Hillary Juma

Hillary: I’m currently working on something called the Common Voice project, which seeks to build foundational blocks for AI that could support speech technologies for languages across the world. Language is such a key part of our identity, who we are, how we transfer knowledge, how we connect to our culture and communities. Right now AI speech technologies such as Siri and Alexa have no African languages, so we work with a team of volunteers and language communities to contribute to this open-source project.

What’s your day-to-day life like at the moment? Are you doing more higher level policy and discourse related stuff or is there still room for some hardcore data science?

Sadly this babe is not a data scientist! I’ve done some quantitative research as part of my degree but I’m not that confident in the coding languages commonly used for data science. It’s more that I engage with people who use the data (being collected for the common voice project) within the data science community.

We’ve seen how the lack of diversity within the tech community can result in very serious implications in the ‘real-world’, what are your thoughts on that? 

Firstly I think it is obviously really important that we have diverse teams, but also teams that are able to critically analyse the ways in which their power and privilege impacts what they’re working on.

You could have a diverse team in terms of protected characteristics such as race but still have a lack of representation of the working class.

There was a really good tweet that came up saying that while its good to encourage women to participate in STEM, if we’re not tackling sexual harassement, misogynoir etc. in the workplace then we’re not going to create a space in which they want to stay. Yes we need to tackle diversity but we need to also have safe spaces where people feel like they can contribute and bring different theories, because we are invaluable.

Me being a diasporan and coming from a Kenyan background, if I come into certain spaces as a westerner I’m going to center myself and not necessarily fit to other people’s needs. The fact that internet connectivity is good for me and not that expensive does not mean that it’s the same for my cousins back in Kenya, communities have different experiences and material things which they can access.

How has your dyslexia affected your path in tech? I’ve spoken to people who feel like their neurodivergence means that they can’t pursue a path into STEM.

I’m not gonna lie… it is difficult. Learning how to code is hard and programs can break if you get one word wrong, one word!! So I found that I had to use little hacks that can help my own experience with dyslexia.

Yes dyslexia affects the ways in which you process language but everyone’s experience is different, you need to figure out (with the help of communities) the ways in which you can be supported. It could be using cheat-sheets while learning how to code or use tools like speechify which produces spoken words from text (also made by someone who is dyslexic).

Can you tell me about the project you founded called ‘Data Sistren’?

It was a thing I started to share my explorations into data ethics, AI and our relationships with them. Its about using intersectional feminism as a way to expand the way I critique and analyse our relationship with data. I created a reading list on github and ran sessions talking about literature and topics about data. It’s great having a space to discuss these things, sometimes people talk about tech like it’s just a way to get money and it’s all just hype. I’ll have more content and events coming soon, keep posted!

Finally, whats going to be happening at the Old Kent Road Arts Club this Sunday? 

I’ve been planning an event called WorldWide Words with FAT studios, It focuses on the question of how we use our mother language online. Running a creative workshop which centres around discussion, play and debate.

It’s estimated that there are over 7000 languages spoken across the globe and a lot of the online world doesn’t represent that, so one of the things that this workshop aims to do is give us a space to reflect on the relationship between language, identity and the online world. I also want to highlight how other projects are working to reduce online language inequity, and give people the opportunity to contribute to the Common Voice project!