Harlo Holmes is a software developer who builds technology for activists, journalists, and human rights workers—a demographic she lovingly refers to as “do-gooders.” Basically, she figures out how to collect data in ways that help people the most. One example is InformaCam: Harlo created the technology behind this badass app which expands the information we can gather from smartphone photos—it’s super useful for protestors capturing footage that can later be used in court. She’s also working on a software called Foxy Doxxing that helps victims of online harassment map the connections between their harassers and collect verifiable evidence of their harassment. For Harlo, it’s not just the personal that is political: The digital is political, too.
I first heard Harlo speak during a lecture series organized by the cyberfeminist collective Deep Lab (you can scroll down to watch that in full; it’s great). I immediately wanted to know more about empowering people through coding, so I called her up to chat about how she even got into computers to start with, how to merge an activist streak with working in technology, and how cyberfeminism helps everybody.
HAZEL: Can you explain to us exactly what you do?
HARLO HOLMES: I’m an independent contractor who does software development in mobile technology, desktop software, and web software. Basically, everywhere that there’s internet, I write software for it.
I work primarily for a collective called The Guardian Project. We write software for human rights organizations, legal clinics, and press outlets. When people want to make sure the communication at their jobs is private, we advise them how to best do that. We also do a lot of advocacy and training. It’s funny, because half of the time, I’m coding, and the other half of the time, I’m going to conferences to educate people on what different technologies mean, why they’re important, and how to use them safely.
When did you first realize that you wanted to code, or even just work with technology in some form?
I’d been into computers and programming since I was very young. My mother was a copyeditor, and she had a computer in her home office. In the ’80s, it was really cool to have a computer in your home. I was obsessed with it! Back then, they were a little harder to use. You had to learn how to direct them to do what you wanted without a mouse or graphics. When my mom realized I liked computers so much, she actually bought me my own!
Computers were always such a big part of my life. In school basic programming was part of our curriculum. I was a huge gamer throughout high school: I was best friends with the school computer guy and we’d set up LAN parties together. I was also really into theater my entire time in school, so theater tech was kind of my gateway drug—like, learning how to program light boards. It was computer programming, but in service of making art and telling stories.
When I graduated from college, my senior thesis was about theater, but in the real world nobody was hiring me to do theater tech. They were paying me to write websites. I shifted gears because it was something I could do. But a lot of what I do now has to do with the critical theory books I was reading [back then]—about the theory behind software programming and how programming and art come together. I learned that the way that we write code is actually a form of speech that can be political, which I thought was so cool. After that, I went to grad school to study under people who were doing amazing things with code and politics.
There are many different routes a person could go with your app-development skills. I think it’s so cool that you’ve decided to work for activists and journalists. What made you go in this direction?
I’m a graduate of Oberlin College, a place which incubates people who are super politically aware, and who try to match their intellectual desires to ways of making change in the world. But I’ve always felt—even prior to Oberlin, because of my upbringing—that you have a duty as a citizen. When you have a particular skill in programming, it’s really easy to go down a route that brings you to the highest salary. But there are so many people who don’t have that access. Bringing that access to people who don’t have it is incredibly rewarding. It’s part of my duty.
Working on those two particular apps was the greatest coincidence of my life! I was in grad school at NYU in a class led by a professor named Nathan Freitas that was all about social activism and mobile technology. My background in theater and multimedia made me start to examine the way that photographs, and the metadata in photographs, affect our lives. Occupy Wall Street was happening at the same time, and friends of mine participating in the movement were being arrested without even knowing why! I had the idea that if you created an app that could give extra metadata to footage you’d recorded—that could spell out in an irrefutable way what went on—then that could help protestors if they were arrested and needed to bring evidence to a judge.
When you say “more metadata,” what do you mean?
When you use Instagram and there’s a map of where you took the photos: They get that information from your phone. Instagram puts your GPS into a place in code that embeds it into the photograph. If you think of someone taking a photo or a video at a protest, maybe you also want to add [information] like how the camera was moving or how the person held the camera, because those are indicators you can use to tie the photograph to the person who took it. Bluetooth devices in the area show where you are and who you’re around. There are security issues—because sometimes people want to be anonymous, so we try to anonymize that data—but we still want to record it because it has so much to say.
There is a big, big world of data, or metadata, being collected at large on all of us: Our purchases, internet searches, information in our photos, etc. Sometimes people think of all of this data collection as negative, and it certainly can be. Your work shows that data can also be used for good. Do you feel like most people still think of data collection as harmful?
As devices become more and more integrated into our lives, they’re going to collect more data. Not only because people are interested in knowing more about what we’re up to, but because that’s the way the devices seamlessly talk to each other. There’s always going to be some person who figures out how to get access to information about you that you’re not comfortable with them having. That’s a fact, and it’s going to get worse and worse.
