00:16 – Welcome to “Hey! I Made a Bong Out of This Podcast!” …we mean, “Greater Than Code!”
01:26 – Origin Story
05:46 – Politics and Software; Data Collection
16:43 – Working in Python for Data Collection
23:55 – Communication and Organization Within Communities
33:49 – Power Structures and Forming Relationships
36:39 – PSF Funding
Jessica: Each of our languages has a metalanguage that people use to talk about the language.
Sam: Needs more sleep
Astrid: Code can and should touch everything: What is it not doing that it should be doing?
Coraline: Software is not neutral.
Rein: Software is inherently political. It is made for people by people. There’s no way it can’t be political.
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CORALINE: Good morning and welcome to the show that we’d like to call ‘Hey! I Made a Bong Out of This Podcast!’
SAM: That explained so much.
CORALINE: With me today is Sam Livingston-Gray.
SAM: Good morning, Coraline and that is probably the second best podcast name ever and you know the rest of that sale so I’ll just hand it over to Jessica Kerr
JESSICA: Thank you, Sam. I am super happy to be here on Greater Than Code. I’m thrilled to be here with Astrid Countee.
ASTRID: Thank you, Jessica and I am thrilled to introduce our guests today, Lorena Mesa. Lorena is a political analyst turned coder, a software engineer at Sprout Social Platform. She is the director on the Python Software Foundation, PyLadies Chicago Organizer and Write/Speak/Code conference organizer. Lorena loves to make meaning out of data, asking big questions and using her code to build models to derive that meaning. Part Star Wars fanatic but mostly a Trekkie, Lorena abide by the model, ‘Live long and prosper.’ Welcome to Greater Than Code, Lorena.
LORENA: Hello. Thank you for that glorious intro with so many words so you killed it. Thank you.
ASTRID: Here on Greater Than Code, we usually like to start by finding out your origin story. Tell us everything about you since you were born.
LORENA: Wow, since I was born. There are many things I can talk about when I was little. Spanish is my first language. Fun fact: I actually had speech language therapy for many moons because I always inverted my English and Spanish. But rather than talk about that for a long time, I think what’s kind of cool that I like to share with people is a little bit about the story about how I got into coding because I am a career-changer.
In university, I actually studied at a university here in Illinois that was uniquely positioned to be able to do some work on Obama for America. At that time, when I started doing work at Obama for America, I majored in Political Science, there was not that there’s big belief I think that we see today that code can touch everything and ought to do everything. This idea that code is a new literacy, I don’t think we had reached many chambers and many people.
It was really exciting to work on that campaign to see how people who may not have otherwise coded were able to get into a political campaign and do some cool stuff with code. I worked on the Latino vote aspect there, doing a lot of data munching, data cleaning which is how I actually started working with Python. I did that for two campaigns and eventually over time, through a combination of meeting amazing people in the Chicago civic engagement space and the open source software community in Chicago found my way into coding. I’m more than happy to talk more specifics about that but I come from the political research background and have moved into the role of a day-to-day software engineer just a few years ago. That’s me.
CORALINE: Lorena, what’s your superpower?
SAM: What is my superpower? Ummm —
CORALINE: I asked you first.
SAM: [Laughs] You know, I don’t know if this is a superpower or not but I’ve been told by many people, especially when they hear the kind of activities that I partake in, that I have endless energy. I do a lot of things and I think after grad school, I just got to a place where I sleep only five hours a night and I’m pretty good on that. Perhaps, the idea that I don’t need a lot of sleep is a superpower but I don’t know, maybe that add eccentricities to me so I’m not sure.
ASTRID: I’m a little more interested in what you learned while you were doing the campaign work because you said, you got started with Python there. What were you doing that made you have to start using Python?
LORENA: When you think about politics, it’s a lot of these ideas that it’s people have issues and those issues are kind of unfathomable. When aligning with this issue, there are certain language that you use to talk to people and there’s kind of a certain belief that, for example, Illinois, Chicago. Chicago is always a blue so the idea of it possibly having spaces for independent or Republican candidates, sometimes can be thrown by the wayside because party politics is party politics as usual.
I think what was a little different at OFA — Obama for America was this idea that we can actually use data to develop where specific kind of what we may think of the UI/UX community personas and have a better understanding of what issues may speak to people and really understand better, get out the vote initiatives. It was actually trying to track data, add more data sets to make it more comprehensive understanding of what people were and what issues that spoke to them and also, trying to diversify ways in which outreach happens.
I think what was really interesting there was just taking some of these assumptions of this community is always going to align this way to saying, “Let’s actually put some data behind it and see if these troops hold up.” I think just the idea of integrating new data sources into politics was a pretty, profound thing. A lot of the idea of how data collection happened would be you registered as a candidate for this party, you may have voted historically this way and there may be other sources of data that you could purchase but really, at Obama for America, they started and trying to add more data collection points and with the tools that were developed at Obama for America through the website and actually having more communities for people that wasn’t just like, “I’m a Democrat or I’m a Republican or I’m a veteran,” but having a wider plethora of identities and which people could participate and see if their voice could be heard or aligned with the rhetoric of the campaign.
