Talk — Supporting the George Floyd Protests in Portland: Demonstrations, Legal Support, and Django Apps

A slide with a gray background and large black text reading "Supporting the George Floyd Protests in Portland: Demonstrations, Legal Support, and Django Apps". In the lower right corner, smaller black text reads "@thursdayb / @pdxgdc"

I gave a 25ish-minute talk at PyCascades 2022 covering a Django app that Jamey Sharp built and I supported for the Portland GDC. My script and slides are below. Please note that this is not an exact script; I had to cut some material from my talk during recording to get it closer to the time limit that I’ve left in this version of the script. Consider it a little bonus material! You can watch a video of the talk on YouTube or below:


A gray slide with large black text reading "Content notes: This talk will include discussions of institutionalized racism and police violence, as well as the technology that supports them."

I’m here to talk about my experiences doing bail and legal support for protestors arrested in 2020 and 2021 during the George Floyd Uprising. Since I’m White and I’m talking about supporting people arrested while asking for racial justice, I need to say that I’m only talking about the specific project I worked on. I didn’t organize or lead protests or anything like that. Please consider this a report back on the small chunk of mutual aid that I worked and nothing more. Furthermore, I did not do this work alone. This talk covers the efforts of dozens of people who I am proud to work alongside.

This talk covers technical topics, but it also includes discussions of institutionalized racism and police violence. If you’re not in a place where you can hear about these topics, please consider stepping away for the moment. You can always watch the recording later.

A gray slide with large black text at the top reading "A brief timeline". A white box takes up most of the slide below, with slightly smaller black text reading "May 25 — Derek Chauvin kills George Floyd in Minneapolis.
May 26 — Protests start in Minneapolis.
May 27 — Black and Indigenous women hold space in memory of George Floyd at Portland’s Multnomah County Justice Center.
May 28 — Around 100 protestors gather at Multnomah County Justice Center.
May 29 — More than 1,000 protestors march to the Multnomah County Justice. Police arrest 13 people. PDX GDC provides bail and legal support.
May 30 — Multiple protests take place. Police arrest 64 protestors. PDX GDC launches our GoFundMe."

On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd went to a grocery store in Minneapolis and made a purchase. Thirty-one minutes later, he was dead at the hands of a police officer.

On May 26th, hundreds of protestors took to the streets in Minneapolis, demanding accountability for Floyd’s death — and the long list of other deaths of Black people at the hands of police officers.

On May 27th, a small group of Black and Indigenous women gathered in Portland at the Multnomah County Justice Center to hold space in memory of Floyd. 

On May 28th, around 100 people gathered at the same building, with some people sitting in the doorways. Riot police violently pushed people away from the building. 

On May 29th, over 1,000 people gathered at Peninsula Park in North Portland and marched into downtown to gather again at the Justice Center. Portland police officers arrested 13 people.

The Portland General Defense Committee immediately started posting bail for protestors who were arrested. The GDC started as a legal defense organization for union organizers and workers. Members of the Industrial Workers of the World founded the GDC in 1917. The Portland branch started in 2017 and has provided jail and legal support to protestors since its start. We did the same things for folks arrested on May 29 that we did for past protests: We made a spreadsheet of people arrested and started figuring out who needed bail money, including prioritizing arrestees by relative risks at the jail. Those risks included whether the person arrested was Black or Indigenous, LGBTQ, or had health risks.

Dealing with thirteen arrests at once was a stretch for us. At that point, we were used to two or three arrests at one event and supporting maybe two people with ongoing cases at any given time. We were able to pull together bail funds from members and friends, but we knew we would need to raise money to cover legal costs and reduce the bail burden we’d already taken on. Prior to 2020, the Portland GDC had a budget of a few thousand dollars per year. I put up a GoFundMe early on May 30th. By the end of that day, police had arrested 64 people. 

Protests continued every night into January 2021. I’ve heard estimates that 70,000 people participated over those eight months. Portland still sees several protests and rallies around racial justice every month. Local police and federal law enforcement agents made over 1,000 arrests at protests in Portland. They beat, gassed, and otherwise hurt countless protestors and journalists. 

A gray slide with large black text reading "No time and no resources". A screenshot of a  screenshot with column headings listing information about arrestees and color-coding for arrest status

As you can guess, gathering and managing information on who had been arrested, who needed bail money, and where each person was in the legal process outgrew a single spreadsheet rapidly. On June 6th, 2020, I contacted on Jamey Sharp, who I knew from various tech-related things here in Portland and asked for help. I was deep in the weeds at that point and basically gave Jamey free rein to figure out how to replace this terrible spreadsheet with something that could manage information better. We were not in a position to pay Jamey and I am eternally grateful he was able to help us. The Portland GDC still has minimal resources beyond dedicated volunteers and some funds earmarked for legal expenses. While we eventually raised over a million dollars, that money is all for to bail and legal expenses and therefore not available for administrative costs like building software applications.

A gray slide with large black text in the upper left corner reading "Jamey Sharp". In the middle of the slide are a black box and a white box. The black box contains a logo including a stylized red rocket blasting off and the words "Comic Rocket" in white letters. The white box contains black text reading "comic-rocket.com".

One of the reasons I reached out to Jamey is because of his experience scraping all kinds of websites. He was unable to speak at this event, but I encourage you to check out his project Comic Rocket at comic-rocket.com, which is one of the places he got that experience. I figured Jamey would be able to automate some of our information gathering, letting volunteers focus on things technology can’t do. Jamey’s experience meant that he had the first iteration of our app up and running on June 12, with all the notes in our terrible spreadsheet imported and ready for us to work on.

