Hawaiians In Tech hosts first hackathon to explore genealogy tools
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A three-day hackathon kicked off this afternoon, bringing together non-native and native Hawaiian technologists, researchers, coders, cultural practitioners and community members to lend their thoughts and talents to the field of native Hawaiian genealogy.
Although it was only the first day, the diverse attendees — about 50 in person at Hālau 'Īnana in Mōʻiliʻili, plus several dozen logged in online — still waded into some heady waters.
Keynote speaker Dr. Lilikalā Kame’eleihiwa led participants through her experience researching the last 100 generations of native Hawaiians and how it was sourced through centuries of ocean-spanning oral histories, stories, and legends.
Then, her team from the Kūkāmoʻo Hawaiian ancestry project demonstrated their work building a free tool for all Hawaiians to use for genealogy research.
Finally, brainstorming and team formation. And it turned out, the technical questions were the easy ones: databases, genealogy data structures, data normalization, and the like were discussed and debated with ease.
But other questions were trickier.
How is information validated and how are changes vetted when "official documentation" is non-existent and human motives are opaque? Should conventional models be eschewed entirely for failing to acknowledge the flexibility and fluidity of native Hawaiian family units? How open or easily accessed should genealogy information even be, given a culture where history is future and knowledge must be earned through connections and trust?
Nobody expects the sprawling universe of native Hawaiian genealogy to be transformed into an app over the weekend. But it was clear that everyone was going to learn quite a bit about both technology and what it means to be Hawaiian.
The event continues tomorrow with a full day at Puʻuhonua O Waimānalo, also known as The Village, with a mix of brainstorming, designing, coding, working the kalo and mud in the lo‘i, and knowledge sharing sessions.
Finally, Sunday brings Demo Day, where the results of the weekend's conversations and collaborations will be presented.
Organizers note that the closing date, July 31, was not selected arbitrarily: it's Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea, or Sovereignty Restoration Day, which was officially recognized by the state this year (albeit not as a holiday).
It is turning out to be a remarkable event, and the first event of any kind spearheaded by Hawaiians In Tech, a nascent organization born out of a simple online directory.
Launched last April, the Hawaiians In Tech website and associated Discord community has grown from a few dozen to several hundred, and bringing its members together in-person was long overdue. Thanks to Purple Mai‘a and its extensive experience in organizing Hawaiian-centered hackathons, this weekend's event came together quickly.
Now, in the words of its organizers from Hawaiians In Tech and Purple Maiʻa, here is how this community and weekend came to be.
'Why don't you start now?'
Q: How did Hawaiians In Tech, the website, get started?
Taylor Ho: It's kind of a tag team story between me and Kamakani, in a really interesting way.
Kamakani Parubrub: A while back I started my position at a company called Guardant Health. I was talking to one of my managers and she was asking me about my goals and my future in life. I said I always wanted to get back to Hawaii and the Hawaii community and my roots and my culture. As I was saying that, I was thinking really far into the future, like, 'I'll figure that out later, once I established myself as a person in tech.' And she was like, 'Why don't you start now?' She kept pushing me to get started, to put in the hours, to check out what communities are available and see what I can do.
I spent the weekend searching 'Hawaiians in Tech.' It was similar to one of the phrases I heard from my university, where there were other communities in tech. I wanted to base it around that idea. And the first thing that popped up in my Google search was Taylor, who was giving a speech at a JS conference in Hawaii. I found his Twitter and I reached out, and I was like, 'Hey, is there a community already? Can I join it? Why don't we start it?'
Taylor, being the person who already had the background knowledge, was sending me links to stuff here and there. I don't have much front-end experience, but Taylor was guiding me through to figure out how we can make this work. And with Taylor's guidance, we started going off.
Taylor Ho: We're in a really interesting time for — I hate to self categorize as marginalized — groups outside of the majority, I guess you could say, especially in the industry, starting to rise up and self organizing, finding a voice amongst themselves. Oftentimes, this happens in like guilds and clubs that are sponsored by the company, but then you're restricted to that company. A part of what we wanted to do is create something that could go beyond that. You could be in school still. We have CS major students that are part of the community. We're just trying to create a space for for Hawaiians to find each other that work in the tech space.
Q. Now you've grown to over 100 members, and it makes sense that you'd want to move things into the real world. How did you come to decide on a hackathon?
Taylor Ho: It's one of those things that, once you start talking about it, you realize how many people have been thinking the same thing. I don't think any of us really try to claim it was someone's idea, it just came through getting together online. Bit by bit, by the end of each conversation, we're finishing each other's sentences as far as what it is that we were motivated to do. Andrew in particular, and Keoni had an inspiration to pursue genealogy, and Andrew reached out to talk about it.
