From a Hackathon in Silicon Valley to the Conflict Mines of Congo

By: Bob Dourandish

Hackathons geekify the concept of a pickup game. These events are designed to create a piece of software in short order, typically over less than 48 hours. The rules are surprisingly similar to the neighborhood playground… You show up, you find a team, you go to work. At some point you demo what you’ve created. Somehow one or two winners are selected. They get cash and/or stuff. The event is over. Everyone drinks then goes home with a little more experience. Maybe even a prototype for a great idea and, probably, a free T-shirt!

While the game is new, a key challenge can be traced all the way back to the invention of the ball: A successful hack is just as dependent on finding the right teammates. Picking teammates is a little easier on the playground, however. There, you can make reasonable assumptions just by visual inspection. Basketball? Taller guys are picked first; football, the buff guys. Unfortunately, there are no telltale physical characteristics that finger that amazing JavaScript or HTML5 coder.

Or are there?

At my first hackathon, I learned that in fact there are some interesting indicators that set the prospects apart.

There are, for example, the clothing and the level of tech cred it communicates. The white, iPod/Phone/Pad-style ear buds peeking from under a hoody is a great start. A T-shirt with a message that only an engineer – or better yet only an engineer specializing in something specific like the TCP/IP Network Stack – might understand, is even better. But, even though this was my first time to the dance, it didn’t take long to figure out that the most important perceived “signature” of one’s ability is the gear – the computer, the phone, the laptop. As one participant stated as-a-matter-of-factly: “You are what you hack.”

No wonder no one was taking me seriously! I wasn’t packing anything! I was lugging a G1 – yes, that G1!!!

The reaction was amusing and amazing at the same time. The HTC G1, aka the Dream, aka the Google Phone, was released on 10/22/2008. That made the phone less than about 28 months old at the time. Regardless, this once-shiny flagship of technical ingenuity was already not just a relic but a loud and definitive testament to the bearer’s lack of technical ability and, most likely, his diminished social relevance as well.

But why? I got curious.

Didn’t the two gray beards, about my own age, that I cornered at the coffee station realize that the G1 could do everything we needed done that night? Well, of course they did but, one explained in a grandfatherly manner, that does not mean yesteryear’s technology could continue to support the next wave of innovation. And what did the two 20-somethings, in their programmer-personified black-on-black jean-hoody-shirt and the FiveFingers shoes, with the entire ensemble smartly accented only by the white of the ear buds and the shine of the phones, think? Packing the latest technology is the sign of “being with it”, one said. “You have to live the dream,” the other asserted to his friend’s absolute agreement.

It didn’t take long before these statements began to repeat in my unofficial survey. Fundamentally, however, during these 28 months, the core mobile technology had only minimally advanced. While some of the improvements were worth considering for a personal communications device, they really weren’t all that important for development or test devices – certainly not all test devices. Yet, in the main hack area I counted just shy of 300 mobile devices (smart phones and tablets) in a room of approximately 70 active participants who, on average, also carried 1.3 laptops each.

Those numbers are a sad reminder of the human cost of an engineering methodology that links innovation to quantity of available resources – an approach that directly connects Silicon Valley to the Congolese conflict mines.

Manufacturing most, if not all, electronics requires one or more of the so-called conflict minerals. These raw materials (tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold) are mined cheaply in eastern Congo through slavery or indentured servitude. Armed gangs control the mines and use violence, including rape and murder, to create and maintain a compliant and inexpensive labor pool. Of course, to maintain oversight and defend their territory these gangs continually need to enlarge their militia. The ideal recruits are often children who are not old enough to fear death, are just as deadly with a weapon, and are easily intimidated or controlled using inexpensive incentives such as an occasional good meal, permission to rape young girls, few trinkets, or some candy. While statistics are neither available nor reliable, the average age of child soldiers is generally accepted to be 13 years old.

Clearly, any reduction in demand for these minerals will have a positive effect on the Congolese lives. I am not suggesting however, that we should stop buying smart phones or electronics.

Using inhumane methods to meet product demand is nothing new. When sugar was in high demand, Christopher Columbus and the Spanish army enslaved natives of the present day Cuba and the Dominican Republic. When that labor pool was no longer adequate, the Spanish began to enslave African natives. A growing demand for cotton across Europe would later extend slavery to the United States. Today, a peonage system throughout the third world, even in oil rich nations of the Middle East, provides large pools of indentured laborers who will suffer for generations to pay back measly borrowed amounts.

We can’t change the world overnight.

What I am suggesting, however, is that two very simple acts could significantly reduce Silicon Valley’s negative impact in Congo.

First, as engineers, we are uniquely capable of evaluating “form” vs. “function”. Yes, they are both necessary for a successful product but we should, I advocate, question design elements that do not support specific engineering performance. Is that shiny back on Apple mobile devices, such as the iPhone, made of tin? If so, is it necessary for the function of the device? If it is just a “pretty sales thing”, we should challenge ourselves to find an alternative that would require less of these conflict minerals.

Second, particularly as software engineers, we should strive to re-use as much equipment as possible, particularly for testing. Yes, we do need to test our code on devices that it will likely run on and I am in no way suggesting that quality should be compromised. However, I also do know that we don’t need brand new equipment for every test.

I would like to leave you with a thought. Consider that some market research forecast that global sales of smart devices will reach 1.1 billion annual units by 2013. Reducing even a half gram of conflict minerals per device will translate to a reduction of 550,000,000 grams, or 1,212,542 pounds, in demand.

With numbers like that we can change quite a few Congolese lives for the better. I say let’s go for it.


One thought on “From a Hackathon in Silicon Valley to the Conflict Mines of Congo

  1. I used to work for an organic food company and our CEO liked to remind us, “Every day you vote with your dollars. Vote wisely!” Those of us who are consumers in developed countries need to develop a more mindful, long-term approach when we make our purchases, whether it is food (organically grown or genetically modified), clothing (fair wages or child labor), or electronics (ethically sourced or conflict minerals). While it is true that the first option usually costs a bit more money in the short run, the far-reaching effects and consequences of pesticides, child exploitation, and prolonged war cannot possibly be quantified…

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