Latino Hackers: Encouraging Innovation
Latinos are some of the biggest consumers of social media in the U.S., but when it comes to developing the technology, the numbers aren’t very high. Host Michel Martin speaks with Oscar G. Torres, who is hosting hackathons to encourage Latino innovation.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
So we’ve been talking about science and getting people excited about science. You’ve probably already heard that Latinos are more likely to use social media sites and to access the Internet from mobile devices than other groups are. But the number of Latinos involved in developing the technology is not where many people would like it to be. Hispanics only make up about 4 percent of the people working in the computer industry, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Oscar G. Torres is trying to change that. He organizes hackathons at which Latinos are able to display innovative ideas and work collaboratively. He hopes this will open doors for even more Hispanics to pursue careers in tech. And Oscar G. Torres is with us now. He’s the cofounder of Miner Labs Inc. That’s a platform that creates a virtual storefront on mobile devices. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.
OSCAR G. TORRES: Oh, happy to be here.
MARTIN: Well, first, can you clear something up for us? You know, a lot of people hear the word hacker and they think that that’s somebody who breaks into computer systems and steals information – a criminal essentially, but you’re saying that’s not the case. Could you explain what is a hacker?
TORRES: Yeah, absolutely. That word sort of got a bad term from the news and the media. The reality – a hacker is somebody who analyzes systems and then figures out how they work and repurposes them for a different purpose. So, like, let’s say you find a computer program that you like, you might study how it works and then repurpose that program to do something else. And that has become more possible with things like open source technology, which is, you know, just programs, algorithms that you can recycle into – to do different things.
MARTIN: How did you get interested in this field? You’re also an artist, too, I want to mention, in addition to a hacker. You’ve been exhibited around the world actually. So how did you get interested in tech and working in this field?
TORRES: Yeah, making the leap from fine arts, it really happened in grad school at NYU. There I got the chance to start working with open source frameworks and open source code, and then that’s when I realized there was this whole brand-new exciting world of coding and development. Sooner than later, I started joining hackathons. And actually, hackathons were the bridge for me as an artist and technologist to entrepreneurship. So it was – I feel like that was a very interesting part. And now that I’ve experienced that, I want to sort of share that experience and hope that others can do the same.
MARTIN: You organized a hackathon at the LATISM Conference. LATISM stands for Latinos in tech innovation and social media. You organized something called El Hackathon at this one this year. Tell us about it. What actually happens there?
TORRES: Yeah, it’s really interesting because when I joined LATISM in 2011, the innovation part of LATISM I felt was sort of lacking. So I had a few conversations with Ana Roca and a few of the organizers and voicing my opinion about the lack of innovation, or just people in the group that sort of innovated. There’s a lot of consumption happening in the Latino community. But once I got involved in the entrepreneurship world, I realized that, hey, where are all the Latinos?
And there are a lot of Latinos in entrepreneurship but there’s very few in the tech industry, which I hope to change hopefully through these hackathons. So what happens at hackathons is that, normally, you come up with a theme – in this case we had education, health and business as the theme – so basically, you organize, put out a call to action, an invitation for hackers of all sorts who come in and then participate in these hackathons, which usually lasts around 24 hours, 38 hours, I mean, you know, there’s different time periods. And then in that short time span, hackers take an idea and then make a prototype or a potential product that then they present to a group of judges. Then, you know, the judges pick the best project that they liked and then they awarded the prize.
MARTIN: How does this get more people motivated to join the field or to get into the field? I mean, assuming you have to have a basic skill set to be there to begin with, right?
MARTIN: How does this enhance people’s involvement in this field and bring more people into the field?
TORRES: Yeah, I think, first of all, it brings awareness to people that don’t normally know how innovation happens, how new technology comes to be. So basically, hackers are not just only computer programmers, they can also be designers or entrepreneurs. For example, there’s a big, you know, thing happening right now where this visual – I call him visual hacker, Banksy’s just taking the art world by storm and doing graffiti. Likewise, entrepreneurs can come into hackathons, visual designers and then work – collaborated with computer programmers and sort of create this new prototype. And the part of the hackathon is the demo time. So sometimes hackers get anywhere between one and five minutes to present their idea.
And I think really exposing a group like LATISM, where all of these conference-goers – you know, hundreds and hundreds of people – were witnesses to what happened in these 24 hours. And then to see an idea working in front of them and, you know, something that might seem, like, took months to build and it was just built overnight, it really encourages people to sort of be curious and start poking around and seeing how these things work and how technology works. And sort of bringing awareness that, hey, maybe technology is not as hard as it seems to be. And people can actually create new ideas in a short period of time. And that’s what I’m trying to encourage – for people to get involved, for somebody who doesn’t know what innovation is to sort of just come in and take a look. And if you’re a businessperson, a designer, just get involved and start learning how this new innovative – this innovation process works, and then hopefully get involved.
MARTIN: You’ve won several hackathons yourself, including a major one at TechCrunch in 2012. Can you tell us about the idea your team came up with?
TORRES: Yeah. So I had many ideas. What happens at hackathons is you just meet people and start throwing ideas at them, and then if they like an idea – you know, it’s like a back-and-forth and then eventually, before you know it, you create something new. What I created for TechCrunch was this hack called Thingscription. So basically, a website where you can subscribe to anything like razor blades, and T-shirts, you know, underwear, whatever it is – soap.
And then once you subscribe, you would get the products every, you know, every week or every two weeks. So that was the general idea. Then the other ones were photo projects. And then my current startup, Miner Labs Inc. – Minerapp.com – came from Startup Weekend, which is a hackathon where the main attraction is to business developers, entrepreneurs, to come in and collaborate with hackers, and then come up with this new idea and make a business out of it.
MARTIN: Well, that sounds exciting. Keep us posted on what you’re doing, what’s exciting. I’m trying to think of what I want to subscribe to. But Dunkin’ Donuts is already down the street, so maybe I don’t need it for that.
TORRES: Yeah. Definitely. And check out Minerapp.com. We’re going to be mobile storefronts, you know, that’s going to be the future. Mobile consumption’s increasing, so it’s going to be the easy way for businesses to sell and market anywhere through mobile devices. And then for consumers to find, you know, pop-up storefronts at malls or destination airports and see what vendors are selling around those locations.
MARTIN: Well, I would also like to hear more about some of the things – when we next get together about some of the education ideas that you came up with at El Hackathon at the LATISM Conference. I mean, education was the theme, so I’d love to hear more about what you come up with there. Oscar G. Torres is cofounder of Miner Labs Inc. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Oscar, thanks so much for joining us.
TORRES: Absolutely, thank you.