As the summer of 2020 wore on, we added users and functionality and scaled up a little just about every day. The Portland GDC’s workflow constantly changed based on capacity and the growing number of arrests. This was not a situation where a developer got to make nice neat little upgrades and slowly roll them out to users. This was duct-taping steering to an airplane that was already in flight and occasionally doing barrel rolls. 

A gray slide with large black text reading "Scraping multiple systems" and two screenshots of pages from the websites of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office and the Oregon Judicial Department.

The web app we use for the Portland GDC’s work can be thought of as two key pieces. Most people only ever see an interface to a database, listing people who were arrested with a bunch of fields about their contact information, the status of their court case, and various other details. It’s an amped-up, search-friendly spreadsheet. 

But the app also pulls in information from several sources, automatically prepopulating many of those fields and providing updates to volunteers. Those sources generally don’t have APIs, so the app scrapes them. The sources include Oregon state court records and jail records from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. MCSO is responsible for processing anyone arrested on state charges and many of those arrested on federal charges in Multnomah County (which includes the majority of the city of Portland). 

The information we need to do our work comes in an absurd variety of formats, with an equally absurd set of access requirements. For instance, a lot of court information is in PDFs that are scans of printed documents, often with important handwritten notes like “Dropped” to indicate a suspended charge. 

Federal courts work differently than state courts. and have less public information that can be scraped. Federal court cases go through PACER, which is an app that charges 10 cents per page when you access a document, as well as fees for search results and non-case specific reports. 18F, the federal government’s in-house technical consultancy, has looked at upgrading the system but their report is best summarized as no one knows how PACER works, it’s unmaintainable, and we need something entirely new and built from scratch.

Important information also disappears regularly. MCSO’s arrest information will change with no warning and no record if someone at the jail updates information, including during the booking process. Records of arrests drop off the site entirely after a few weeks. There’s also no listing of citations — incidents where protestors are charged with a crime, usually a misdemeanor, but not arrested. And the information is available is often full of errors. Information collected during arrests is the worst. We’ve known for a long time that law enforcement agents will “tweak” certain information they collect to make their own stats look better. But the data we saw from protests made those changes much more obvious. Police record the races of people arrested incorrectly constantly. In particular, we’ve seen glaring errors around the race of people of color, which have allowed the Portland Police Bureau and other agencies to claim that almost all protestors arrested in Portland are White. We’ve also seen names, genders, physical descriptions, and more recorded incorrectly. 

We’ve had to figure out the meanings of certain data through trial and error because there’s not any documentation available. MCSO also uses different terms and definitions for specific charges than the Oregon court system uses, to the point that our app only grabs the statute number a person is charged under and maps it to correct charge information in our database.

This system is especially infuriating when you realize that it’s on the people who are arrested to correct any errors. Since errors can have consequences that include being kept in jail, they can be impossible to correct without expert legal help. People who are arrested are also expected to stay up to date on their cases, without any of the modern notification systems you might expect. If someone’s charges are suspended, that person is instructed to call the district attorney’s office at least monthly to check if their charges have been reinstated for at least the next two years. If they don’t, they’ll likely miss a court case which will result in a warrant being issued for their arrest and other terrible outcomes. COVID has also meant that policies change constantly, often without online notice. Even before the pandemic, details around court hearings routinely changed on the day of, but as things moved online, everything about legal processes got more complicated.

These websites are also delicate. Some were constructed by contractors trying to keep costs down, while others are built by companies that know that they can take advantage of people who are incarcerated without anyone important caring. 

A gray slide with large black text reading "Finding work arounds" and a screenshot of a Djgo website interface showing data related to court hearings with personal details redacted.

Django and Python were the logical choices for this project for a few reasons: First, Jamey had already built Django apps and was pretty familiar with the framework. And while I haven’t built a whole Django app by myself, I’ve gone through some workshops. Second, Django’s built-in admin interface makes managing a bunch of structured data really easy. The user interface enables anyone to edit that data without tons of training. Jamey was also already familiar with Scrapy, a Python scraping framework, so he could get that set up with a Django-based app quickly. 

One of the pieces of information we need to grab automatically are upcoming court dates. The Oregon court calendar site is particularly irksome. Jamey jumped through lots of programmatic hoops to get that scraper running: the site limits search to 550 results, without offering any “next page” button. The scraper can’t just grab all calendar entries over the next 3 months without hammering the site harder than we want to. So the solution is a little complicated: the scraper looks at the specific case numbers we care about, then groups all the cases with the same starting numbers, trimming off the last two digits. When the court calendar is queried with those truncated group numbers, there are a max of 100 active cases returned. By batching together cases, the scraper minimizes the number of queries — though Jamey has pointed out that if whoever designed the court calendar site had just limited to search results to 1,000 rows instead of 550, he could have cut the number of queries even further.

Of course, there’s still plenty of work that requires a human touch. We have to audit our data regularly, adding in pieces that MCSO missed or that come from conversations with the protestors we’re supporting. Django has made those audits relatively simple, even though they still require a lot of reading through information for the humans involved. We can use tags for indicating the specific categories that need auditing at a given time, as well as sort and filter information in a variety of ways. 

