As computational tools become more accessible, more people than ever can shape the technologies that increasingly impact our lives. Joy Buolamwini, founder of Code4Rights, a technology education initiative, has dedicated her life to helping others discover how to develop the tools of the future that can help inspire and transform the next generation. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Joy about how she makes apps that matter and her plans to use tech for good.
You call your guiding philosophy “Show Up, Speak Up, Stand Up.” What does that mean for you and how has your life spoken to that mantra?
The Triple “S” Approach has allowed me to identify opportunities to show compassion through computation by creating social impact mobile apps. For example, leading the development of Oxford First Response App enabled the Oxford community to show support to survivors of gender-based violence.
The First Response App provides survivors of sexual violence and friends of survivors with information about optional ways to respond, essential knowledge about support resources, critical contact details, and answers to frequently asked questions.
By showing up to events where people with similar interests to mine were gathering, I was able to form relationships that eventually led to collaborations. By speaking up about goals like making meaningful technology, I voiced my desires in order to signal to others the types of opportunities I was looking for. And by creating a system to empower community members to contribute to the creation of a social impact app, we were able to stand up for justice. Through my entrepreneurial journey, the Triple “S” Approach has expanded into a larger Triple Dare framework that I use to help me reach my goals.
To help young professionals and students reach their potential, I created the “Why Not Dare?” course, which challenges you to Dare To Ask, Dare To Listen, and Dare To Change.
In the course, I speak in more detail about the strategies—including the Triple “S” Approach—that enabled me to start organizations across three continents. Ayiba Magazine readers can access the course for free.
How does technology empower us to be more human?
Technologies like social impact apps are at their best when they allow us to reach out and say I identify with you, we care, we dare to dream of a better world, we dare to push for change. They inspire when they connect us to new ideas, ways of thinking, and ways of being that influence how we experience the world. They ignite movements when they bring people together around a common cause. Why? Because ultimately change tools are about extending our humanity, our compassion, and our love. They are manifestations of our intentions to embody our higher ideals.
How do you think technology can transform Africa’s sociopolitical landscape?
Technology alone cannot transform the sociopolitical landscape of Africa. Technology offers the opportunity to bring more transparency to government, expand economic development, extend educational opportunities, and improve health outcomes. The seductive promise of technology tempts us from acknowledging systematic changes that require difficult choices and negotiations.
Of course, as a technologist I do see there are some merits to digital innovations. In an ideal case, technology can accelerate the opportunity to share actionable knowledge. Actionable knowledge is information you or I can use to make an empowered decision.
With the Women’s Rights App we created with Asikana Network in Zambia, our goal was to inform Zambians on women’s rights, the legislation that backs them, and, more pressingly, steps to take to affirm or defend these rights. If I have the right to vote, where do I go to register? Actionable knowledge means nothing if we decide not to act. Technology can amplify our choices, yet in the end we must choose actions that improve society for everyone.
How did your time at Georgia Tech, as Fulbright Fellow, as a Rhodes Scholar affect your outlook on these issues?
As an undergraduate at Georgia Tech, I gained technical skills which seemed to have promise in helping deal with social issues. I learned how to look at problems and devise technical solutions to fit specific constraints. I thought about questions like “what size screens should we work with?” or “how fast will the data connection be?”
I soon discovered that learning how to handle technical constraints was not enough to address larger societal issues such as, “who has the power to make decisions?” As a Fulbright Fellow in Zambia, I witnessed through my work with local organizations that technology alone could not solve issues. Instead of starting with technical solutions in mind, my collaborators taught me the importance of listening to community needs: “what issues do community members view as important?” As a Rhodes Scholar, I was confronted with the complexities involved with educational technology as I pursued a master’s in Learning and Technology: “how do we develop effective learning opportunities while mitigating issues of access and bias?” I now think about technology not as a singular entity for change, but as a potentially powerful part of a larger set of tools for change that ultimately centers on people. For me, the heart of computing is humanity. “How do we develop meaningful technology with and for diverse audiences?”
Why do you care so much about the issue of inclusion and how do you think we can engage others on this issue?
As a female African technologist who has found success in the tech sector and seen the barriers that prevent others from joining, I want to make sure that all who desire can learn to create meaningful technology. The challenges of our time will take all of humanity engaged in creating solutions. We cannot afford to exclude so many voices in the creation of the future.