CORALINE: Lorena, I’m curious. I’m kind of divorced in the political process because I’m not allowed to vote for personal security reasons but the registration roles republic and I’m someone who gets a lot of harassment and I get [inaudible] my address out there, anyway. Do you try and stay politically engaged and I’m curious if you found that in traditionally blue areas, blue voters don’t turn out quite as frequently as people who maybe feel more marginalized by the political process.
LORENA: I think that’s a great question. An issue that’s near and dear to my heart is basically the issue of undocumented immigrants. My father’s family is from Mexico and I have had the fortune of working closely with some activists in that space. I think that is another community that’s clearly that being public threatens their livelihood here in the United States, the impact that they can continue to stay here. I think when it comes to this idea, the fallacy that blue is blue and red is red, I think what we’re increasingly saying from the 2008 campaign forward is that these arbitrary labels, the idea that we have a dichotomy of beliefs that it has to be this or that is really starting to crumble.
This last campaign has really given us a lot of insight into that. People are getting frustrated with the politics as normal. I’m not a political pundit by any means but I, myself have found that I’m increasingly getting more frustrated participating within the common structure as it exists today. When it comes to the discussion of what politics matter within blue areas, I think it’s easy to over emphasize the priority of some of the issues but I think the thing that we need to be mindful of is, “Are these issues of privacy? Are these issues of who is at the bullhorn?”
I guess the big thing for me, when I got started in politics, I moved into software because I felt that participating within the structure as it currently exists doesn’t amount to change. I think we need to have discourse that happen outside of the political structures that exist and I think one way that we can do that is through like this, like podcast like this. It’s going out into the community and speaking to people and speaking to them in ways that is meaningful and creates access.
I do think that the last few campaigns have maybe giving us more ways to think about that and has inserted code as a tool that can help us develop other ways to be an activist or to inspire conversation but it has also been a little bit separate. I don’t know if I exactly answered your question but I think some of that frustration that you feel is something that I, myself have been feeling over the last three big presidential campaigns.
JESSICA: Wow, so you actually got into software and data through people?
LORENA: Yes. My master’s research actually, I looked at the impact of the mortgage crisis on undocumented Latinos in the Chicagoland area and what I’ve essentially found as there was a minimal amounts of data to describe this experience. When you get to the question of data apex and how do you report on things like that, that’s actually a huge topic that I’m really interested in. I’m not quite sure where to go with it but it is something that I’m seeing pop up increasingly more and more around it.
A lot of the line of inquiry and how I’ve been developing my career has been at the intersection of data and software, what kind of things do we assess as software engineers or people who can code or people who are code literate, however you define that. Our responsibility in the data collection and data usage policies are if there aren’t policies, how do we create them? A lot of where I would like to see conversations going, that is very much informed by this space and I think we are seeing a lot of people who are asking questions around that.
JESSICA: By collecting data and analyzing the data on these communities that were, otherwise unknown, you’d added visibility.
LORENA: Yeah. I think that’s a suspect thing. The kind of work I did with my master’s research was more repurposing so that we have these census data that happens every ten years but then there’s also other community surveys that happen that speak to more nuance, socioeconomic factors. I kind of try to flush out some more of that. While this is hard to quantify, I did do more qualitative research in trying to make use of the idea of a moral witness and trying to bring in testimony but, at least tell it in the idea of through additional medium of what someone’s experience maybe and the idea of perhaps, having a ‘persona’, which I understand that there’s problems of that as well.
If you can at least have a diversified source of data sets available, you can try to at least tell the story a little bit more holistically. But it can also present challenges because I think one of the things that a little scary was when you’re starting those relationships with people and they want to know what you’re doing, you can tell someone, “This is what I want to do,” but you create a data set.
I would like to think of it this way: imagine you have a startup, you do something really cool and then you have a [inaudible]. What happens to that data after the fact? I think one of the big questions, at least from a social scientist that I think about now as a software engineer is if there’s a bias, what happens to that data in the future. At least as a social scientist, it’s my proprietary research and the idea of maybe I went in and did a PhD. Ideally, I would be doing research in one area for the duration of my academic career. But as a software engineer we change problem spaces so frequently that I think that’s one of the things that can be lost. What happens today after the fact is how can we keep track about?
CORALINE: And there’s a lot of safety and security concerns with that, right?
LORENA: Yes. I think we see that in many ways. It was really interesting to see what was happening with Mary Deblasio in New York when essentially, they had started collecting data around giving out identification cards for folks who were otherwise undocumented. But then, the federal government said, “We want to actually use this in some of our overhaul and how ICE is going to be doing deportation and processing.” People who may be kind of in a gray like legal space so then the idea of like, “We’ve actually collected this data. We have good intentions,” but then who owns it? Does the federal government own it? Or does the city on it?
There’s all this conflict that happens and so knowing the lifecycle of our data is really, really important. I am so curious if we have good tools to do that. I guess maybe I’m newer to this and I’m sure about that many people think about this but that is something that I just keep hearing people talk about where they’re like, “Oh yeah, we can collect this data thing,” without really thinking about why they need the use it or trying to come up with that argument first. It’s a little interesting to me.
