Addressing a room of over 30 coders, community organizers and journalists, Sonya Piles spoke about her experience in and out of Oklahoma’s prison system.
“I wanted to change, but I didn’t know how,” said Piles, speaking at a Dec. 9 event in Tulsa. Unable to get a job or treatment for her addiction and trauma, Piles found herself trapped in a cycle of imprisonment.
Smiling broadly, Piles said because of Women in Recovery, a Tulsa-based diversion program, she is now clean, fully employed and reunited with her children.
Piles’ testimony kicked off Oklahoma’s first Design and Data Hackathon. Hosted by Code for Tulsa and Asemio, in partnership with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, the day-long event brought together computer programmers, nonprofits such as Women In Recovery and community members to collectively address Oklahoma’s high rate of female incarceration. Local journalists from Oklahoma Watch, The Frontier and NPR’s State Impact team also joined the event.
Tommi Bell was among several women currently enrolled in the Women In Recovery program who took part in the hackathon. She said helping journalists, programmers and nonprofits sort through the issues was empowering for her.
“I feel like I have voice. On paper it shows that I’m an addict and a criminal, but that’s not who I am,” Bell said.
For the past 25 years, Oklahoma has held the dubious honor of being the number one state for locking up women. For its investigation into the systemic reasons behind Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate, Reveal analyzed more than one million records from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
In an effort to spark additional inquiry into the issue, Reveal publically released all of the DOC records it had acquired. Reveal Senior Editor Ziva Branstetter, however, quickly recognized that most news organizations don’t have data teams or the capacity to work with such a large dataset, so she tweeted at Code for Tulsa to help make the data more accessible. Her tweet was the impetus for the day-long hackathon and design session.
“Her tweet was the spark that started this all,” said Carlos Moreno, Code for Tulsa’s brigade captain. Moreno had long wanted to revise the brigade’s hackathon structure and saw the DOC dataset as a great way to pilot an event aimed at connecting people and building useful tools. (Code for America brigades routinely bring together volunteer coders, software developers and designers for “civic hackathons” that put technology to work for local communities.)
“Rather than trying to build something and go to the nonprofits and ask, ‘How did we do?’ We thought let’s bring everyone together and have them tell us what they want to know and what they need from the beginning,” said Moreno.
With support from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Reveal helped Code for Tulsa organize the event and also sent data reporter Emmanuel Martinez to explain the dataset and share best practices for working with data.
“The journalism perspective is one that we have never even considered,” said Moreno about the decision to partner with Reveal and invite local newsrooms to the event. “I think it was really enlightening to hear, especially from Emmanuel, about how journalists look at data.”
Allison Herrera, a journalist with Public Radio International who worked on the investigation with Branstetter, also attended the event to share advice about working with the data.
The Design + Data Hackathon organizers also brought impacted community members into the design process for the first time. Mimi Tarrasch, the senior director of Women in Recovery, along with several program graduates and current participants, brought a human perspective to the data that extended beyond the day’s initial testimonies.
Drawing from her personal experience in the justice system, Julianne Harman raised possible approaches to the data that neither the journalists nor technologists in her group had considered. Harman suggested looking at the DOC data could to see if there was a difference in sentencing lengths between male and female co-defendants.
The event ended with each group sharing ideas about stories they thought the data could help tell, such as the reason behind high incarceration rates among Native American women, as well as technical solutions for how to use the extensive data set.
Over the course of the next few weeks and months, Moreno and the Code for Tulsa team will continue to follow up with hackathon attendees with updates on tools for the DOC database and opportunities to reconvene.
Reveal and Code for Tulsa hope to make the Design + Data Hackathon a national model for building technical capacity in both local newsrooms and civic institutions and inviting the people behind the data into the reporting process.