A gray slide with large black text reading "Onboarding and training users" and a screenshot of a Google Doc containing software documentation

The Portland GDC is not a large organization, even now. We’re also not an especially technical group. We recruited volunteers to work on legal support in July and August of 2020, and more volunteers have joined since then.

In preparing this talk, I asked folks who use the app regularly what technical knowledge they had before volunteering with the GDC. The range was even wider than I expected. One of our most technical volunteers (other than Jamey and myself) came in knowing some JavaScript and could use the command line. But we also had folks with very little technical experience, who might use Google Docs or email, but not much else. With some onboarding and documentation, they were all able to make use of the app, as well as suggest improvements that would make our work easier.

All onboarding, and all other work for that matter, happens remotely. Django’s user interface is reasonably simple right out of the box and while we’ve tweaked the user experience lightly, Django uses a visual language in interfaces that is very similar to what’s considered “standard” on the internet. 

I created our technical onboarding process. Another person was responsible for walking new folks through specific support situations, communication norms, and our policies, so I was able to focus just on getting people on to the app. 

I do a video call with each new user that includes a 30-minute walk through of the app. We actually don’t always need the full 30 minutes, but we set up user accounts during that session and getting folks through their first time logging in was often hard — in fact, it was the point our users struggled with the most. That’s because some of our account setup emails wind up in spam. So I built in time to search around for emails. I also limited onboarding sessions to a max of three new users because I only have enough patience to go through three people’s spam folders at a time.

During the walk through session, we go through each section of the app as well as our documentation. Our documentation is a shared Google Doc with screenshots and written descriptions — it’s not fancy, but it does contain answers to basically every question anyone has asked me about the app. 

A gray slide with large black text reading "Adding features" with a screenshot of a Django menu.

We tweaked the app as users asked questions and needed more features. Jamey wisely pushed back every so often and reminded us of our options, even deleting certain features when they were no longer needed. If Jamey hadn’t provided a technical voice of reason, we’d probably have a full-featured CRM at this point, even though that’s not what we need. 

And when I checked in with our users while getting ready to give this talk, they told me that the app was intuitive, friendly, hard to break, and empowering. Users felt empowered to work with data, even if they didn’t come in knowing tech, legal proceedings, or activism. Some features still don’t get used as much as possible. But volunteers say this is more about the time available to do work, not due to difficulties with the app. People also like that they don’t feel beholden to the app and that it’s not judgmental about unfilled fields. One person even said that using the app reminds them of using a message board because they can see the notes and work of other volunteers, which helps them stay connected through all this remote work. 

A gray slide with large black text reading "Assessing risk factors" and a screencap of the "Security in Django" web page, which is available at https://docs.djangoproject.com/en/4.0/topics/security/

We realized early on that we were sitting on a pile of valuable information. While most of what we pulled together was publicly available, it wasn’t combined in this way anywhere else. Between what we scrape and the information we add from the people we’re supporting, we created a doxxer’s paradise. Not only do we have data like physical addresses and phone numbers, but we also have notes on who needs what kinds of help. The risks of holding this information are massive. If someone with bad intentions got access, they’d be able to easily harass people both online and offline. We have an ethical obligation to mitigate every risk we can and to protect this information. The alternative is compounding the harm legal systems are already doing to folks. 

We also faced a lesser risk of losing access to the sources where we pull information from. That did happen several times — not only does MCSO remove information from their arrest records, but the Oregon court system stopped allowing access by anything with an IP address located outside of the US, which coincidentally enough included us at the time. Jamey found us work-arounds, but I’m always waiting for the next time one of these systems changes their access controls. We also faced concerted attacks on any tool we publicly use: we dealt with numerous malicious reports to GoFundMe, Twitter, our email provider, and more. 

We reduced our risks in several ways. First off: we obviously didn’t go around telling people about this app. After all, if someone is attacking your email, they’ll attack every other system they can find related to your organization. We’re facing less attention online now, so talking about the app here is a calculated risk that we’re comfortable with — but I’m not telling you who hosts the app or other important details to keep those risks to a minimum.

We also look closely at everyone who gets access to the app. Our due-diligence process for volunteers includes an in-depth internet background search and confirmation of the information we find with shared connections where possible. Jamey was also able to set up multiple types of user accounts so that we could limit each volunteer’s access to information they actually need to do their work. If, for instance, someone is writing letters of support to people who are currently incarcerated, they can only see those people in the system who they’re writing to. Those volunteers don’t get much more than an address and some biographical information. 

Technical security is, of course, an aspect of risk mitigation. Django has good security features out of the box, assuming you use them. By using Django, we could use built-in security options and also access documentation that we could adapt to explain what was going on behind the scenes to volunteers. But the most important step to managing our security concerns was our effort to avoid collecting information that we didn’t feel we could protect — and that policy would have been the same no matter what framework or language the app was written in. No technology choice is as important as defining what data you’ll collect and how it will be handled. 

A gray slide with large black text reading "Inevitably burning out" and a screen shot of a blog post about a protest on December 31, 2020 which is available at https://pdx.recompilermag.com/2020/12/31/december-31-protest-new-years-noise-making-event/

One of our biggest ongoing issues was burn out. Basically everyone burnt out over the course of 2020 and 2021 — doing legal support just made us burn out faster. We’ve had higher turnover among volunteers than I’d like, but this is hard work. Even though we don’t need to worry too much about gathering and processing data, we’re dealing with emotional situations and even the best outcomes for the people we’re working with involve lots of time dealing with an adversarial legal system.