ASTRID: I saw a talk recently by Danah Boyd. She’s a researcher and she runs Data & Society Institute in New York and her talk was about data that’s being used to predict crime and how it’s already biased because of some of the method that are used to actually go out and police the streets and how that information is recorded. We need to really careful just because we have lots of data doesn’t mean that our data is the full-pitcher because there’s this kind assumption that lots of data needs accuracy and not necessarily that you have to try to control for the bias that was used to collect the data because, usually the data when it was being collected, wasn’t being collected for the purpose with which it’s being used now.
There’s a lot of concern about how to move forward with that because in the last ten years, we’ve generated so much data via social reasons like our phones and other statuses. Now, there’s companies that are emerging to try to repackage that data and sell that data. There’s a lot of unanswered questions and ethical gray areas as to how you’re supposed to move forward because there’s not a law yet that’s been created around this. With the same problem that you just stated about who owns the data, who gets to decide its purpose and that type of stuff, I don’t know if we have created real tools for yet because it seems like people are starting to think about these questions in a bigger way.
LORENA: Yeah. In Chicago here, it’s a little bit of a conservative in the traditional context. A think tank called the Chicago Council on Global Affairs but they had an event that was named something to the effect about security that the name eludes me right now. But the director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation was there and she pretty much, I thought was the only voice who raise in saying, “You’re all talking about Russia and we need to think about security idea from the national security perspective. But what about the idea of individual people?”
She kept pointing out that I’m really distraught that the EFF is a small nonprofit. It’s basically creating the tools to inform the broader business world about what it means to collect data and what kind of security tools and implementation you have to had in your organization and things that you have to think about. I think it’s really interesting that these conversations seem to be coming from when we do think about it. It’s always such a police conversation of no this is national security, national intelligence but again, it’s really just coming back down to us as individuals to be more informed, more empowered.
Here in Chicago, we have [inaudible] and there’s a really great cybersecurity one-on-one that they do and kind of like what do you need to know as an activist for how to protect your data and protect yourself as a person in the [inaudible] space. I think a lot of these efforts is stuff I’m really interested in.
CORALINE: We’d like to give a shout out to one of our newer Patrons, Greg Fox. He is @gkfox on Twitter and remind everyone that we are a 100% listener-funded show. If you would like to support us in the work that we do go, to Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode. Pledge at any level and get access to our Patreon-only Slack community where we do cool things like sometimes, we have a lottery to see if a Patreon wants to be a guest panelist or give people the opportunity to talk to our guest after a show or suggest guest. It’s kind of a cool community and definitely worth your while. Pledge at any level to get access to that and thank you for your ongoing support. We love you all.
JESSICA: Wait. We got some new person here. Sam, who is your friend?
CORALINE: You mean, Lorena?
SAM: Lorena is also my friend but no. There’s a whole other new person here. We have another surprise today for our listeners and that is my friend and former coworker, Rein Hendricks has just joined us. Rein, describes himself as a caring and considerate technical leader, coach, mentor and teammate. His two greatest passions are helping people work better together and helping people solve hard, technical challenges, especially in infrastructure and distributed systems. He also wrote a database in Haskell once so he has that going for him which is nice. Rein, welcome to the show.
REIN: Hi, everyone.
ASTRID: Hi, Rein.
REIN: Hi, I Am delighted and excited to be here and you can tell that I prepare that because it rhymes.
SAM: But let’s face it, that’s really all the prep you did, right?
REIN: I’m getting cold out in the first 30 seconds. Awesome.
SAM: And fun fact, when I name-checked him on our last show, I had no idea that Rein was going to join us this time.
LORENA: All the things you don’t know.
CORALINE: Everything that rises must converge.
SAM: I love that song.
CORALINE: Lorena, when you started doing data collection and data modeling, it seems like Python is kind of a natural choice for that kind of work. Is that why and how you got it in the Python?
LORENA: There’s two languages or is that three? There’s many languages, let’s face it. If you have the desire to do a thing and you have a language to do a thing, you can do the thing. I’m a huge believer in that. But that being said, I do think that Python is kind of a nice fit, just because there’s good scientific libraries in it and also, it’s easy to pick up. For me, someone who’s not a hard core statistician, that’s why I didn’t opt to use R and I did actually use R a little bit but I found it a little bit frustrating when I was reading documentation and having to look up every other thing because it was a lot of heavy stat-speak. There’s also SAS, of course but I found Python to be a nice medium in where there is an active community that I can field questions to, there’s much libraries and it is user-friendly so yay for me.
CORALINE: And you manage to, not only learn Python but become a prominent figure in the Python world.
LORENA: Yeah. This will be my endless love for Chicago — you talking about how I love Chicago here — but I think what’s really cool about Chicago is we have a very rich, for example a Ruby community. A lot of the people that I know we’re very active in creating spaces for people who are underrepresented via by [inaudible], via by how you identify, or whatever way you slice and dice it. I very much enjoyed that Ruby had a very welcoming space for people who are beginners and I really want to try to create more of that for the Python community in Chicago.
