Women traditionally face disadvantages in accessing and benefitting from technology, and this is doubly true for women living in rural areas. In March 2016, four women hackathons were conducted at four engineering colleges in various parts of the state, with a focus on rural, far-flung areas. These hackathons included OS installation, PHP Programming, and Database management. More than 50 women students participated, and some of them went on to become trainers for Women Hackathons.
An Eye-Opener – Hackathon at Wayanad Engineering College: The 3-day hackathon at Wayanad, had about ten participants. Wayanad being a highly rural district, the women students in this engineering college had very little exposure, and this affected their initial confidence levels. The hackathon experience was an eye-opener, motivating them to learn more. They were able to do things they never thought they could do on their own, boosting their self-confidence and enthusiasm.
On the first day, participants were taught installation and setting up OS. Though these hackathons are intended only for female students, three male students were asked to be included by the faculty, to “help” the participants. However, with the male students soon dominating and taking over installation from the girls, thus defeating the very purpose of the hackathon, the facilitator finally had to intervene and request that the girls do the installation independently.
On the second day participants were trained in File permission, Ownership and PHP. PHP was extended to the third day as the girls were very interested to learn more. They were also taught OpenCV, an image processing tool. Participants did installation several times – this was an opportunity they rarely got. Plans are underway to create a Free Software Women’s Cell at the college.
Practical Application of Learning – Hackathon at Barton Hill Engineering College: The only hackathon venue in an urban setting, the two-day program was attended by second and third year female computer science students. After an introduction on free software by Arun M, participants were divided into groups and trained in installation of Debian OS on the first day. After their training, several students went home or to their hostels and tried installations on their own laptops and computers. They then came back the next day with doubts and questions for their trainers, showing their level of engagement and initiative. On the last day, participants were familiarised with file permission, package management, web development, basics of the programming language PHP, and database integration.
Students often outsource their project work to external agencies and have little involvement in their own projects. This hands-on opportunity at the hackathon helps them to pick up technical skills that are difficult to acquire in their highly theoretical academic programs, which would help them in project execution. As the hackathons are planned as the beginning of a long process of engagement with women students, participants’ addresses were collected for follow-up programs.
Eternal Debate: Free Software vs. Proprietary – Hackathon at Kannur Engineering College: The three-day hackathon at Kannur held from March 14-16 had 20 participants. The Head of the Department here was extremely supportive of the program. The first day’s training included an introduction to Free Software and Installation. The second day covered PHP, file permission and folder structure.
The final day of the hackathon witnessed heated discussions and debate on Free Software versus proprietary software, with questions raised on what was wrong with creating and selling proprietary software. There was a clash of the opposing philosophies of seeing software as a means of creating and sharing knowledge for the greater good, or simply as a product that could be sold to make a profit. Participants were sceptical about how they could make a living from Free Software, and a few of them were not fully convinced.
A major challenge faced by these girl students is that after this they are on their own. They have no support system to fall back on and no one to turn to for clearing doubts or to guide them when they hit a roadblock. They are also concerned about the risk of losing data while trying out new things they are not familiar with. They highlighted the need for a women’s call centre or helpline to solve issues and support beginners. They also flagged the highly relevant (and ironic) question of the lack of female trainers for the women-only hackathons.
Learning out of Curiosity – Hackathon at Idukki Engineering College: The three-day hackathon at Idukki was held from March 18-20, with about 35 participants, though not all were able to attend all three days. The first day’s schedule included an introduction to Free Software and a self-introduction where participants were asked about why they wanted to join the hackathon. Most of them came out of curiosity and to learn more. The first day included training in installation and file system. The following day, a Saturday, participants were taught file permission, app installation, LAMP, setup and PHP.
The final day being Easter Sunday, there were some issues with arranging transportation for the girl students, as the college bus was not available. Finally a jeep was sent to bring some of the students. Due to the Easter holiday and transportation hiccups, there were only a few participants. The closing day covered PHP and OpenCV.