whole season. The most difficult times are when it is the night before one of our competitions and things aren’t working like we had hoped.  Also when the robot is having a hard time at the competition and we don’t know why.

Emma: The most enjoyable have been meeting new people at the tournaments and hanging out. The most difficult are definitely when something is not working right and we don’t know how to fix it and also the long, early car rides to tournaments.

Kjersti: Some of the most enjoyable times have been the competitions. We are there, having fun with each other and at a point where there really isn’t a whole lot we can do the change what we have and we have to be happy. So we are. Some of the most difficult have been the night before a competition. We usually sleep over at our coach’s house the night before (his daughter is on the team) and the whole night we are stressing about our robot and just totally freaking out. It’s probably when we are the most stressed, and there have been break downs.

GF: How do you feel about competing internationally in the Open European
Championship?

Violet: We were thrilled when we found out. We fundraised so much and worked hard to go. When we got there, we were overwhelmed. We got to meet kids from all over the world and compete with them. It was a chance that few get to have and we were lucky enough to get.

Emma: I’m a little nervous but also very excited, it should be amazing to meet people from all over the world and see how their competition is run.

Kjersti: Totally amazed, honestly. Our goal at the first competition was to not get dead last. We accomplished that, but we never dreamed we would make it to an international tournament. We were trying not to be too nervous or stress about the competition, because we were there to have fun.

GF: What do you do when you aren’t making robots?

Violet: I do a lot of plays. In fact during the season, I was in two different shows.  Kjersti plays the saxophone and is in the marching band at our high school. Kjersti and I are also in Girl Scouts and a youth group together. Emma is involved with 4-H, does Cross Country, and horseback riding.

Emma: I run cross country, I do mock trial, I’m in a 4-H club, and I ride horses three days a week.

Kjersti: I’m in my local high school, Terra Nova’s marching band. It takes up a lot of time and practice, but I love it. I also love swimming and watching movies, but most of my time is taken up by school work.

Ken: Violet forgot to mention that she also does mock trial with Emma.

GF: You’ve decided to take a very open and collaborative approach to your work, as evidenced by the detailed information on your website (notes, designs, video and so on). How and why did you choose this approach?

Violet: We want to help other teams that need an idea of how to get started and let people see how we came up with our ideas.

Kjersti: It just sort of happened, but with a lot of pushing from our coach. He’s an architect and knows that it’s important to keep track of everything we do, and after a little bit we discovered that it was really helpful, especially since we weren’t always able to meet at the same times. It became an important tool to keep up with each other.

Ken: The reason we share our work and designs with our competitors, and anyone with access to the internet, is manyfold:

First, it’s a general principal of our league (FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) to be gracious competitors. Second, we’ve been recipients of openness and help from older teams (most notably the LegoGuards and TechnoGuards), and it was immediately apparent this was the right thing to do. Third, I’ve been impressed by the many accounts of the long-term benefits of 1980’s Silicon Valley openness vs. Boston Area secretiveness. Fourth, it’s consistent with the whole idea of Antipodes (which means location on the opposite side of the globe) to push the envelope of engineering collaboration with students as far away as possible (Australians). Fifth, it took countless hours of web surfing to get started as a new team.  I realized it would be a valuable resource to have a single location to learn as many lessons as possible from our experience, down to the invaluable detail of remembering to change your tires the week before the tournament and to adjust your programming to account for the better traction.

Matt, as the team’s coach, I didn’t give the team much choice about this.  I just told them that openness is what we do, and they never questioned it.  Although, I know they can tell the difference from most of their competitors that don’t show their designs.

GF: What is your creative process like when you work together? How do your projects begin, develop and get completed through collaboration?

Violet: When we run into a problem, or just need to figure how to do something, usually someone suggests a possible solution. Then we start questioning it and trying to figure out every single detail of it. Since there are a few very visual people on the team, this usually involves a bunch of drawings and sketches. If we decide the solution is not going to work, someone else suggests something else and we start over. Once we agree on a solution we start working on it. Usually we divvy up the work and assign different tasks to different people. If someone runs into a problem with their task, they will ask for advice from the rest of the team. Eventually, the final work will be achieved whether it is a solution to a minor problem or a whole project.

Kjersti: We start with the problem, and basically brainstorm about what needs to happen. There’s a lot of trial and error that goes on, and we try each other’s ideas, until we find the best one and go with it.