We do have a very, very well established Python user group but going to that meeting, which is I think it’s every second Thursday of the month, that sometimes the topics can be very beginner-friendly but sometimes they can be very deep because we have a very rich data science community and a really rich community of academics who use Python in their research so it can just be like, “Whew! This is completely over my head.”
It kind of tapping into the welcome beginner-friendly atmosphere that Ruby had created and that had empowered me when I was making this switch into software. I wanted to try to do that with Python. I started with PyLadies here in Chicago. From there, as my work in that community continued to grow, we brought Django Girls, which if you are familiar with any of the other various workshops that teaching framework, it’s same kind of concept to do it in a day or two. We brought Django Girls to Chicago and then eventually, I wanted to do more on a kind of a global kind of view where then I put my name up last year for the Python Software Foundation Board. Not thinking I would actually get it because there was a lot of really cool people who put their names for but I was very pleasantly surprised to get nominated as a director for this past year. I guess it started with I want to do more things and see more people who are like me, talking and doing things in Python. Then it just went from there.
CORALINE: What exactly does a Python Software Foundation do?
LORENA: The Python Software Foundation, we aren’t the people who go in and oversee the future like what’s going to be in the language but instead, we are the group that gives out money to people to do Python events around the world. We are people that oversees code of conduct violations, we maintain a blog, we’re the people who are trying to create and promote the Python culture around the world and make sure that we are continuing to evangelize in a way that makes it accessible for people, pretty much of all backgrounds and for all regional spaces. A really big emphasis is to make sure that we are getting Python into people’s hands that are further removed from software engineering or maybe even from coding than some other communities maybe.
We offer grants for events, we give out a CSA — a community service award — every quarter to two folks, we maintain a blog of events of things that are going on, we have different mailing lists that we oversee like our infrastructure, we’ve got different Python code repository that we kind of manage behind the scenes, we make sure to maintain dialogues with IRC channels, we do not, ourselves govern those but we make sure to try to kind of stay aware what’s going on with that.
A lot of it is just, I like to say, it’s glorified email briefing but you really essentially are a volunteer doing the not-exciting grunt work of making sure that people are able to do really cool events around the world and making sure that they are able to get the resources they need to make that thing happen.
CORALINE: I’m so jealous of that. I know PHP has a foundation that does some other things and you talk about outreach being sort of the core of the mission of the Python Software Foundation. In the Ruby world, we have one small team of people, led by Matz who handle language. We have Ruby Central which puts on RailsConf and RubyConf and helps to organize events. We have Ruby Together, which raises money to fund paying developers to maintain critical infrastructure but there’s no one who’s responsible for outreach. There’s no one who’s responsible for the culture of the Ruby community. I really wish that we had some kind of structure in place for that kind of things. I’m really jealous.
I think the Ruby community could learn a lot from these other language communities and really improve what we do. We have Rails Girls and we have Rails Bridge and some other organizations like that, that do some limited amount of outreach but their budgets are small and they’re not core to the community, frankly.
LORENA: Right. I think what’s actually really interesting also about what you mentioned is these smaller workshops that are easy to export and bring to communities that have a very well-defined learning objectives. In the Python space, that would be Django Girls, which was started in Berlin. To me, it’s kind of comparison as someone who is Latino living in Chicago and Chicago being a very big Ruby and Rails community for the web development space.
Seeing Rails Bridge and seeing Rails Girls, it does from my perspective, have a very strong US-centric kind of worldview. Again, that’s just how I experience in Chicago but when I started participating in Django Girls, I found out the community was very, very different and it complemented well because it was started by women from West Europe and it actually has a very strong representation outside the United States. There’s much more of these to Django Girls events happening. I think like the Django Software Foundation, actually I think has a really good well informed conversation with their community in ways that I think the PSF is trying to understand better, or at least from my perspective as a director coming in, how do we stay informed with organizers in the field doing the work? How do we do these kind of things? How do we make sure we’re properly empowering them?
I think that you are speaking to the same kind of observations that I’ve seen as a Python language person, if you will, which is that these smaller communities that have gained global spread, if you will, have been perhaps a power engine to help, maybe unify some conversation or at least identify target areas that we can start putting agenda items around.
SAM: Going back to what you were saying a few minutes ago, Coraline. It does seemed like as Lorena mentioned that there are plenty of learning resources in Ruby but it does have a different character. It’s like there’s a bunch of law, little resources that somebody wrote but they’re all passion projects that are one or two people, might not get updated for a couple of years. Like you said, there’s just not a lot of structure and I wonder if that’s something in Ruby’s culture that maybe we’re missing.
CORALINE: If it’s a cultural thing and I think it is because Ruby is essentially an autocracy, from a language perspective and we have this motto of, “We’re nice because Matz is nice.” We have no definition of what niceness is, we have no history of enforcing niceness or introducing consequences when someone is not ‘nice’. We’re lacking anything that sort of governs and directs the culture of the language community. I think that’s a real lack. I don’t want to get into the whole Ruby so I’m going to stop right there.