The only way to handle the fluctuations in capacity is to document EVERYTHING. Everything that happens in an individual case gets recorded in the app. Everything about the app gets documented, too. Our documentation isn’t fancy: it’s a document that I add questions and answers to whenever an app user asked me something. I lifted some pieces out of the Django documentation and reworded them a bit to ensure our users understood how to handle a problem even if they didn’t come in with a ton of technical experience. And any time an edge case came up, I took tons of notes. 

I did worry a lot about what would happen when Jamey and I burned out, however. We both managed to hang on until the app was basically stable and there hadn’t been any new features needed in a while. I did want to make sure that someone had enough knowledge to at least decide if a situation was an emergency and to have someone who could step up if such an emergency came to pass. Luckily, our most technical volunteers reached a point with the app where they seemed capable of handling questions and I drafted a back-up developer who would be willing to handle emergencies before I had to take a break.  

A gray slide with large black text reading "Outcomes for protestors" with a screenshot of a CNN broadcast of a press conference with George Floyd's family after a jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of Floyd's murder. Closed captioned text on the broadcast reads "...Portland stayed in the streets".

I think the work I’ve done with the Portland GDC over the past two years is some of the most important work I have done or will do. We put together legal support for hundreds of protestors out of Django, duct tape, and donations from strangers. We did our part to ensure that protestors could be in the streets for months on end and reduced the risks they faced. One of the most meaningful measures of our work, at least for me, is that Rodney Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, thanked Portland protestors specifically last April. He said the support of protestors meant so much to their family and that staying in the streets helped ensure his brother’s killers faced justice.

So here’s where everything stands as of February 2022: Mike Schmidt, the district attorney here, suspended most protest-related charges. That’s not the same thing as dropping charges entirely. Instead of dropping charges, he’s just not currently prosecuting charges. The DA has the option to reinstate suspended charges for years to come. He’s already reinstated a few. By suspending charges, rather than dropping them, the state also gets to hold on to bail money and evidence until the charges age out. And since almost $700,000 of the money the Portland GDC raised went to posting bail for hundreds of protestors, that money is not available for legal fees or bail for future protests for an indeterminate amount of time. Schmidt is considered a very progressive DA and he’s still chosen to hold protest-related charges over protestors’ heads for years to come. 

The federal district attorney, Scott Asphaug, hasn’t been so nice. Several protestors are facing federal charges, with Black and Indigenous folks facing the harshest penalties. There are at least three such cases which will be going to court in the next few weeks with each defendant facing years in jail. It’s also worth noting that Asphaug previously worked for the Portland police union to get police officers out of trouble during internal investigations and the U.S. Department of Justice does not consider that relationship a conflict of interest.

The city of Portland, as well as several federal agencies, are facing lawsuits from many of the protestors who police attacked. Residents of Portland who were not involved with protests but were teargassed or otherwise harmed are also bringing their own lawsuits. While a few cases have already been settled with payouts by the relevant government agency, many seem to be going to court.

While Portlanders are no longer protesting in the streets every night, cases related to the George Floyd Uprising won’t be over for months, perhaps even longer. The Portland GDC is still doing legal support and expects to be doing prison support for folks unjustly incarcerated over these protests for years to come. 

A gray slide with large black text reading "Donate to support protestors" with screencaps of the Portland GDC's donation links, which are hyperlinked in the text of this post.

I hope you found this talk valuable, both in terms of learning about launching a Django app with minimal resources and even less time and in terms of understanding the amount of work it takes to support protestors through arrests and court cases. The Portland GDC continues to support people arrested at protests in 2020 and 2021 and if you’re able to, please consider donating to help cover the legal costs that many protestors are still dealing with. You can donate through CashApp, Venmo, or by mail to PDX GDC, 2249 East Burnside Street, Portland, OR 97214.

A short piece of fiction about the Python programming community

A few years back, I wrote a short story set at a Python conference. You can tell I wrote it in the before-times because it involves people hanging out in a convention center in person! That story, “Backwards Compatibility,” was originally published as part of Our Python, an anthology of Python fan works published as a fundraiser for PyLadies.

I finally got around to posting the story somewhere anyone can read it. Since it’s fan fiction, of a sort, “Backwards Compatibility” is now up on Archive of Our Own. While this story is okay for all audiences, you should be aware that Archive of Our Own includes explicit material before you click around too much.

I’m currently the only person who has posted anything to the ‘Python (Programming Language)’ fandom, but you are all welcome to change that. I’m also the only person using the tags ‘Python 2’ and ‘GitHub’ so far. Yes, I am completely fascinated by Archive of Our Own’s mechanics. I’ve written about them in the past and will almost certainly write about them again in the future.

If you read “Backwards Compatibility” and enjoy it, consider donating to PyLadies.

​Formally ending The Portland Prospectus

Some of you may remember that in the before times, I ran an email list covering sponsorship opportunities around tech conferences and other events related to tech here in Portland. I haven’t updated it since 2019, given the large number of cancellations and postponements in the last two years.

Both running and sponsoring events look dramatically different today than they did in 2017, when I started the newsletter. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable attending big events in person and I don’t see that changing any time soon. My work has also moved away from the tech industry, so I’m not really tracking tech events very closely at this point.

