How one hackathon visualized ‘invisible data’ on the worldwide women’s empowerment problem


One hackathon participant removed a Rwandan woman from this image to represent the “missing women” who are unrepresented in world hunger data. (Julia Carpenter)

So, it’s not a hackathon in the way you might be thinking, the Jesse-Eisenberg-as-Mark-Zuckerberg-headphones-in-ears kind of hackathon. Instead, participants clustered around  laptops covered in geeky stickers, huddled at tables and fighting for outlets, debating the best ways to make an invisible problem visible.

And as with most hackathons, the majority of those laptops belonged to men. But at this hackathon, some belonged to women. One Toshiba even sported a Wonder Woman decal, the gold winged tips of the W standing out amidst the sea of screens.

This hackathon — a partnership between HelpMeViz, a Web site for deep discussion of Web graphics and data visualization, and the Bread for the World Institute, an anti-hunger advocacy organization — attracted female data nerds and coders because it was aimed at visualizing an invisible problem: the important but often-ignored connection between women’s empowerment and the movement to end world hunger. Participants brainstormed and coded from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on June 28  at the Bread for the World Institute offices in Washington, D.C.

“We’ve known for years that the data [on world hunger] was bad when it came to women,” said Asma Lateef, director of the Bread for the World Institute. “People submit the data on hunger but they don’t disaggregate the data by gender.”

As a result, there are gaps in the data, all of them related to female figures: How do women relate to the malnourishment issues affecting countries in both the developed and the developing worlds? How does women’s worldwide lack of political power shape legislation aimed at ending hunger? And if women’s abilities to support themselves economically is hampered by traditional family roles, how do we solve the problem of nutritional stunting in young children?

And that’s where the hackathon participants entered.


A hackathon means laptop screens, coffee cups and charger cords, lots of charger cords. (Julia Carpenter)

Jon Schwabish, the data visualization expert behind HelpMeViz, met Derek Schwabe of Bread for the World at a data visualization conference in January. They chatted just long enough to exchange Twitter handles; when Schwabish tweeted later that month that he was looking for a non-profit with data questions, Schwabe noticed — and the hackathon was born.

“It was great timing, because we at Bread for the World Institute were just starting to scratch the surface of some very big data questions for our 2015 Hunger Report on women’s empowerment — questions that we knew we didn’t have the capacity to tackle on our own,” Schwabe said. “I’m probably most excited about the alternate model of anti-hunger and poverty volunteerism that an event like this offers. It allows people to not only volunteer their time, but their skills and expertise. … Because of these ‘super-volunteers,’ we’ll be equipped with better data and more sophisticated story-telling strategies for convincing Congress and other global development stakeholders to change the politics of hunger.”

Schwabish and Schwabe decided that the projects brainstormed by both teams at the hackathon would be included in the final 2015 Hunger Report.

“We record the data but, you know, it’s spreadsheets and tables in the back of the report,” Lateef said. “This is more interesting. We want people to enter through any door to access this information.”

And woven into the problem of world hunger is another problem: the shocking lack of data analyzing women’s connections to the end hunger movement.

“At these things, people are always anxious to get their hands on the data,” Schwabe said. ” ‘Where’s the data?’ This time, the data’s not there. It’s a flip. … I’m always looking for ways to tell stories with data, especially in how it affects policy changes. And with this, the data just wasn’t there.”

“If you’re not measuring it, it’s not a priority,” said Todd Post, senior editor of the 2015 Hunger Report.

Post said the challenges presented to the hackers will hopefully reframe the conversation surrounding all data collection, as it relates to women.

“Is sanitation a women’s issue? Yes,” he said. “Is the number of women’s police officers important? Yes.”

Within the hackathon room buzzed another gender equality discussion. The tech world is notoriously dominated by white males.

“It’s interesting to see how even in issues like this, so many men still occupy this space,” said Faustine Wabwire, a Bread for the World policy analyst.

Even within one hackathon group, participant Leah Stern noticed her team breaking along gender lines.

“What was interesting to me is at one point, all the men were at the table coding with headphones in, and the women were at the board drawing in a group,” she said.

And yet Emily Kund, owner of the Wonder Woman decaled laptop, said she had the same realization — and it motivated her. She’d brought her laptop, a smartphone and a high-tech watch with her to the hackathon, but she also kept meticulous notes in a fat moleskin notebook, writing out ideas with a purple pen.

While she was working with the other two women sketching out the infographic portion, she was also thinking of the skills the men were using across the table.

“I’m not a strong data person, so that’s a skill I’m looking to refine,” she said. “It’s something I’m hoping to get out of this.”

See the completed projects from the HelpMeViz/Bread for the World Hackathon here.

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