LORENA: I guess, maybe to supplement a little bit on that and to ask a question. I was recently in Cuba and the way I actually got to Cuba was A, I just wanted to go so that’s actually why but B, I really want to meet some of the people who are doing software and that are coding in Cuba and there is a Python Cuba mailing list. I don’t know anything about the mailing lists for Ruby or how conversations bubble up because I know I have [inaudible] checks, I know have sisters, I know I have all my Python lists if I want to reach out to people who are doing Python. How do people tend to communicate with one another in other communities?
I am kind of curious about that because for me, I was able to send an email to Python Cuba and say, “I’m coming. I want to talk to people who do Python. I was invited to the University of Havana. I got to see how they use Python in computer science. I got to see how they’re using in an artificial intelligence.” I was able to speak at — yes, this is a legitimately the name of the group — Social Encounter for Developers.
I was invited to speak up at that but again, it’s just like there’s these contracts that are easily available and I think the PSF, we just surface that. We maintain the infrastructure of that but how does that happen in the Ruby space? Yes, it’s a really awkward name: Social Encounter for Developers. I laughed really hard when I heard that.
SAM: But it abbreviated to SED so that’s okay.
LORENA: There you go.
SAM: Yes, I can speak to that at least a little bit. There are plenty of regional Ruby mailing lists, I should say. PDX Ruby has one that I’ve been running for years or helping to run. We recently started a Slack and recently, as in the last year or so and pretty much all of the conversation has migrated over to Slack. The email list is pretty much just announcements to 1200 people at this point.
I did do what you talked about the last time I went to London and the London Ruby mailing list is pretty good. It’s quiet for a while and then there will be a thread with 10 or 15 contributions to it but I did do that. I emailed the list and said, “I’m going to be in London. Do any Rubyist want a meetup?” And I had a nice conversation with two guys in a pub. It doesn’t seem like there’s as strong an interconnection between those regional groups.
LORENA: One of the areas I’m really, really interested in is Python in Latin America broadly speaking in the Caribbean. A lot of it has been through the mailing list. I find that when I say, “Let’s talk in Slack,” and this is a broader question, which is what is the future of organizing in languages because I find that the idea of, “What is Slack?” is already weird for some people. I don’t know how to properly express that but I find that like there’s a fatigue for, “Where do I go and get sources of information to do a thing?” And then, at least a mailing list is something I can check in on every once in a while but then — while I love Slack — I also find the idea of that to be a little bit of a fatigue so I’m curious if anyone has any expertise around that for the future of our organization.
ASTRID: I’ve noticed that it seems to be something that if you’re a little bit younger, you’re more open to Slack and if you’re a little bit older, it feels like you had another place to go. I help to start an anthropology Slack and there, a lot of the younger anthropologist are like, “Yay! We finally have one.” A lot of the older ones are like, “Look, we have [inaudible]. I don’t know if I need another place. I don’t want to check my email.” And I was like, “It was not email. It’s a chat.” They’re like, “We already do this so we don’t need this again.”
CORALINE: Yeah, if you’re not paying for Slack, you lose back scroll and if you’re working with people around the world, losing back scroll can be pretty terrible. Slack has publicly stated they’re not interested in developing features for nonpaying customers or for community groups and things like that. I don’t think that’s going to improve anytime soon.
LORENA: I think it’s really cool and I don’t know, maybe I’ve just become more involved increasingly from the regional level to a broader local but it’s been really exciting to see all these podcasts. I was very excited when I got to hear about this podcast, for example but just the idea of how do people synthesize information and what’s a great way to make it digestible such that people can hear it and participate in a way that’s meaningful and relevant to them.
Podcast have been really interesting in that space for me too because again, there are podcasts that speak more broadly to us as coders, us as what we do day-to-day but also us within the specific communities in which we interacts, that might be a language, that might be a problem space, etcetera, etcetera.
REIN: I want to go back to this idea that there may be a difference in the Python and the Ruby community, in terms of how they organize. I think at least in my experience, having a centralization of resources and support and information has a lot of advantages but it has some disadvantages too. I wonder how, in the Python community, they make sure that they are presenting diverse voices and not favoring one group over other groups and things like that, when they have a centralized place where people go to get that information.
LORENA: I think that’s a really, really great question and obviously, something that needs to constantly be looked at and reviewed. You might think you have a solution today but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a solution in two months, two weeks, a year, etcetera. One of the ways in which we try to think about that is, for example when it comes to requesting grants for an event, like I am in Nepal and I want to have this Python day and here’s my budget of items.
If you have a board that entirely made up of people from Chicago, we’re not going be able to speak very well to the idea of what’s a practical budget for a Python day in Nepal, what does that mean and what does that looks like? There’s actually a working group of grants, which has two people for each regional area that participate in the grants review, if you will and also any time when a grant does come up that need expertise from a regional context, we make sure to incorporate those voices. Granted this is an ongoing effort and not something that is 100% fixed, we are always actively trying to make sure we have a fair number of people to talk with and people that we actually know are doing things that are actually who they say they are. That is one way we would try to think about it — having grants group that has a diverse geographical make-up.
