Why MCIS Invests in Hackathons

By: Jack Xu

Fifteen years ago, the equivalent of a century in the age of the internet, the World Summit on Information Society noted that future societal concerns will be particularly focused on the human right of freedom of opinion and expression for all. Despite various attempts to create a legal framework around digital rights (Internet Bill of Rights, Charter on Internet Rights, Access Now), the digital landscape continued with its complex and disruptive swirl increasing the divide across the edges while focusing conversations on the corporate (privacy, copyright, cost) rather than the individual worlds.

Fast forward to 2018 and our lives in some respect, at least for “over a fifth of the Earth’s population (1.45 billion) using Facebook each and every day”, being duplicated in a digital universe where we shop, date, socialize, get educated and obtain rights to access critical information and services (including our vote), often without understanding the small print. We can argue that the legal gap in relation to our digital rights affecting not only governments and individual citizens but also affects the ways in which non-profit organisations (NPOs), as an extended hand of the government, protect or share data to ensure transparency, accountability, efficiency and sustainability.

Any NPO is required to generate robust data sets which in turn supposed to help social services “investors” (government, hospitals, police) challenge assumptions about actual trends and needs. NPOs data speaks about users (in our case, people with language barriers), our customers (service providers interacting with users) and language professionals (interpreters and translators facilitating this interaction). The flow of data unpacks the story about why, where and how the access to critical information and services is facilitated through language services in hospitals, community and legal clinics. However, the “investors’” insights are sometimes obstructed by the sheer size of data sets, the lack of unified social impact metrics, understanding about what is safe to share as well as fluctuating strategic objectives. In addition, the fact that hard data tells only half of the story that is common knowledge for anyone working in the public sector needs to create the conditions (read: extra time and opportunity) for meaningful conversations to take place. In our case these conversations happen with service providers, end users and language professionals. However, in the end, both hard and soft insights should be somehow made public, and open to all. Transparency manages accountability creating better conditions for people to understand the circumstances around exercising the above freedoms.

Naturally, it is outside of the majority of NPOs’ scope and mandate to undertake the tasks of advocating for data sharing. Many of existing contracts stipulate non-sharing or using only the very high level aggregates. Yet, the end users, in case of MCIS “people with language barriers”, although being heavily monitored and analyzed, are often not included in conversations about data collection design . And even when they were, they have no permission levels to share. Even their own data. And this is precisely why we thought that hackathon could be for us a starting point to ignite meaningful conversations with stakeholders about where our blind spots are and our role at this space: the intersection of language and digital rights.

A hackathon, or a hacking marathon, is an event that normally includes a broad spectrum of participants, often from the tech industry, but not exclusively. Hackathons use data sets (spreadsheets or research data) to explore alternatives to current design solutions. Hackathons are about disrupting business as usual and they create a collaborative design community. Hackathons are not something that NPOs normally engage with, because NPOs are not perceived as innovative (although, arguably, social innovation is a non-profit invention!). Often, NPOs believe that they do not have relevant skills yet. However every NPO we had a chance to interview already has some version of a full time dataviz specialist hired already!

Migrahack, the three-day hackathon we organized in November 2017, explored migration data in relation to language, shelters and settlement services.  Our conversations followed the thread of data ownership, whose voices are missing and how journalists can advocate with data on behalf of racialized and vulnerable communities. The most useful aspect was our expanded perspective on language access in terms of where the critical flow happens. The event was experimental, but aligned with our core value of being a learning organization. In terms of qualitative data, it was also an excuse to share a meal with allies we had not previously had a chance to meet or did not know well: non-profits, end users, students, policy makers, free thinkers, digital activists, the tech. It was likely one of the most efficient ways to promote the freedom of opinion and expressions for all, because it emphasized participation (and participation is a must!) under the assumption that in the complex world we inhabit today everybody is an expert. Although the process was not the cleanest or most efficient initially, we maintained a flexible and emerging methodology which led us to the magic of what happens when people are working together on a shared goal.

Looking back, the two main reasons in favour of the argument that NPOs need hackathons as a learning, innovation and advocacy methodology are:

  1. An unprecedented access to unconventional thinkers and angel investors (of time) who will reshape your views on the role of your organization and your services (the Centre for Social Innovation, Ontario Non-Profit Network, I-School, Powered by Data, Mozilla –  as particularly good allies);
  2. An opportunity to experience the organization from the inside out as a learning enterprise. If you ever wondered if you have the organizational capacity for innovation, try learning + experimenting with hackathons! It will definitely change your perspective on how outcomes improve when top down control is reduced.

If you are still unsure but curious, please monitor our social media channels for details about further Hackathons (as early as October, 2018).

Finally, from the advocacy perspective, you simply never know where your seemingly “marginal contribution” will lead you to.  Given the very close alignment of digital and language rights, we are excited to have become part of coalition advocating for a national conversation on digital rights led by our inspiring partners at TechReset Canada.

With this in mind, we want to strongly encourage you to engage with this movement and sign the petition to open a consultation process on digital rights, technology ethics, universal access to the Internet, and the ways in which these issues impact our quality of life, the integrity of our economy and the safety of our democracy.

Do not delay! Sign your name here and join us!