Sharing concrete examples that highlight the need for inclusion is one path towards more engagement.
One way I have started to engage others on the issue is by writing about my lived experience of code exclusion. In May 2015, I published an article about the need for InCoding—inclusive code which received over two thousands views in a couple of weeks. It was the first time I publicly shared intimate struggles with tech exclusion, and it was encouraging to see that it brought attention to the need for inclusion.
What’s the first app that you created?
This answer might be a bit tangential. My journey into app development started with web development. At Code4Rights, we provide learning materials on mobile web apps which use the same languages used to make websites like google.com to make mobile apps like the First Response App. When I was in secondary school I made my first websites for teams and clubs I participated in. I made a Latin language website as well as a small social network for my athletics team. I first got into app development when I was a freshman at Georgia Tech. I joined a research group that was working on a Google Health project. The first app I made collected information about daily goals so that you could keep track of your progress.
Why did you decide to launch Code4Rights? How do you think it is contributing to change?
If you want to learn how to create technology and everyone you encounter seems nothing like you, you may not feel as though you belong. This is exactly why I am doing Code4Rights. I want to help expand the surface area of possibility for who codes, why they code, and what they care about. You do not have to be part of some elite group to create technology. Being you is enough.
At Code4Rights we are sharing the story of creation and diverse creators of technology to challenge assumptions about how technology is made, why it is made, and who creates it. By presenting multiple perspective of the process of creation, we can shape the stories that are told about tech sectors. In developing inclusive learning materials, we can reach a broader audience to increase participation in the tech sector.
How is Code4Rights funded?
Code4Rights was the pilot Rhodes Scholar Year of Service initiative. I wrote a proposal to use the scholarship support that would have enabled me to earn a second degree at Oxford to get Code4Rights started. To generate revenue, I charged organizations for app development and training. I used that money to fund the development of coding workshops and courses that could be offered at low or no cost. I secured corporate sponsorship and combined it with some of the Code4Rights earnings along with personal savings to fund the development of the Journey To Code online course.
Code4Rights is now based at the MIT Media Lab as a research initiative. We are able to take advantage of institutional support to continue our work and make learning materials widely available.
How are your workshops run and where do they take place?
Our in-person workshops take place in the communities we are based. In the past we have done workshops in Lusaka, Zambia (as Zamrize) and Oxford, UK. We are now focusing our workshops in Boston since we are located at the MIT Media Lab. We offer brainstorming sessions where individuals identify opportunities to add value to local communities. We offer skills workshops where participants can learn how to make a basic mobile app. We also offer impact workshops that enable participants to try out their skills on real-world applications.
In creating workshops and speaking to leaders of other coding initiatives that run workshops around the world, I learned that developing relevant workshop materials was a common challenge. Even though there are online tutorials and guides that introducing coding concepts, these materials are seldom developed for diverse audiences in mind. Part of my research focus is to create relatable learning materials that other organizations can use in their work.
What’s your vision for Code4Rights? What impact do you hope to have in the near future?
I view Code4Rights as an initiative that can both provide inspiration by creating and highlighting examples of inclusive technology and guide the implementation of ideas that incorporate social impact technology.
My vision for Code4Rights is to create a system that increases the diversity of participation in the tech sector by engaging people from currently underrepresented groups in transformative learning experiences. These transformational experiences will give rise to the creation of impact projects that address social needs. The stories and media created around these experiences will challenge stereotypes and offer inspiring narratives that attract more people to make meaningful technology.
We are beginning to see this vision manifest as media is generated about the creations of our students by organizations like the US State Department, BBC News, The Guardian, and even Hindustan Times, a leading newspaper in India.
Our students speak to the holistic opportunity offered through the Code4Rights approach: “It’s rare and inspiring to have such an empowering, hands-on experience that integrates skills, tools, and real world impact.” – Kira (Code4Rights Participant)
In the near future, I am creating a set of introductory learning materials for the MIT App Inventor platform. App Inventor allows beginners to make Android apps and was developed to democratize software engineering—make it easy for anyone to make an app without extensive programming knowledge. By centering the beginner tutorial around themes of social impact, we aim to spark the civic imagination of people as they explore the possibilities of technology. We want people to think about technology as part of a larger toolkit for social change. How is what you are creating impacting broader strands of society?