Also making sure that there is a limit on the number of terms that a person can do on board of directors. It’s another way to think about it. Also there’s been a lot of conversation in thinking about, for example the EuroPython community is very well-established. They have their own working groups. There’s some idea of perhaps, maybe the PSF turning a little bit more into a… I’m not sure what the proper word would be but perhaps more like an overarching umbrella and underneath, having regionalized Python bodies that have more power and have working groups that are explicitly defined to their geographic area and then continue to grow up from there. The way that we can perhaps think about is rather than the PSF overseeing grants that are broadly happening and what we may think of is Europe, perhaps we passed that off to the EuroPython Society and then from there, their working groups can do things.
There’s a lot to be said about how do you have a proper structure, how do you have a proper voices in and how do you ensure that that is actually happening? I think these are all questions only board members continue to surface over and over. The other things too is also how do you make sure that knowledge is transparent and that things are happening. I know that there’s just a lot of projects that the board members is trying to do. I’m working on an organizers manual for like, “You want to run your first Python,” and a big effort that I’m doing is try to create a section that’s for regional organizers, not where I put their contact information in there but I actually say, “We would love for you to contribute your name, if you’ve been a regional organizer or you’re interested in being a regional organizer on this GitBook that we’re creating.”
A big thing for us is just making sure that we continue to understand what is within the purview of the PSF and what is not, making sure that we expose ignorance on issues that we know that we are woefully ignorant on and making sure we push those discussions to mailing lists when applicable and as much as possible, going out into the world and talking about what the PSF does.
I went to PyCon Jamaica and I spoke about the PSF. I was in Cuba. I’m probably going to Mexico and this is not something that’s paid. This is something that I opt to do as a volunteer who was nominated on the board of directors. Clearly, you’ve got to be someone who really likes doing this kind of stuff. But I think with the right kind of mindset and the right kind of structures in place, you can at least get something that works, something you can continue to iterate on that.
REIN: I’m pretty fascinated by how groups of people organized and form relationships with each other and the power structures that emerged from those relationships. With something like PSF or any sort of organizing body, it really depends on the good faith of the people doing the work. I’m happy to say that as far as I’ve seen, PSF has always done a great job of considering the issues that you’re talking about. But how do you maintain that as a group? How do you ensure that everyone that have participated in the PSF is doing the best work they can and thinking about all these issues?
LORENA: We have the power to veto someone out if need be. Unfortunately, there’s truth in that this kind of work doesn’t fit with everyone’s life that people’s life change and sometimes not able to give a commitment that they could otherwise. Another way and this might not speak explicitly to holding individuals on the board accountable but at least, seeing what the board does or rather what does the money that the PSF have do in the community. I’ve been trying to create more content for the PSF blog and trying to put more effort into having write ups from the events, actually make its way into the blogs so at least, people can see what’s happening in the community in the world around us.
There is still a bit of this honor system, if you will but the other thing to think about is tooling around. Like elections, I know that there was a lot of feedback with the election last year: how that should work, how it should be announced, what that ought to look like, where should that information be published? Sadly, I would say it’s still something that when I talk to some people about Python, they’re like, “What is the PSF?” And I think that is a really big sign that we need to continue to keep on doing this good work.
One way we might think about changing that is how long do people actually serve on the board? Is it practical to have 12 new people every year? Should we try to think about restructuring to have more stability such that knowledge is transferred a little bit more smoothly? Do we think about hiring more people for the PSF that are actual staffers? I don’t know. These are kind of questions that happen within the board itself and it’s something that’s actively ongoing but at least for the big Python events, granted it does assume that you can go to something like you’re a Python or to something like PyCon. We do at least have the PSF member meeting where people can come and chat and that all being said, pretty much every board member is very, very active on social media and we do our best to try to make ourselves as accessible as possible.
There’s been small changes in the idea of writing monthly reports, the idea of how do we do with the election cycle and what does the tool look like. Then also, just making sure that we’re pushing as much information to the blog as possible. But obviously, there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done.
CORALINE: How was PSF funded?
LORENA: There’s corporate sponsorship. We also accept donations and that is pretty much the big stuff. PyCon is really big. It funds a lot of things and then we have organizations that are sponsors at different levels. Like I said, we’ve got the individual folks who might donate through Python.org.
REIN: PSF is a 501(c)(3), right?
REIN: So it’s a nonprofit organization that comes with some regulations and restrictions on putting business?
REIN: A lot of what you’re talking about is governance and how much of that is what you have to do to meet with the rules and regulations of being a nonprofit organization. None of that is self-imposed. You have to grow and desire to do better and to govern well.
LORENA: This presents interesting and unique challenges when we get funding requests because we are registered in the United States, where we have sanctions with countries that restricts us from being able to fund events as a software foundation. In Zimbabwe for example, is a kind of interesting space for us. We want to be able to fund events and activities there but there are restrictions that are imposed upon us by being a nonprofit in the United States.