Ken: I’d like to add that for any major design issue, we always break out the white board. The girls sit together on the couch as comfortably relaxed as possible and one of them volunteers to write the problems and suggestions out on the board in front of the others.

GF: Do you have any words of advice for other girls who are interested in robotics, as to how to get started?

Violet: Don’t let other people hold you down. Your friends may tell you that you are wasting your time, or someone may tell you that you can’t do it. You have to learn to not listen to these people.   Find a robotics team of some sort, or start your own. It is really a great experience and you learn a ton. FIRST has programs for all ages, and you can contact them about finding a team near you.

Kjersti: I’d say go for it! It’s a lot of work but it pays off in the end. There are more opportunities than you might think to get involved in robotics, so you can ask around, or go to the FLL website to get more information.


The team gave a Google Tech Talk in Mountain View in June, where they discussed their team and activities, and gave a demonstration of their robot:

Having competed in the European Championship in Istanbul, they are seeking donations to help cover their travel expenses. Due to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, the trip was much more expensive than anticipated and as of this writing they are about $4000 short. If you wish to support them, you can do so on their website.

Geek Feminism interviews the OTW’s Francesca Coppa

A couple of weeks ago, we asked you to give us your questions for an interview with Dr. Francesca Coppa, one of the founders of the Organization for Transformative Works. Thanks to those of you who suggested questions, and here are her responses…

The OTW is mostly by/for women, and most of the participants in its projects seem to be women. Do you have any interest in reaching out to primarily-male parts of fandom? How might that work, if you did?

The OTW’s mission is to provide a nonprofit space, and organized advocacy, for the kinds of transformative fanworks (fanfic, fan art, vids, podfic) that are a) potential targets for commercial exploitation (as in the case of FanLib), B) being squeezed out as Web 2.0 “business models” expand (as in the case of vids on Imeem or erotic fan art on LJ), or c) subject to takedowns or other legal challenges. Many, if not most, of those fanworks were and are made by women, but gender isn’t a central criterion; we protect these sorts of fanworks when men make them, too!

That being said, there are some secondary ways in which gender seems to be influencing the populations we serve and the work we do. First, male fans are somewhat more likely than female fans to be making fanworks that have commercial implications or aspirations (e.g. some machinima, some fan films, some video game design, the commercial version of the Harry Potter Lexicon, etc). Second, not all fanworks are subject to the kinds of economic or legal challenges I’ve just described: for instance, nobody’s doing takedowns of forums or wikis or fan films; male-made movie “parodies” are more clearly understood to be fair use than female-made shipper vids; video game designers mostly approve of and even help out machinima makers, etc. Moreover, in terms of financial support, many male or mixed gender areas of fandom are more economically stable than female-dominated areas, either because more guys are willing to turn their fan-ac into a fan-run business rather than depending on external companies or services, or because they’re willing to support their sites with ads. Women making transformative works have tended, rightly or wrongly, to be wary of ads or other forms of commercial support, fearing that it would give ammunition to copyright holders who already don’t like them or their works.

So the OTW’s goal is really to focus on 1) noncommercial works that are 2) currently subject to marketplace or legal pressures. It may be socially significant that most of those works are made by women, but we want to advocate for them no matter who makes them!

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GF interviews the OTW’s Francesca Coppa: question time!

Francesca Coppa is one of the founders of the Organization for Transformative Works. She’s also…

… director of film studies and associate professor of English at Muhlenberg College, where she teaches courses in dramatic literature, popular fiction, and mass media storytelling. Her writings on media fandom have been included in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet and presented at MIT’s Media in Transition conference. Coppa has been attending conventions and buying zines since the early 1980s, when she and her friends wrote fanfiction by hand and circulated it by snail mail. She has been involved in online fandom since the mid-1990s as a writer, list administrator, vidder, archivist, and community moderator. (bio link)

If you haven’t read any of her work on the history of fan culture, take a look at Women, Star Trek, and the early development of fannish vidding or Celebrating Kandy Fong: Founder of Fannish Music Video. There’s also a great interview with her at Reason Online and another on gender and fan culture over at Henry Jenkins’ blog. There are more links to related reading at fanlore.

And now it’s time for Geek Feminism to interview her! I’d like to open this up to our readers and commenters. What would you like to ask Francesca about the OTW, fan culture, vidding, and so on? Post your suggestions in the comments, and in a few days we’ll send them through to her to answer.

Edit: I’m shutting down comments now (Wednesday 9th September) and passing your questions through to Francesca. The interview should appear soon!