Andrew Taeoalii: I joined Hawaiians in Tech late, probably as the 100th member, but when I came on, I looked at the GitHub repository, and it was just Taylor and Kamakani as the two main contributors. So I was like, 'How can I help out?' I don't particularly work with the stack that that's being used, but I put in a little pull request and put in some code, and thought, 'Man, we need to take this a little bit further. Let's do something more.'
I'm a software engineering manager at Twitter. But I was recently appointed to be the global chair of Twitter Indigenous, which is a business resource group within Twitter. It's hard to have that kind of role and not have the pedigree of what I've done for my community. I was looking back, and while I have a good professional resume, in terms of what I've done for my community, it hasn't been much.
I felt like a Hackathon was a way that I could do that, because I've had all these projects in mind, so I pulled Kamakani and Taylor into a room on Discord, and I was like, 'Hey, can can we do this? I'd be happy to drive, I'd be happy to find monetary support.' And they were all in.
Separately, I was talking with Keoni on Twitter. Kumu Lilikalā Kame’eleihiwa, a well known professor, a lot of the work that she's done over the years is on a genealogy project. We sat with their team and just tried to understand what it is they're trying to build. Keoni Also talked to me a little bit about Malama Ventures and what they're doing at Purple Mai‘a, and he was like, 'Hey, do you know any other professionals in the industry that I can reach out to?'
I said, 'I just started working with this guy, Taylor, a really cool guy.' I went to school with his brother and also Kamakani's brother as well, they're both proud graduates of Kamehameha Schools. So that's where the hackathon came up and we brought Keoni in.
Purple Mai‘a is a very well respected organization, and they've done so much for the community, so it was really a good opportunity to reach out to both of these organizations to be a part of the hackathon.
Keoni DeFranco: Kea‘a and I work at Purple Maia, the venture studio side of it, an evolution of the Purple Prize, the incubator, and an evolution of FoundHer, but actually starting to build more products. The idea was, how can we build upon moʻokūʻauhau (genealogy) and how interconnected it makes us.
Taylor found out he had a family relationship, and posted it on Twitter.
Taylor Ho: Yeah. Me and my cousin Jordan. My best friend from high school.
Keoni DeFranco: That tends to happen, but with close friends, it's even cooler finding that on later in life. With instances like that, and with a project as large as moʻokūʻauhau, you need as many people as possible thinking about it. Especially as you start to reflect with kupuna (elders) about the kuleana (responsibility) that comes from multiple generations working on moʻokūʻauhau and what that takes. All these conversations happened at the same time, and I think that's how the best projects are created.
Q. The third piece of this is HawaiianAncestry.org, Dr. Kame‘eleihiwa's project. The hackathon will be to support this research?
I ran into Auntie few months ago, and her team was working on a specific project digitizing handwritten moʻokūʻauhau. And our team had been thinking about ways of helping kanaka to find their roots and get past certain barriers by providing resources to help them with their research — anything from ‘iwi kūpuna (ancestral bones), land claims, Hawaiian Home Lands, all the places that you need ancestry verification for. That was the high-level brainstorm that we were having.
But I think this project is about taking a step back and listening to the community. Lilikalā is helping to speak here, but I think we're walking into this project with a whiteboard and some pens and listening to what people think we can do.
I think what we can do is make moʻokūʻauhau more accessible to our lāhui (people or nation), we can help people organize their personal records, and give them access to deeper databases.
One partnership that we've been really happy about is working with Uncle Dean Keko‘olani and his relatively extensive genealogy database called kekoolani.org. He comes from a lineage of trusted genealogists, in the community for many generations, information orally transmitted that he was able to digitize and put online. So he has a really well established web of of knowledge. He gifted us with an export of that.
So we're able to walk into this weekend with that as a foundation, allowing our people to — in many ways — stick their hands into our kūpuna and listen and build from there.
Kea‘a Davis: I graduated from Stanford Product Design in 2020, which was at the same time as the pandemic, so that's what ended up drawing me back home. Since then, since joining Purple Mai‘a, I've just been super interested in how we integrate place-based methods to create the next generation of user research. I kind of hate the word 'user,' though, because it's really about people. People based technologies, technologies grounded in the values of our people. I think that's really in line with what we're doing here with the hackathon.