As a result, I’ve decided to formally shut down the mailing list. After this post goes live, I’ll delete the mailing list, including subscriber emails. If someone wants to start something similar in the future, you have my blessing. And if you want my templates and notes, let me know — we can work out an equitable arrangement.

Since I’ll be deleting the content that went out to the Portland Prospectus mailing list, I’m also sharing the PDFs of the different iterations of the Portland Prospectus here as a sort of archive.

My election coverage, to date

I’m already working on some coverage of the 2022 primary and general elections. In the meanwhile, though, I wanted to collect the resources I’ve made over the past several years into one place.

Prior to moving to Portland, I also wrote about elections (including a stint blogging professionally about the 2008 election). I don’t really recommend my political writing prior to about ten years ago; I have learned a lot since then and developed personal politics that I feel a lot better about.

Evergreen Resources

Election-Specific Resources

The Portland Charter Review Process: A Resource Roundup

I’ve been following the Portland Charter Review process closely since it started in 2020 and have done what I can to make the process a little more understandable. Those efforts have included Twitter threads, explainers, and even ideas for folks interested in submitting public comments. I’m collecting all the materials I’ve made here and will continue to add additional items as I make or find them.

Materials I’ve Created (Arranged By Topic)

Charter Overview

Public Testimony to the Charter Review Commission

Applying to Join the Charter Review Commission (Application Now Closed)

  • Application Explainer — During the process of selecting commissioners for the Charter Review commission, I created this explainer to help more people apply for the commission.
  • Twitter Threads on Applying — This thread covers material included in the explainer adapted to social media. The threads are on Twitter, but there’s also a PDF of the tweets included in the threads, because finding old tweets is difficult.

Additional Resources From Other Sources

Sharing Guidelines

If you are interested in sharing or repurposing any of the materials I’ve created around the Portland Charter Review, you’re welcome to do so. I’ve licensed the materials I’ve created under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, meaning that I just ask you to keep my name on things I’ve written as you share them. I’m not necessarily worried about credit so much as making sure that folks understand that these are materials produced in my spare time and are not reviewed by anyone who is officially part of the charter review process.

Please let me know if you do repurpose or share any of these materials in a way that I can help promote. Examples include:

Announcing the Portland Prospectus

I help with sponsorship at a lot of tech conferences here in Portland. Last week, someone even tried to give me money for a conference I’m not helping with because they assumed (correctly) that I knew how sponsorship worked for that conference. Apparently, I have a reputation.

I’ve had my own little cheat sheet on what tech conferences are happening when in Portland, along with who to talk to about speaking, sponsoring, and so forth. I realized I might as well pretty up that cheat sheet and make it available, since it will help sponsors work effectively with more tech events. So here’s what the Portland Prospectus contains:

  • My recommendations for getting the best value for your sponsorship money here in Portland if you’re hiring or marketing to developers, designers, and other tech industry professionals
  • A spotter’s guide to specialties and languages across different conferences
  • A list of the conferences happening here in Portland through the end of 2017 (based only on the conferences I have dates for)
  • Highlights of some local vendors sponsors can work with to amp up impact

Please note that I am not an organizer for most of these conferences and I haven’t necessarily talked to the organizers of each conference. I used information available online to create this document. If you see incorrect information, please let me know and I’ll update it right away.

I am asking you for your email address in exchange for this PDF. First, I’d like to be rewarded for my work, not just in creating this PDF, but also because I do a lot of free labor on tech conferences here in Portland. Knowing who is interested in sponsorship and how to reach you makes my life a lot easier, so, yeah, I’m charging you the currency I find most useful for access to my tools.

Second, I’m considering sending out an update version of the Portland Prospectus towards the end of the year. I plan to send out a notification of when the new version is up. I’m also considering sending some other updates, like information about when local calls for proposal close.

If you’re not in Portland, you’re still welcome to download this PDF and sponsor our local tech conferences. You’re also welcome to copy this concept for your local community — I’ll even give you some spreadsheet templates if you contact me. Then, please, send me a copy of your finished local prospectus!

Download the Portland Prospectus

* indicates required




Put Your Damn Money Where Your Mouth Is

Diversity is important to tech, right?

We want the makeup of our company to reflect the vast range of people who use Twitter. Doing so will help us build a product to better serve people around the world. — Twitter

Intel is committed to setting the industry standard for a diverse and inclusive workplace culture. — Intel

At Facebook, we value the impact that every individual can have. We are dedicated to creating an environment where people can be their authentic selves and share their own diverse backgrounds, experiences, perspectives and ideas. — Facebook

Most of these companies have backed their words with money — funds that are earmarked for improving diversity. And they do back some good things, like events specifically meant for the demographics those companies are trying to add to their own workforces.

But the money that most tech companies have set aside for diversity isn’t going towards the infrastructure necessary to truly create a sustainably inclusive tech industry.

I’ve been an organizer with the local PyLadies group for a few years now, and we have no shortage of companies that want to buy us pizza so that they can tell our members about job opportunities. When someone talks about offering childcare at broader meetups, everyone agrees that the idea is sound, but no one wants to pay for it. The same is true for tech conferences. As co-chair of Open Source Bridge this year, I hoped to find a sponsor specifically for childcare — a simple change that would make it easier for attendees with families. The business case seems pretty obvious: no matter their gender, senior programmers routinely have families. If those programmers work remotely, are single parents, or split care with another parent, finding childcare can be difficult. Weekend conferences, in particular, can be hard because a parent might have to leave their children with someone overnight.

