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Two days of people huddled over a glowing computer screen and chugging cup after cup of coffee to stay awake. Programmers pouring out lines of code and analysts moving their cursors swiftly through spreadsheets with hundreds of lines of data. In many ways, MigraHack is your typical hackathon, an event in which programmers come together to develop open access digital tools. But MigraHack’s goal for this intense weekend is more ambitious—to redefine the country’s immigration debate through data and visual storytelling.
As much of the country waits on Washington for some movement on immigration reform, a burgeoning group of web programmers, data analysts, journalists and immigrant rights advocates is banding together at hackathons to expand reporting around immigration through technology. MigraHack is a partnership between RDataVox, a non-profit network of people who collaborate with US ethnic media, and the Institute for Justice and Journalism, an organization that strengthens reporting on social justice issues. Another similarly-minded network that hosts hackathons is UndocuTech, which is a product of the immigrant youth-led organization United We Dream and the Center for Civic Media at MIT. These two organizations are opening the door for hackathon events and culture to directly serve the country’s immigrant community.
“I think immigrants are now more confident and want to be a part of this country,” says Claudia Núñez, who launched MigraHack in 2012, during her time as a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford. ‘That same feeling applies to MigraHack. The message is that you’re a part of this country and we want to hear from you.”
Núñez did not hear that message when she immigrated to the US from Mexico fourteen years ago at the age of 23. She knew no English and little about the country she would soon call home. Previously a reporter in Mexico, she started working as an investigative reporter with La Opinión, a Los Angeles-based Spanish language newspaper. In 2010, as mainstream outlets began to experiment with data visualization and other web-based storytelling tools, Núñez saw a serious gap in data analysis on immigration issues that she thought could be filled by ethnic media reporters who understand immigrant communities and are often immigrants themselves. Núñez began training herself on web development and design through YouTube videos and online tutorials, and as a part of her self-training, she started attending hackathons, which she found were typically dominated by white men.
“I was like ‘Where are the people like me?’” Núñez says. “I still had difficulty speaking English. I was still working out my immigration status.” Steadfast in her commitment to help ethnic media utilize these new storytelling tools, Núñez decided to host her own hackathon in Los Angeles that would bring together programmers, immigration journalists and activists to develop projects on immigration.
La Opinión donated office space. A local bakery donated pastries. A good friend who is a chef offered to cook. Núñez knew a group of journalists who were interested in participating, so she attended a meet-up in Pasadena hoping to meet programmers who might join. In a crowded room of people, she marched up to the microphone and said, “I’m Claudia Núñez. I’m a reporter serving the Hispanic community and I need your help.” The response was overwhelming. In the end, dozens of programmers, who worked everywhere from Google to NASA, signed up to participate in MigraHack’s first hackathon.