TechTogether Boston (2019) expected to draw more than 1,000 to Agganis Arena

Last year, women made up a mere 20 percent of those attending hackathons. But a student-run hackathon hosted by BU this weekend aims to change that.

Starting this afternoon, Friday, March 22, more than 1,200 high school and college students from across the country will hole up in Agganis Arena for 36 hours at TechTogether Boston (2019). The requirement to get in? Attendees must identify as female or nonbinary.

During the three-day event, hackers will solve problems like combating fake news, disaster recovery, and reducing environmental waste, among others. In addition to hacking, there will be a series of tech workshops, keynote talks, and networking opportunities with some of the more than two dozen sponsors (RedHat, Facebook, Microsoft, and Wayfair, to name a few) who donated more than $320,000 to underwrite the hackathon. Attendance is free, and in many cases, travel is reimbursed.

Winners will take home more than $19,000 in prizes, such as a Google Home, although some prizes have the potential to be worth a lot more: internships or job interviews at companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield and IBM Research, two of the sponsors. “This year, we are trying to convert the event into long-term opportunities,” says senior Fiona Whittington (COM), hackathon founder and advisor. “We want to get more women into the job pipeline, so that’s why we’re seeing more prizes that are more skill-based, rather than gift cards and things like that.”

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Now in its second year, the hackathon began last year and was initially called SheHacks. This year’s event has been rebranded as TechTogether Boston to shy away from pronouns and better reflect a community that includes nonbinary individuals, Whittington says. The organizers are from several universities, among them BU, Northeastern, the University of California, Irvine, and UMass Boston.

Last year’s winners included teams that developed a social media listening tool that can display aid and rescue requests during a natural disaster, an app to support environmental sustainability by building a personal environment that illustrates the direct impact of climate change, and a smart waste receptacle that “reads” whether an item should be trashed or recycled, and then moves it to the appropriate side of the container.

Whittington’s impetus for starting her own hackathon last year was a bad experience when she attended a hackathon—her first—in New York as a sophomore. A guy came up to chat with her when she walked in alone and condescendingly asked if she had ever even coded before. “I told him to look at the coding stickers on my laptop,” she says. “I didn’t see a lot of women there, I didn’t go with anyone, and that, to me, was a reflection of the lack of community. There wasn’t a culture I could join, and I thought, more women need to be attending these events.” The result: SheHacks, in January 2018 at BU.

TechTogether Boston aims to create an inclusive environment that both introduces underrepresented people to the world of technology and mobilizes them to create projects. “Marginalized groups continue to be underrepresented as a whole,” in technology, says senior Isabelle Verhulst (Questrom), TechTogether’s chief marketing officer. “In this era of #MeToo, Time’s Up, and a general shift in the influence of women’s, trans, and nonbinary voices, we are proud to be doing our part in offering resources to the next generation of individuals who want to make a difference.”

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“The general reaction from the community to our event has been incredible—the feedback, the amount of money we were able to raise,” Whittington adds.

And TechTogether Boston has expanded beyond this weekend’s event. The students’ new nonprofit, called TechTogether, provides members of its New York and Boston chapters with annual stipends, mentorship, and event planning resources.

TechTogether receives support from several University entities, among them the College of Arts & Sciences computer science department, BU Research, the College of Engineering electrical and computer engineering department, BU Spark! at the Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, and Innovate@BU. BU is the hackathon’s host partner for the next three years and in addition to offering financial support and research, BU Spark! created PreHacks, an event that introduces high schoolers to the field of computer science and provides a how-to hackathon guide. Like many young women, BU Spark! marketing and program manager Elyse Bush didn’t have an introductory computer science program available to her in high school, she says, but if she had, she probably would have studied computer science as an undergrad.

Diversifying the the technology industry is in society’s best interest “given the myriad ways that technology impacts our lives,” says Tracy Schroeder, BU’s vice president of information services and technology. “Without diversity, technology services are built with implicit biases and gaps that can marginalize people and have unintended social and economic consequences.” And, she continues, change is hard: “It requires support structures like TechTogether to encourage trailblazers and change agents.”

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TechTogether Boston (2019) will be held at Agganis Arena, 925 Commonwealth Ave., from 5 pm Friday, March 22, until 2 pm Sunday, March 24. Registration for the event is closed.



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