Providing childcare means that parents are more likely to attend conferences or other events and therefore have a better chance of interacting with a recruiter for a given company. That sort of infrastructure dramatically improves the number of people able to attend.

Adding infrastructure like childcare services to the technology industry’s norms is a prerequisite for making the industry more diverse. Recruiters have to be able to find diverse candidates if they’re going to connect them with employers. That means funding the infrastructure that gets those diverse candidates into the room.

So why is it so hard to get sponsors for things that make diverse conference attendance easier, even for relatively inexpensive additions like providing ASL interpreters?

I offered myself up as a walking billboard in our crowdfunding campaign in order to cover our childcare costs at Open Source Bridge. I asked numerous sponsors if they would be interested in being our childcare sponsor. The lack of enthusiasm compared to our standard sponsorship levels and even compared to sponsoring diversity scholarships was obvious. (Surprise: Even guaranteeing that a company get their logo on one of the most visible people at a given conference isn’t enough to get money for childcare. We managed to cover the cost of childcare, but it was a near thing.)

Apparently the name on the label is very important to sponsors: specifically labeling a sponsorship level as a diversity opportunity gets potential backers excited because they like having their names associated with the word ‘diversity.’

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for diversity scholarships. They play an important role in making conferences more accessible. But each scholarship only helps one person. The right infrastructure will make tech events, along with the rest of the industry, more accessible to a much larger number. I may be hung up on childcare, but by offering childcare at no additional costs makes a world of difference for people who can afford a ticket to a conference but can’t afford the $100+ cost of a babysitter for a single day . For instance, think about developers whose employers will pay for their ticket and travel but won’t cover any other costs. And when you consider that multiple attendees will face that sort of expense, eliminating the cost of childcare means multiple attendees will find a conference financially accessible.

From a strict business perspective, this is ridiculous. And it’s easy enough to fix, provided tech companies truly want the diversity they keep talking about.

It’s time for tech companies to put their money where their mouths are.

In terms of conference sponsorships, that means funding real accessibility. The bullet points below are my personal wish list for conferences I run, but every conference needs different things:

  • An accessible venue
  • On-site, free childcare
  • Transcription and ASL interpretation
  • Multiple food options, including at snack times (vegan, halal, etc.)
  • Swag other than t-shirts

(Liz Abinante has a more exhaustive list here.)

There are plenty of other opportunities to develop better infrastructure in the tech industry in general, too:

  • Scholarship funds (not just individual scholarships) for code schools
  • Dry (alcohol-free) parties and other events
  • Childcare for meetups and other networking events

Dry events, in particular, would be a welcome addition. There is no doubt that the tech industry has a drinking problem. Even casual meetups often focus as much around a keg as they do around a technical talk. That excludes so many people: folks who have alcohol intolerances, folks who are pregnant, folks who need to drive home, and — perhaps the elephant in the room—folks who struggle with sobriety. An estimated one in 12 people have problems with alcohol abuse; they’re at every meetup, happy hour, conference, or other tech event we go to and have to face the choice of fitting in or taking care of themselves. And yet, many of these events don’t even have an alternative to drinking (asking for water can be difficult). We need not only alternative beverages, but alternative types of events that don’t rely on booze.

Because this sort of infrastructure doesn’t yet exist, many people are shut out of the tech industry. If you can’t go to the next networking happy hour for tech companies in your town — whether you can’t get a sitter, you can’t drink, or for some other reason — your chances of getting a job in the tech industry go way down.

A few people make it in anyhow, by paying what amounts to a tax on being more diverse than the next programmer over: finding a way to pay for whatever tools necessary to cover the cost of fitting in is the only way past those problems. In an ideal world, tech companies should give giant signing bonuses to candidates who improve their diversity numbers, if only to cover those candidates’ costs of getting into the industry in the first place.

The wage gap makes me think that sort of bonus will never happen, so pay for the infrastructure your company needs to recruit these people.

Want an easy way to start putting your money into the infrastructure the tech industry really needs? Cut a check to an organization today. Even $25 makes a difference, so if you benefit from that aforementioned wage gap, consider putting money in personally as well as through a company.

The PyDX Post-Mortem

We spent over a year planning PyDX. From my perspective, the result was worth every bit of stress. I’ve been thinking about what I want to say about the conference now that it’s over. I’ve stopped and started this post a dozen times so far. Several versions have been downright sappy.

Instead, here’s the top five things that stuck out for me during PyDX.

1. Bake Diversity in from the Start; It’s Not Something to Add Later

I have no shame when it comes to talking about diversity numbers in order to drum up sponsors, but I actually feel good about how we PyDX organizers handled questions of how to make our conference more diverse. We focused on what real people needed to feel comfortable showing up to a conference — providing a safe environment, offering child care, even small group opportunities.

  • We came within four tickets of selling out.
  • We provided full scholarships to more than 90 percent of applicants, and were able to offer free tickets to the rest through our volunteer program.
  • We didn’t keep official numbers on diversity, but I made some informal counts. About half our attendees and speakers were diverse on some axis.

We didn’t have to focus on creating diversity when we already had a space that welcomed diversity in — and we responded directly to what people told us they needed to be able to attend. Remember, you can’t assume you know what anyone else needs.

Given that I attended a conference earlier this year that was exceedingly proud that 15 percent of attendees were women, I feel great about PyDX on this front.

