18F hackathon aims to involve more women in civic tech

GSA's innovation hub hosts training day and coding collaboration geared toward women in technology.

The General Services Administration's 18F innovation hub is holding the government's first Women in Tech and Data hackathon and training day.

The Nov. 7 event, to be held at 18F's offices at GSA headquarters, has dual purposes: It's a hackathon to work on several 18F projects and a series of training sessions -- on advanced open-source technology, user-centered design, and GitHub and open-source basics.

Although the event is open to everyone, it is particularly geared toward women who work in government or are interested in working in government.

18F will run the event with help from a handful of women at the U.S. Digital Service. The ringleader is 18F Project Manager Leah Bannon, whose interest in planning and hosting hackathons for women started when she noticed how few women attended them.

"I was going to a lot of hackathons, and I felt like they were really good, valuable learning and networking opportunities, and I was the only woman at a lot of them," Bannon told FCW. "I didn't like that women were missing out on that opportunity."

She said there were no hacking groups dedicated to women in government, and that was one of the reasons she wanted to host an event at 18F.

"At some point, the underrepresentation of women in technology becomes a self-reinforcing problem," Bannon said, "and the more we can develop the community to network and support each other, the better off we'll be."

The broader goal for the Nov. 7 event is to build a community of women in government IT, but 18F officials also hope to see more immediate outcomes.

Bannon said participants will work on the Midas, which is a marketplace for federal employees to improve government; test the hub 18F is building to make it easier to submit Freedom of Information Act requests; and try to complete a variety of 18F "DevOps" tickets.

"I see hackathons as an opportunity to jump-start new projects or help a project get a big step forward," Bannon said. "This is a unique opportunity to have outsiders come in and give us their ideas."

Another project she hopes hackathon participants will brainstorm on is the "If gov, then that" project to come up with new ideas for using government datasets.

18F is seeking to increase its own diversity and build a team with more women. Eleven of the 55 employees of 18F are women, according to GSA's website, and Bannon said 18F officials have been working with the human resources department on publishing their workforce diversity statistics to the public, in the same way that many private companies do.

"Diversity matters to us at 18F because we feel it leads to a stronger team and a better place to work, learn and grow as people and as professionals," GSA officials said in a statement. "We seek to innovate, and that is very hard to do in a monoculture. This is just one component of our larger efforts to improve diversity at 18F, as well as in the federal government and technology industry."

Although the hackathon is geared toward women, officials won't lock the men out of the room completely. Some of the male 18Fers will be helping Bannon run the show and doing administrative tasks.

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