However, the question is not about how these devices are collecting data, but a few other questions: How are we storing our data? There’s a difference between me giving this data to Google, or Facebook, and me keeping this data in my own house. It would be cool if my fridge knew I needed to get more eggs, but Google doesn’t need to know my fridge and I are having this conversation. We know that data is being collected, but how should it be stored and shared? That’s the intervention you have to make.
On the other side, there are legal interventions [we can make if metadata is abused]. For example, everybody loves the Fitbit app because it’s really fun and keeps track of your activity. The problem isn’t that Fitbit collects way too much [information] about me. The problem would be if in the future, your health insurance rates go up because your Fitbit says you’re lazy and not moving around enough! So you have to make a legal intervention there. It’s about knowing what the capabilities are, forecasting how those might be harmful to people, and then suggesting ways to use technology humanely.
My introduction to your work was through Deep Lab, which is the coolest thing. Can you tell me a little about Deep Lab and how you got involved with it?
Deep Lab is the brainchild of Addie Wagenknecht, a fabulous multimedia artist based in New York. Addie had the idea of taking the topic of people bullying one another on the internet, putting it in the hands of a group of women from different disciplines, and having them rework it. I don’t really know how I got an invitation to join, but she invited me.
I really believe in Deep Lab’s mission because it shares my fundamental principle: Code is political. There’s a really awesome article from the ’80s by a guy named Langdon Winner called “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Winner explains how tomatoes in the United States are hard instead of squishy because they’ve been genetically engineered to handle the bruises a machine will give them when it pulls them out of the ground.
Isn’t that wild? The idea that the codes people write and the machines people build have these wild politics baked into them is the force that drives Deep Lab. The fact that the algorithms we encounter are written by one type of person brings up a new question: What kind of software can we make if we change the people who are writing the code? What if those people had different politics?
Deep Lab describes itself as a “congress of cyberfeminist researchers,” and I think ideas of cyberfeminism are getting more and more popular as women start to realize how important technology and politics can be to their lives. What does “cyberfeminism” mean to you in 2015?
It sounds really corny, but you know that phrase, “A rising tide lifts all boats?” The hard battles that feminists and identity activists fight lay the groundwork for everyone else. The benefits of engaging with a feminist practice works for every sector of humanity. Ultimately, it’s not about some women-only utopia, but about reworking the theoretical framework around code and making sure all the code you turn out benefits humanity as a whole. We’re thinking about how everyone can be represented by the tools that they use, not just the default character.
Your program Foxy Doxxing is still in its earliest stages, but can you explain to our readers what it is, and what drove you to start building it?
It’s a software program that analyzes exactly how a group of people might have ganged up on you on Twitter. Really, it’s an intelligent robot butler that performs grunt work for you. There are new, interesting studies going on in computer science and statistics about how we can use open data, like Twitter’s, in order to suss out people’s associations with one another. What I wanted to concern Foxy Doxxing with is what’s called sockpuppetry [using a fake identity online to deceive others]. Imagine someone says something horrible about you on Twitter, and that gets retweeted and favorited across the web. It would be useful to analyze that and find out exactly who those antagonistic parties are.
Then, you could say, “There are these assholes on Twitter ganging up on me and for some reason they’re all located in this particular corner of Twitter and they seem to be really active around 4 AM.” That’s interesting, because the United States has laws against stalking that have to do with people organizing campaigns against you in a digital way. If you’re able to produce documentation that shows how organized these people are, that can bolster your case. We’re in a time when technology is a little bit faster than the law. If you have to bring a case before local police departments and judges, then you want it to be organized, and to have a dossier to strengthen your case, to get them to understand what’s going on.
What advice would you give teen girls and young women who are interested in programming but don’t know where to begin?
For teenagers, there are so many supportive organizations where you can be mentored or get involved. Girl Develop It is an awesome group for women to learn python [a high-level programming language]. Black Girls Code is for girls ages 11 to 14—I’m a volunteer with them, and I see all sorts of girls come in.
You’ve said that it’s easier to get started than to actually stay in this field: What advice would you give to young women for sticking with this line of work?
It can be hard, especially for someone super into politics and activism, because you make a lot more money as an engineer at Facebook or Dropbox or something. I kind of find that soul-crushing. [Laughs] I try to stay as far away from their recruiters as possible. My income bracket is a little lower, but it works for me. But there are micro-aggressions. When you show up to a place and you don’t necessarily look like the person they’re expecting, it makes you feel uncomfortable. You can react to those things however you want: You can swallow it; you can point it out; you can blog about it anonymously or not. However you respond to those things is up to you. There’s literally no wrong way to respond. Just know that it’s probably going to happen to you, and when it does, you are absolutely not alone.
I’m 30, and I only just started to meet all these awesome women in this field. They’re just as old as I am and they’ve been programming as long as I have, so, really, it’s just about amplifying ourselves. Of course I don’t want to knock the gender disparity [in tech], because that is a true problem. But it’s really cool to know that as a kickass lady doing tech, you’re not the only one. Get out there and introduce yourself to those people, and know you’re not the only person! ♦