2. Technical Talks Don’t Get All That Much Love, Surprisingly

I was obnoxiously proud of our speaker line-up, but I was surprised by what attendees responded to most enthusiastically. Looking at social media during the conference and talking to attendees afterwards, everyone was excited by talks that focused less on code — talks about topics like how to learn and how to build culture did really well.

The exceptions — the technical talks that got rave reviews — all had one of two key characteristics. Either they were workshops, where attendees participated and left with code of their own, or they were doing something far outside of typical Python projects, like making music,

Just about all of the talks went well, by the way. I’m not critiquing any of our speakers here. I’m speaking solely about what attendees were most excited by.

3. Not Screwing Up Codes of Conduct Requires Planning

I strongly believe that having a code of conduct is a minimum requirement for a conference (as well as smaller events and even occasional meetups). Having one sets expectations and creates a safer environment for every single attendee.

Organizing PyDX has only solidified my belief. The experience also highlighted some areas where we can make setting up and enforcing codes of conduct much easier — PyDX was a learning experience, because I’ve usually only been in a position to think about codes of conduct for smaller events.

These are my key takeaways:

  • Create an incident response plan in advance. You never want to be trying to figure out how to deal with a specific issue in the moment, especially when you’re already stressed out of your mind about whether the keynote speaker’s laptop is going to work properly with the A/V equipment.
  • Talk to an expert when creating your incident response plan. We actually didn’t write our own plan — instead, Audrey Eschright sat down with us and went over potential issues and how we wanted to handle them. She put that information together into a document we could refer to during the conference and that had enough detail that we could hand it to a volunteer if need be. Budget the money for that sort of expertise; it’s far cheaper than a lawyer after the fact.
  • Every single organizer and volunteer is on duty for code of conduct issues. You should absolutely have a point person, but any attendee facing a problem will talk first with the staff member they most trust who they can catch alone. And those conversations are going to come up unexpectedly — no matter the events I’ve attended, restrooms are de facto meeting rooms because most people feel they can safely talk about anything there.

4. Venues Control So Many Things and They Could Use Their Power for Good

Our venue was our single largest expense. Our venue was also the most constraining factor in planning PyDX. Until we’d found a venue, we couldn’t figure out food, childcare, or even the actual dates of the conference.

First off, the UO White Stag Block was a great venue to work with. They were able to meet most of our requirements right away and there was really only one request we made that couldn’t be met, due to the classes that were in session in the building during our conference.

That said, any venue winds up controlling a lot of how a given conference runs. We had to work within our venue’s constraints:

  • We could only use specific tape for hanging anything on the walls.
  • We could only use catering that had already been approved by the building.
  • We had to have insurance for the event.

That last constraint has kept me thinking: Insurance is required in order to fix any problem that occurs during the conference, including legal dilemmas. Why don’t venues have similar expectations for tools that mitigate risk, like codes of conduct? Isn’t requiring events to do more work to avoid any problems or negative attention more cost effective for venues?

5. The Amount of Help People Offer is Amazing

PyDX is truly a community conference. We had two larger sponsors: MailChimp and Anaconda, both of whom made a major difference in our ability to put on the conference. But around 80 percent of our funding came either directly from ticket sales or from local companies supporting the conference (including a lot of consultants and other small businesses!).

I feel like everyone I spoke to in the weeks leading up to PyDX offered to help in some way. The whole experience has been an important lesson in gratitude for me — a reminder that people will help if you just remember to ask. A few will even go out of their way to help without the request.

Thank you to everyone who made PyDX a reality.

And for those inquiring minds who want to know, we were four tickets short of selling out, so I’m not getting the tattoo. At least, I’m not getting it this year.

A Preview of the Conference I’ve Been Planning for the Last Year

pydx-color-logo-blue

I’ve been working on PyDX for over a year. So have my phenomenal co-organizers, Rachel Kelly, Georgia Reh, Melissa Chavez, and Christopher Swenson. This weekend — October 10th and 11th — all of that hard work is going to pay off.

PyDX, by the way, is a community conference for Python programmers in the Pacific Northwest.

Our Schedule Rocks

I’ve already said that I sort of wish I wasn’t organizing PyDX, because I want to attend it. We’re filming all of the talks, in part because I would cry if I didn’t get to hear at least a few. Here are the talks that I’m particularly thrilled about:

  • Melissa Lewis’ keynote (Saturday AM) — I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Meli speak at PyLadies events and she is going to blow away the PyDX crowd.
  • Terian Koscik’s Build a Bot workshop (Saturday AM) — Terian has an impressive array of Twitter bots that do some cool tricks. She inspired me to start working on my own Twitter bot, but I need some help (I’ll probably watch the video of this talk repeatedly).
  • Evan Palmer’s Making MIDI Music with Python talk — I admit that I actually got to hear Evan practice this talk, but I’m still excited for the final version. He’s making music programmatically!

You can see the whole schedule here as a PDF. I’m biased, of course, but I think we’ve got a great line up across the board.

I’m incredibly grateful to our speakers for putting in proposals and agreeing to speak at PyDX. Many are traveling to Portland on their own dime to do so and I’m a little in awe of the group of people we’re bringing together.

A Conference for Everyone

One of our commitments from the start of organizing this thing was to create a welcoming conference where everyone feels comfortable. Every PyDX organizer has been to tech conferences where we’ve felt like we don’t belong and we’re willing to go to extreme lengths to avoid anyone feeling that way this weekend. A lot of these decisions, by the way, didn’t take all that much time or money to implement.