Other ways to think about that is perhaps, can we created a dialogue around a GoFundMe to get a speaker out there? Is there ways that we can be an ally in helping create awareness about the event that allows us to perhaps both bring agency to this community and empower this community in some way? While also respecting the legal implications of how we are set up.
We also have Kurt, who is our overlord of everything financial and he knows all of that, inside and out. I would say I am not versed on that but the good thing is we have a lawyer on retainer. We also have Ava, who is the director for the Python Software Foundation. I don’t know how she does everything she does but she’s very well-versed in nonprofit management and is actively always participating in trainings and things like that.
From my perspective as an individual, I always try to say, “If we can’t do that, how can we do this?” A lot of that then will require directors to do outreach on their own to try to have dialogues around what are other ways we can help and then how the dialogue with the foundation to make sure that what we are doing is indeed legal. It can be difficult at times.
REIN: There are times when what you want to do as a foundation, what you think is the right thing for you to do, is in conflict with the regulations imposed on you by being a nonprofit.
LORENA: From the time that I’ve seen it, the way I’ve experienced it has been, if we can fund grants and areas where there may be sanctions?
REIN: There’s probably a lot of the regulations are dealing have to do with who you can get money from, who you can give money to, how you track that money.
LORENA: Yep. Like I said, I by no means, an expert in that area. The reality of it is sometimes you get that answer where you’re like, “Why is this not a thing we can do,” and unless you’re able to talk to whatever power that be that oversees economics sanctions on a country, you just can’t do it but that’s not a unique constraint for the PSF. That’s a constraint that other non-profits will face. If you are a nonprofit that’s trying to evangelizing technology in other ways, you are going to face those implications.
It’s kind of interesting the Do Good Data for Social Justice, I think I might be botching that name but it’s a fellowship at the University of Chicago. They’ve done some really cool work where they are trying to create transparency with elections and areas that may have some questionable outcomes and the question may be is, “Is this actually a fair and viable election?” Some of the stories they talk there about how they can do that, what they can do, being in fellowship in a private university is difficult. I guess these are constraints we faced, both as individuals, as people and nonprofits and also, as a part of businesses or whatever communities that you’re in.
JESSICA: It’s very different perspective than what I’m used to like all they talk about politics and identity. I’m like I don’t even have those framework to be able to talk about these things so it’s super great that you do.
LORENA: I think the most fascinating thing for me has been, it was by becoming a coder that I think I was much more capable of talking about these things in a way that other people can bring their own experiences to it because I think for a long time the way I looked at problems and I tried to dissect them, made a lot of assumptions. Whereas, as a software engineer, you have to flush those assumptions up to the front. I think code has empowered me in some capacity to think a little bit more holistically about things.
CORALINE: That’s awesome.
JESSICA: Holistically like rigorously?
CORALINE: I hope rigorously. That’s always a work in progress, right?
JESSICA: Yeah. That’s interesting because a lot about the way we think in the languages we already speak, you mentioned earlier — maybe this is my reflection — that you shied away from R because the [inaudible] as soon as that you speaks statistics, each of our languages has a metalanguage that people use to talk about the language like in Haskell, you need to know category theory to understand a lot of it. In Scala, you need some type theory and that affects the audience that can come to that one which a remark at PyCon in Chicago, there were a lot of academics and data science. The [inaudible] language that people used to talk about the language of Python and with PyLadies and Django Girls and all these other initiative and the PSF, there is a conscious effort to brought that on a ramp, to decrease the prerequisite, to speak in a language that more people can understand about the language of Python, which then in turn has taught you new ways of speaking about politics.
LORENA: Yeah and I think the really cool thing also, at the minimum, I always get so silly because I think there are some people who will say my language is better than your language but I think what they’re trying to speak to is some of this some cultural nuances to different communities. Like I said, I’ve learned so much from the Chicago Ruby community. It is such a warm and accessible community. Some of the people I met, like I met Coraline at the very early on in my time pivoting into writing code, that it empowered me that I could do this and then some.
I kind of laugh when people talk about, “My language is better than your language,” when really they’re talking about the culture and it’s not even so much about the language. Then I have to roll my eyes and say, “You can do whatever you want with that language or with this language. It doesn’t really matter.” I think there’s a lot to be said about how communities organize themselves? What kind of messaging that they use? But then how does that also then inform us as coders today about the tools that we create and how those tools that we create can help change the landscape around us.
CORALINE: That’s awesome. Sam do you have any thoughts on our conversation?
SAM: My thoughts on the conversation are that I slept very poorly last night and I really look forward to listening to this episode so I can find out what everybody said. Sorry.
CORALINE: Astrid, how about you?
ASTRID: I really liked Lorena that it seemed like what brought you to programming was you were already interested in, which was political science because that’s something that I can relate to, having had a previous or I guess, an ongoing career as a social scientist. Part of my reflection, I think is a kind of a question because in the beginning, when you were talking about your origin story, when you first got started that this idea that code can and should touch everything wasn’t a concept that people really considered at the time.
