Hack your life

Melissa Mepham is an Enspiral Dev Academy graduate from Te Atiawa who received a Te Uru Rangi scholarship to attend the web development programme. She is currently working as a Full Stack Web Developer and Designer at Logmate, and shares her experience coming Third at the Hack Tairāwhiti hackathon.

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Hack Tairāwhiti

“2017 was a hard year for me. It was a time in my life when I felt I needed to make some big life decisions. My creativity had been on the decline for a few years and a deep depression was starting to sink in.

In February a friend of mine introduced me to coding, and I started making some animations. I loved it. For a while I was spending all of my free time on my computer, calculating the lengths of triangles and brushing up on my trigonometry so I could animate them. I hadn’t looked at the math of a triangle in over 10 years so this was an awesome challenge.

But after a while I became complacent and spent less and less time on the computer.

Over the next couple of months I felt I was nearly out of options. Life was stacking up and I didn’t feel inspired to go in any direction. But in about October I was given the opportunity to attend Enspiral Dev Academy in Wellington. This opportunity changed my path.

I jumped at the chance, remembering how engaged and excited I was about those triangles months before. Over the next 4 months I immersed myself in learning to code, integrating myself into the tech world and found myself on my feet again.

One of the most inspirational aspects of this were all of the wonderful people that were there to support me, answer silly questions and tell me I was awesome when I was struggling.

Four months later I stepped back into the world, big eyed and bushy tailed. I took all of the opportunities that I was given. I had never felt so motivated! I went to Melbourne and volunteered for a tech conference, participated in a tech weekend in Wellington and then landed my first job in Auckland. In the chaos of moving cities I was given the opportunity to attend Hack Tairāwhiti, the first Māori Hackathon held in New Zealand. It was an opportunity I was not willing to pass up.

So with a car packed, myself and another Dev Academy graduate Edi left Wellington at 5am on the Friday morning of the event. We arrived in Gisborne at 2pm in time for the pōwhiri to welcome a group of about 8 onto Ohako Marae where we would be staying for the weekend,

I had a basic understanding of the customs of a pōwhiri, but feeling so far removed from my tangata whenua I was feeling a bit nervous and ashamed of my ignorance. But I found my strength and embraced this part of my culture that felt so foreign to me.

After the pōwhiri we had a cup of tea and got on our way to the surf club where the hackathon was being held. We got there just in time for the second pōwhiri to welcome us onto the land on which we were going to be spending the weekend.

Hack Tairāwhiti is a project aimed at helping push Māori tech to the world, so eight local businesses pitched their ideas, and there was everything from AI storytelling, to ways to help engage people to become fluent and practice te reo. There were eight tables with project names on them and we were free to go and find the group that was calling us the loudest.

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Melissa Mepham, Dev Academy grad

My interest was spiked by a pitch that was about how to minimise sexual abuse, discrimination and bullying in the workplace. With the overwhelming reality of the size of this issue I was excited with what my group could come up with over the two days we were there.

We spent the evening talking and drinking wine from the region. We had come up with a few solutions and there was one that we all seemed to keep returning to. However, this idea felt ethically wrong for the problem we were trying to solve.

The idea was to use AI technology and surveillance in workplaces to read body language and flag any unethical behaviour. The thought behind this was to try and encourage people to be on their best behaviour, and the software would pick up on any instances of discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment.

This idea made me uncomfortable. As someone who feels strongly that companies should respect our need for privacy, I hated the idea of being involved in a project that was adding to the problem. I pushed back against this idea, but although the team would entertain other avenues, they kept coming back to surveillance. I knew we were going in the wrong direction, so I left the evening feeling deflated and tired.

We got back to the marae that night and I had a chat to some of the other participants. I came to the difficult conclusion that if this was the direction the team wanted to go in, I didn’t think I could go forward with it.

The next morning we got up way too early to get back to the surf club. We were met with fresh coffee and hot croissants, a perfect to start a day in which I anticipated a daunting conversation with my group.

I got in there and sat down and listened to the conversation. I felt I needed to be heard, and gathered the courage to express the ethical issues I was having with the solution.

To my amazement and relief, some of the other members agreed with me. We got back to talking, trying to come up with another solution. We talked, and talked, and talked… and talked, and finally mid-afternoon found a solid idea.

Still using machine learning, we came up with a solution that worked with employees to create a safe space for them to document problematic behaviour, anonymously and on their own terms. As the software was external to the organisation, we hoped it would make people feel safer and more able to be heard and not result in further bullying. It would allow people to record microaggressions that often go unspoken, and show the patterns of behaviour that cause people harm. Then the employee could decide when and if they wanted to make a formal complaint. We also looked at how we could incorporate culture, education and team building, and how we could use the data anonymously to get better statistics around bullying in these environments.

With a solution we were all proud of, we then got stuck into the nitty gritty of how, why, when and what, in order to make it a reality. We had people in our team from all walks of life, and heaps of different skills. Along with the business mentors that were there to help us, we were on a roll. So we worked into the evening, in which there was more wine and beer, along with some local musicians and games.

After another full day it was time to get some rest. About 5 seconds after my head hit the pillow I was asleep.

Sunday arrived, and now it was time for planning the pitch, which is how we present our ideas to the judges. So we got together, coffee and croissants in hand, and started hashing out how we were going to pitch. We had nominated the strongest speaker and felt like we had come up with an amazing solution to a massive problem, so we were feeling energised.

Pitch time came and we were last, so we sat down and soaked up all the amazing ideas people had come up with. Our pitch went off without a hitch and we felt incredibly proud. By the end of the pitches there was no clear winner. One group had a fully functional app, another had used cryptocurrency technology to solve problems around tracking the life cycle of fish from the sea to plate. It was actually amazing what people had come up with after just two days!

Amazingly, when they announced the winners, our team came third! We won a trip to swim with the stingrays (yea I know… Steve Irwin…). It was unbelievable.

On the trip home to Auckland both myself and Edi were once again amazed, inspired and in awe of this amazing tech community that get together to learn, support, grow and come up with such innovative ideas. The Hack Tairāwhiti crew did a fantastic job of hosting us in Gisborne, and put on an unforgettable event. The part of Aotearoa that I saw at the event has inspired me to connect more with our land, our culture and our people. This is my tūrangawaewae and its culture that we all need to fight to keep.

Looking back 12 months ago, or even 6 months ago, when I was arguably at the lowest point in my life, the decision to step outside of my comfort zone and fully engage in learning web development with the amazing humans at Enspiral Dev Academy has been the best decision I have made for myself. The amount I have grown and the opportunities that have opened up are mind-blowing. I did not just learn web development, I learnt how to be a better human, to believe in myself and it gave me the courage to put myself in situations that scare me, because they might, and probably will, change your life.”

If you’re interested in learning the tools to change your life and the lives of those around you, apply for Dev Academy today. Applications for Māori and Pasifika scholarships are now open, or apply here: https://www.devacademy.co.nz/apply-now.