A Dry Conference: Tech conferences tend to be boozefests, even though many people either don’t drink at all or would prefer not to drink around people they know professionally. So we’re not providing alcohol as part of the conference (though attendees are welcome to meet up after hours for drinks if that’s their thing).

A Code of Conduct: I’ve reached the point where I just won’t deal with events and organizations that don’t have a code of conduct (as well as a way to enforce their CoC). It’s a matter of safety.

Scholarships: Our tickets are priced at $100, which isn’t cheap. The value is more than there (especially when you consider we’re providing food, childcare, great speakers, and more) but we are aware that it’s out of reach for many of the people who might benefit from attending PyDX. So we’re offering scholarships. And if you want to sponsor someone else’s scholarship, you can sponsor for any amount through this payment form. A full scholarship costs us $200 to provide, because we offer stipends for travel and other expenses, depending on the recipient’s need.

We had a good business case for diversity, by the way, which helped us explain the importance of these steps when fundraising and marketing. PyCon North America is taking place in Portland in 2016. We’re making sure that anyone who is considering learning Python before that point has an easy way to get started and to join the local community (which desperately needs more programmers).

Plenty of Pythonic Personality

Community conferences are great because they have more personality. When a conference hosts several thousand attendees, everything has to run like a well-oiled machine. But since PyDX is a smaller community conference, we can have a little fun.

Our entire vibe is a weird mix of hipster jokes and Monty Python references. I’m still not sure I’ve found all the jokes on our website, but I did have a great time writing our sponsorship prospectus (I did have to spend some time researching synonyms for ‘artisanal’).

And I’ve dared the community to help us sell out. If we sell out of tickets (and yes, scholarships count), I’m going to get the PyDX logo (the snake at the top of this post!) as a tattoo. I was originally threatening to get that tattoo on my butt. However, since I want to be able to show it off without violating the code of conduct, I’m thinking my leg is a better bet. Last time I checked, we still needed to sell about 40 tickets for me to get that tattoo. Want to make it happen? Buy a ticket (use FRIENDOFPYDX for 10% off) or sponsor a scholarship (same payment form as before). You know you want to see me all inked up.

 

One Weekend, One App

friendshipapi logo

Over the weekend, my husband and I put together FriendshipAPI.com. He did all the coding, while I wrote copy, designed a logo, and did a little bit of marketing. Christopher wrote up the technical side of launching an app in one weekend, so I figured a rundown of how I spent my time would be useful as well.

The Overall Goal

I saw a contest last week for creating apps based on Context.io’s API (which is especially good at analyzing big chunks of email). We decided to see what we could come up with on short notice; luckily, we already had a few ideas in the pipeline. Christopher and I have talked about how to stay in better touch with some of our friends, especially since we’ve moved cross-country a few times.

Because we were building Friendship API as a contest entry, rather than a business that we expect to be quickly self-sustaining, our goals were:

  • create an app that functions correctly
  • make an attractive site that showcases the app
  • get a little traffic to the site (mostly to get people to test out the app)

Getting more traffic might be nice, because the contest does have an award specifically for whoever grows their traffic the most. But, honestly, too much traffic would be a pain in the posterior for us because the app is running on Heroku’s free plan. If we actually got a serious number of visitors, we’d have to pay for a better plan.

A Full-Fledged Web App

Building a web app requires a fair amount of work, but just writing code is not enough. This is a big pet peeve of mine: hackathons, school projects, and all the other various quickie apps you might write have the same crappy look.

And before anyone tries to tell me that a weekend is too short a period of time to put together a design, let me tell you what we did: we bought a design from ThemeForest — this one, in fact. Starting from scratch on a design is tough in this short a timespan (although not impossible if you actually have access to a designer). But modifying an existing design is pretty doable.

If you do have some design skills and trying to move fast, I always recommend putting together three creative assets first off:

  1. A color palette
  2. A set of typefaces
  3. A logo

You can polish up an existing design quickly if you know what colors and typefaces you want to use and if you have a logo to add to the design. Super short on time? Use a typeface you don’t plan to use anywhere else on your website to make a text-only logo of your app’s name.

Friendship API is done in blues and gray; I used the blue built into the design already and added a darker shade for the logo and some design elements.

The logo is set in Unica One, which is available under an open license through Google Web Fonts.

A Quick Bit of Marketing

The real goal of our marketing Friendship API was to get some feedback on what we were doing: a weekend isn’t long enough to do real UX testing, but you can get people to tell you what they don’t like about your app through Twitter.

We were specifically looking for the sorts of people who will be judging the contest: startup nerds. That informed where we put our energy.

Our marketing plan broke down like this:

Twitter: I created a Twitter account for the site (mostly for tracking purposes on Twitter) and tweeted about the launch on the day of. I retweeted that tweet, along with writing a couple of original tweets for my account and my husband’s.

Blog: We launched with two blog posts — one on my husband’s site and one on Medium. I was able to write tweets about the blog posts, as well as share them on sites like Hacker News.

Private Channels: I wrote a couple of short messages to post on a few different private channels I have access to (Facebook groups, Slack teams, and the like).

We got about 100 visitors in the first day. Just like every other time I’ve launched a project, private channels brought us the most traffic — over two-thirds. Twitter came in a distant second.

We also got quite a bit of feedback, which is exactly what we were hoping for. We were able to make a couple of crucial adjustments before sending in our contest entry.