Social Media, Insecure Work and New Solidarities

Working group on changing conceptions of work


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A “Hack-a-thon” for Precarious Workers

On May 15 2013, a vanload of UC Davis Design and Computer Science students made its way over the Grapevine and into Los Angeles to participate in a hack-a-thon to lend their skills and creative/critical thinking towards helping the millions of workers in the US who survive on low wages, no healthcare, no job stability and little respect from their employers.

The hack-a-thon was part of a larger conference of academics and organizers brought together by UC Davis professors Chris Benner, Jesse Drew and glenda drew, with assistance from Community and Regional Development graduate student John Haffner. Several UCLA academics also joined in the planning of the conference, including Professors Toby Higbie, Jan Reiff, and Goetz Wolff. Conference participants included representatives from the Restaurant Opportunity Centers (R.O.C.), LAANE, Warehouse Workers United, the Food Chain Workers Alliance, Dream Resource Center, 67 Sueños, the AFL-CIO, the United Food and Commercial Workers, Our Walmart and others. The Social Media, Precarious Work and New Solidarities conference was funded by the UCHRI with the support of the Mellon Foundation. The student participation and travel for the hack-a-thon was supported by a grant from the UCIRA.

A hack-a-thon is a short, intense brainstorming and creative process that aims to produce a useful product or prototype by the end of the session. The hack-a-thon process began during Winter quarter with an investigation by the UCD students on the topic. The student team interviewed several of the upcoming conference participants (labor organizers and community leaders) through a call-a-thon. Students and faculty then met to discuss outcomes of the interviews and tease apart what topics percolated. We brainstormed what kind of social media app would be beneficial to those organizing workers in workplaces such as fast food restaurants, Walmart, trucking ports, farm fields and other low-wage jobs.

The UC Davis team then met their counterparts from UCLA (primarily students from the Digital Humanities program) through video conference and further brainstormed the project as well as established the process for the hack-a-thon. The hack-a-thon morning was spent brainstorming in the collaborative research space called “the Hub” in the main UCLA library. In the afternoon the students broke into groups and tackled how to build an app/website combination to present to the conference. The students worked at the UCLA library until late at night and then returned to the hotel base in downtown LA, where many of them stayed up all night working on their laptops. At the conference the next day, the students presented their projects to the attendees.

The app prototype used mapping and storytelling in a mobile and online platform. Designed to accommodate many points of access, the system offers low-level text input via sms and higher-level photo/video/text input via smart phone, tablet or computer. A geo-narrative website displays messages using various narrative, visual devices, including a map view (geolocation) or story view (masonry-based). Content can be filter by categorical schemes including location, organization and topic. With subscription options, users can follow any set of posts. Organizers can collect stories for sms, blog and other uses.

The audience of organizers was quite amazed at the results and expressed great interest in continuing to work with the students. Comments after the conference from the attendees mentioned the hack-a-thon as among the most exciting and interesting parts of the conference!


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