Something that really inspires me about this work is its potential to give people more agency over their moʻokūʻauhau, or genealogies. Especially for those who have moved away or have been disconnected from the islands. I'm very lucky in that I have a grandma who's very meticulous about keeping records, but if you don't have access to something like that, it can be really hard to reconnect with those lines of knowledge.
I think the hackathon helps restoring agency, making that knowledge accessible, and giving a chance to people, technical and non-technical people, to gather in one place and apply that knowledge for building next-generation tools.
Q: How technical is this hackathon?
Taylor Ho: It's important that for it to be a hackathon, we need the builders to arrive. But as important as that is, we want to kick off this project with the community as well.
We've been actually really fortunate to have connected with our New Zealand, Aotearoa cousins that had built a similar project, called Āhau, at ahau.io. From that conversation, we of course learned about their tech stack, as they approached it from a technical perspective. But the other side that was equally as important in that conversation was the advice to start with the community. It is just as important to hear the needs of the Hawaiian people.
Amongst all the many other wonderful things we learned from that group, we really took it to heart to get our community — whether they're technical or not, whether they're kanaka or not — as involved as possible.
We have a second day full of like programming for anyone to enjoy, whether you're technical or not.
Kea‘a Davis: I do believe there's power to having people who have the lived experience of having engaged with genealogy in whatever way possible. And for our technical builders, whether they be back end, front end, UX designers, on Saturday, while the technical folks are building, there will also be a series of workshops running.
And on top of all that, we'll have people out in the kalo patches all day. I think it's really great to get grounded, to be able to connect with Hāloa (the ancestor of the Hawaiian people). I think it's really important that it all integrates together and those values are drawn back into whatever is built.
Q: So you don't have to be technical, and as you've said, you don't have to be Hawaiian, either, to participate?
Kamakani Parubrub: Having allies and having people who aren't specifically connected but want to contribute is important. We may not have all of the technical skills, or everything that we could possibly need. So having people who want to contribute and learn more about the culture and be an ally to Hawaiians is awesome.
Everyone here really has an opportunity to learn from each other, from non-technical to technical, trying to understand what actually goes into building software that people use on an everyday basis. Technical people have a lot to learn from Aunty Lilikalā and all of our kupuna who have all of this experience in genealogy, knowledge that we need in order for us to succeed, understanding our genealogy and Hawaiian history.
It's why this hackathon is important. It's nice to get together and learn from each other. Because if we keep our knowledge to ourselves and hold it with us, it never gets to live on past past us.
Keoni DeFranco: It's important for our self identity, especially as we're continuing to do battle for a piece of our homeland here, to be more inclusive. So people can see the struggle that that's necessary to apply for Kamehameha Schools, or Hawaiian Home Lands — those are places where we can use allyship, voting for OHA, those kinds of things. That allows us to be the tip of the spear in evolving the industry in a uniquely Hawaiian way, keeping it as inclusive as possible, as well as explaining why we need everyone's help to do this together.
The end goal here is to build tools that are free to use, a community open source project, but also to help people do what they need to do, build tools with utility. We hope this is not a weekend event, but the beginning of a community that that continues to evolve and spin out tools that are used at scale.
Q: This hackathon is a big step for Hawaiians In Tech. What's next?
Taylor Ho: Our intention is to continue to find ways that we can bring the community together to build what is most important for our community. And if that means organizing in ways that go beyond us just sitting in a Discord room, there is an aspiration for moving this into a nonprofit so that we can start approaching projects and funds in a more serious way. Everything that has come forward has been a community member with an idea, and we're just here to facilitate, 'Let's go.' The more the merrier. We're just getting started.
Andrew Taeoalii: The ʻŌlelo noʻeau (proverb) that comes to mind is, 'Pūpūkahi i Holomua,' unite to move forward. For a lot of us, myself included, who have moved away from Hawaii, it's really uniting us. I'm working on some really cool stuff, and I know Taylor and Kamakani are working on some really, really cool stuff too, in our day jobs. It's at the forefront of where technology is headed. And so it's bridging that force with our cultural ties and our roots.
This is that bridge, it's bringing together both these two worlds that are part of our identity. I am kanaka. I am also a technologist. I've always seen those as two completely separate entities. And it wasn't until running into each other in these Discord rooms that I see there's hundreds of us out there. It's really breaking this duality of, 'I put my Hawaiian hat aside and then I go into work.' This is like the first time I'm bringing that together.
Taylor Ho: All these things lining up, I take no credit for that. To bring it all back, we always joke, it's moʻokūʻauhau all the way down. This is no coincidence. This is our ancestors' doing. It's our ancestors bringing us together. All these things were meant to happen.