Part of what, I guess want to know if you have any answer is what do you think that it could be doing code and programming that is not doing because now, we hear about how everybody should be a programmer and you think code does everything, everywhere. But then, as a testimony to some of things you mentioned, a lot of gaps in our knowledge about what’s actually going on and how we address it. What do you think that could be doing that it’s not doing.
LORENA: I think I’ve kind of said this in a few different ways but the ‘now you can code and what do I do with that?’ The idea of that you write beautiful code and it… I don’t know. It cut X number of time, it met my SLA, I got my VC funding… I don’t know, I’m being obviously silly but I think to me I’m really, really concerned about the way we built tools and how the assumptions we make when we create our tools actually changes the world around us.
For me, that’s very much seen in the political space so the news recommender algorithm that Facebook created, which may or may not have polarized more, our idea of how we received news, how we then create these echo chambers, the idea of fake news in Twitter, even with Uber. A few years ago, they have that whole scandal with the mapping the ride of shame.
People are creating these tools and I think that’s kind of thrown things over the fence, expecting that Like, “I made this. I don’t have to think about that concept or retool it over time.” The idea of [inaudible]. There is a social discourse and dialogue that I think each of you here understand and participate with, in your own way. I think it’s really incumbent upon us as tool makers to be at the forefront of that conversation and making sure we’re advocating appropriately and understanding our own biases and how that brings very real implications to the social fabric around us.
The one book that I really love, that I encourage everyone to read is Weapons of Math Destruction, which was published just very recently but essentially she’s a data scientist who talks about how she was in finance and really just her transition from the academic space into data science and how some of these glaring implications in the social fabric that she really hadn’t thought about before until it really started changing people’s lives and she could see it. I think that’s out right now and maybe your day-to-day job isn’t writing the software, maybe you’re not Nate Silver and you’re predicting like the next person who is going to win a campaign or not. But you could be someone who’s like you’re working at Airbnb, you’re thinking about how do people book rentals around you, what does that actually mean about how people then interact in the physical spaces around them. Are we actually redlining again? Are we actually like redefining some of these demarcations in the social landscape that already exist?
I just think sometimes these conversations are so remiss or perhaps we don’t think enough about that that it can be very scary and for those of you who don’t know what the ride of shame thing was, essentially Uber started mapping late night repeat trips that people were taking from one location to another. It’s like the idea, you might say the walk of shame, if you think like college students, one person walking from one room in a dorm to another with the suspect that perhaps there was a romantic connection there. Now, Uber was doing that as a ride of shame.
Anyways, it’s very scary and I think these are the things that I really want people to think about when they’re thinking about how to create their tool. But it’s not just I created the tool. It’s like, now the tools are being used, let’s reevaluate. You need to have that ongoing discourse and reflection.
CORALINE: That could have ties into what I’ve been thinking about and I had a brief tweet storm about it last week, I think. We had this idea, as developers that we’re free of bias, that we’re logical, that we’re irrational. I talk about this all the time. We think of software as neutral and I got into an argument with someone about how software is not neutral. They’re like how does bias reflected up in the sales system but so much of the software that we write, it’s not neutral software, it’s always sociopolitical.
Software always has social consequences and in some cases, political consequences and that’s something, I think that we as developer seemed to pay more attention to so Lorena, what you’re saying about the life cycle of data, this is really important too. Think about the data you’re collecting, why you’re collecting it and what your plan on doing with it when you’re started to belly up because I have heard stories of startups in their death rows, trying to raise money by selling personal data that they’ve collected about their users. That’s the kind of thing that happened.
It was recently pointed out to me that you can find out who I am by searching ‘Coraline trans Chicago’. That takes you directly to my Wikipedia page. Data collection is scary and the networks of collected data are really scary and may have real repercussions for real people. That’s the thing we should be thinking about more.
LORENA: Yes. [Laughs] I have nothing more to add to that, just, “Yes,” times a bunch.
CORALINE: Rein, do you have any thoughts on today’s episode?
REIN: I have many thoughts. The first one is that I think it’s time to do away with this notion that software can be a political or that it should be a political like you were saying software is inherently political. It’s what you get when people come together and do work together. It’s also the way that we mediate our interaction with potentially millions of people by shipping it. To put it in another way, software is made by people, for people. There is no way it can’t be political.
LORENA: Just the whole idea like when I think of from 2008, when I started playing with code and political campaigns like now, even that conversation has changed so much. I think, we’re becoming more aware of it. It’s just that we need to be unapologetic about this conversation, I think. I reflect on myself a lot and I do my best to hold myself accountable but I meet other people that hold myself accountable so I think that also the other edge of it, right? It’s not just that we know it happens but also, when you get that feedback, what do you do with that feedback?
CORALINE: This has been a great discussion and I want to thank everyone who participated. A special thanks to Lorena and Rein who joined us at relatively short notice this week. We’re very happy to have both of your voices as part of the conversation this week and we hope to hear from you again in the near future. Everyone out there, we hope you enjoyed this episode. If you did, consider contributing at Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode and we will talk to you next week. Thanks and bye.
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