We’re in!: Pittsburgh college students participate in Hacking4Humanity

Courtesy of Sienne Watkins | Tessa Datte (junior) and Emily Brozeski (graduate student) created a redesign of the comment button on social media at the hackathon.

Emma Polen | News Editor

March 30, 2023

“When we associate people with numbers, we forget that even one person who is affected by online hate is one too many.”

These were the words of Natharat Mongkolsinh, a CMU student speaking at Hacking4Humanity.

Over seven days, Duquesne partnered with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University to take focused action in technology and policy against current ethical issues in their collaborative hackathon event, “Hacking4Humanity: The Problem of Online Hate.”

John Slattery is the director of Duquesne’s Grefenstette Center for Ethics in Science, Technology and Law and is a professor of Artificial Intelligence in Ethics.

“We do a lot with…ethics of technology and with building technology for the human good,” Slattery said. “Going back to those Catholic roots, what does it mean to care for people, to care for humanity to work toward the common human good.”

The ethical component of the competition also brought in four other partnering organizations, including the Collaboratory Against Hate Research Group run through both Pitt and CMU.

Susan Baida, the executive director from the collaboratory, explained that the inspiration for their initiative came out of the Tree of Life tragedy.

Baida said students’ role in the hackathon was just one step in the direction of addressing the issue of online hate.

“It’s part of a growing sort of movement of doing hackathons for social good,” Slattery said. “We’re hoping that in this conversation, and in this work, they’re able to learn a little bit about what it takes to really address a big societal problem and come out on the other side, having learned a little bit in the process and connecting with a lot of cool people along the way.”

Hacking4Humanity began with a virtual kickoff on Saturday, March 18, at 1 p.m.

Students had the opportunity to compete individually or in groups of two to four. Two events occurred simultaneously during the week – a tech-focused competition and a policy-focused one, both centered around ethics in the tech world.

Tech teams were asked to build new tech, like websites, apps or plugins. With a two-page memo, the policy teams had to create new policies, improve on old ones or come up with new guidelines that address a real need in the tech policy space,” Slattery said.

All participants had a week, until Friday, March 24, to put together their solutions on their own time.

Traditional hackathons typically are for just computer science students, and they will come together and have 24 hours to code. However, Hacking4Humanity chose a unique hybrid virtual and in-person model that brought all participants together after a week on their own, Slattery said.

The event wrapped up on Friday with student presentations in the Power Center ballroom on their tech and policy ideas, followed by awards.

“That’s one of the parts of the hybrid piece,” Slattery said, “presentations for the practice of presenting and so everyone can hear what the teams were working on.”

While computer science coding experience was required, the hackathon website specified that no special knowledge of “online hate” was needed.

“Not everyone needs to be a programmer or a policy wonk! Good tech requires people of lots of skills to come together–graphic designers, communicators, writers, scientists and more. We’ll be providing lots of resources to help people develop great projects,” said Hacking4Humanity’s website.

A team of four students from CMU, POrK, chose the policy track and created the Hate Hygiene Index, a metric to assure all online platforms are held responsible for hate on their site. Their inspiration for the policy solution came from sustainability and the positive impact these universal policies have had on the environment.

Oravee Smithiphol and Pattamon Lelemanee are graduate students at CMU and members of POrK.

Facebook might say there are only two instances of online hate out of 10,000, Smithiphol said, but when they asked the consumer side, “there is a mismatch in the numbers.”

“We never really know what is going on in the platform if the platform is not transparent on how they legally measure the situation in their platform. So we try to solve transparency as well as increase collaboration with external stakeholders not relying on just the platform itself,” Smithiphol said.

Smithiphol was proud of their work over the past week, and she hoped to learn from other presenters.

POrK’s members spoke with friends, conducted secondary research and used their own lived experiences to shape their policy.

Every online industry should have a benchmark that forces them to take action, Lelemanee said.

POrK was awarded the runner-up prize in the policy competition.

POrK was not the only team concerned with the proliferation of hate speech on social media. The Hater Deflators, a Duquesne student duo, were hoping to address a problem concerning empathy online.

Tessa Datte (junior) and Emily Brozeski (graduate student), in the User Experience Design program at Duquesne, faced the problem of online hate through a user experience redesign of the comment button on social media platforms.

Their technological innovation would redesign the way online platform users had to post a comment. Instead of tapping the “post” button, users would have to slide a button across the screen to the right. There would be a picture of the user’s profile on the end of the screen where their finger started. On the other end would be a picture of the other person’s profile picture, who would be receiving the comment.

“The hope behind this is that you would recognize that you are actively sending a message to someone…communicating with someone,” Datte said during the team’s presentation on Friday.

The action is less “instantaneous,” Datte said. “We have been talking all week about…taking accountability online because there’s so much divide but there’s so much opportunity in it to connect with people that we don’t ever want to stifle someone’s speech,” Datte said.

Following their presentation, Datte and Brozeski are hoping to team up with software engineers to program their redesign of the comment button.“This is a really cool opportunity and conference to find people who might say, ‘That’s a really cool idea. Let’s figure out how we might implement that,’” Datte said.

The Hater Deflators were the runners-up in the technology competition.

Cash prizes, as well as t-shirts and giveaways, followed presentations on Friday.

The grand prize award in the technology track went to Mihir Dhamankar from CMU for his project, “SpeechWatch Video Browser Extension.”

The policy track’s grand prize was awarded to a Pitt students’ team, MERD NERDS, made up of Myles Cramer, Ryan Druffner, Emmaline Rial and Dan Rudy. Their project was titled, “Protecting Victims of Hateful, Non-consensual Deepfake Pornography (NDP).”

Hacking4Humanity plans to return next spring, as a way for students to consider ethics in their studies and to hone their tech skills, Slattery said.

The Grefenstette Center at Duquesne will continue to host events like the hackathon for just Duquesne students, as well as an Ethics in Algorithms fall symposium and a new health science and AI course.

“We’re really just setting out,” Slattery said.