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Meet Sabeen Mahmud, a Woman Trying to Change Pakistan One Line of Code at a Time

the internet is serious business

Sabeen Mahmud (above, in blue), who says she fell in love with technology the first time she ever saw a Mac, just organized Pakistan’s first ever Hackathon last month, aimed specifically at finding ways to use technology to fix or at least alleviate Pakistan’s political problems. According to a piece by Wired, the gathering was pretty amazing for everyone involved.

Mahmud runs a small technology firm, but hosted the gathering of forty (whittled down from 120 applications) in her café The Second Floor, which she founded because she felt Karachi, the most populous city in Pakistan, needed “a space where people could gather around shared interests, an interdisciplinary space for collaboration and brainstorming.” And even though she’d done no research and was living with family at the time, Mahmud felt that she was the woman for the job. From Wired’s account of the hackathon itself, she still is.

Hackathons are generally known as competitions, where coders get together in teams to present a finished, useful program coded entirely within the time constraints of the event. But a competitive environment wasn’t really what Mahmud had in mind, so the participants spent their time collaboratively coming up with nine specific issues currently unaddressed or underaddressed by the Pakistani government that could be solved or alleviated by a creative technological solution, eventually churning out “an official document checklist to improve citizen and government communications, a government office locator, a map of hospital occupancy and facilities.”

Even the government official who came to observe was glad to be there. Mahmud underscored the rarity of that: “It’s a bit of a role reversal, they are now keen to see what citizens are doing in the tech sphere, and something like this had never been done before.” She knows that new technology isn’t a panacea for everybody’s problems. For example, she dislikes how social media can make it easy to feel like an activist with minimal commitment: “The democratization of technology also provides a platform for the super-efficient perpetuation of mediocrity.” Maintaining a difference between creating an easier way for citizens to communicate with their government and changing your profile picture on Facebook is an understandable position for a person who’s received death threats and frightening phone calls for protesting a government ban. But she also thinks that events like the hackathon give “people authority to become a part of the system, take ownership and bring change, instead of just bad mouthing the government,” in effect, it helps them become better activists.

You can read the whole story of Mahmud and her hackathon at Wired.

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Susana Polo thought she'd get her Creative Writing degree from Oberlin, work a crap job, and fake it until she made it into comics. Instead she stumbled into a great job: founding and running this very website (she's Editor at Large now, very fancy). She's spoken at events like Geek Girl Con, New York Comic Con, and Comic Book City Con, wants to get a Batwoman tattoo and write a graphic novel, and one of her canine teeth is in backwards.