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I joined a bunch of LGBT techies at the White House to help tackle some world-threatening problems

Climate change and the dearth of women in tech are topics President Obama hopes to make more progress on before he leaves office.

Eight people, a mix of races and genders, grinning and wearing casual shirts with bow ties in front of a White House backdrop.
There was lots of work at the White House LGBT Tech summit, but also lots of picture-taking, including this shot of the event’s apparent bow tie brigade.
Ina Fried for Recode

On Tuesday, I was part of a gathering of LGBT tech leaders brought together by the White House to help address issues ranging from climate change to the lack of women in tech to inequalities in the criminal justice system.

In the morning, representatives from different government agencies talked about the gains the administration has made in modernizing and the challenges remaining.

No longer, for example, do those visiting the White House have to submit their personal data via fax. Yet the goal of opening up government data remains a work in progress.

And how do we change a world in which only rich kids study computer science?

“We don’t want a world of innovation that excludes 75 percent of the population,” said presidential adviser Ruth Farmer. “Who wants technology made by 25 percent?”

Time may be ticking down on the Obama administration, but officials made it clear the president has no intention of running out the clock.

Obama has told his staff that, while his presidency is in its fourth quarter, “interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter.”

But that’s not usually the way things work in Washington. And with a lot of big problems still to tackle and not much time left, Obama is looking to the tech industry to help the administration make the most of its remaining days.

No longer on the outside

It’s the third time the White House has gathered LGBT tech leaders and the second time that I have been a part of it. The first year was more of a get-to-know-each-other session for about 170 invited guests.

Last year’s gathering divided attendees into various interest areas and put them to work on a three-month project. I was part of a team that worked on #transneeds, a social media listening campaign designed to better understand the issues facing the transgender community and how the government could better address them.

Ina Fried (seated), with Eleanor Roosevelt

This year, more than 3,500 people applied to attend the summit, inspiring the idea to use Tuesday’s gathering as the planning session for an even bigger conference in D.C., dubbed TechUp, to take place the week after the presidential election.

The afternoon work session was devoted to planning what such an event should focus on.

One group looked at physical and mental health issues, noting how we live in a world where you can order a cheeseburger on demand from your phone, but still have a tough time finding a doctor near you or knowing how much a hospital procedure should cost.

The group I was a part of focused on the complexities of collecting data from the LGBT community. Historically, the government hasn’t gathered much information, making it hard to tell where LGBT Americans are underrepresented.

Failure to collect health data, for example, means that some clinics are getting dinged for not giving enough women pap smears, when in reality they are just treating a lot of transgender women for whom that is not a needed procedure.

Meanwhile, there are all manner of labels that people use in describing their sexuality and gender, and those terms have shifted over time. The group wrestled with how governments and businesses can seek data in a way that allows people to self-identify but has enough rigor to be statistically useful.

Also an issue: Even well-intentioned data collection could put people at risk, especially if that information is not properly protected or is shared in the wrong circumstances. So how do you get more data, thoughtfully and safely?

That’s one of the topics the group hopes the November conference can start to answer.

Getting it right

“Everybody wants to get it right, but there’s also a need to get it,” said Donna Riley, a professor of engineering education at Virginia Tech. “If we argue for 10 years about how to get it, we are missing 10 years.”

U.S. Chief Data Scientist D.J. Patil stopped by, urging the group to consider the dangers of mishandling data and the algorithms that use the data while seconding Riley’s concern that legitimate concern not lead to inaction. Some laws, he said, are only written or edited every 20 to 50 years, and if the data isn’t collected, the laws will fail to address the needs of the LGBT community.

Inclusivity was a focus for both Tuesday’s event and the November gathering. Organizer Leanne Pittsford, head of Lesbians Who Tech, made sure that people from significant companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, Twitter and Facebook were part of the conversation. But even more attention was given to ensuring diversity, with the event consisting of more women than men, more than 50 percent people of color and 20 percent people who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming.

“We not only brought together LGBTQ technologists, women, people of color, veterans, people living with a disability to solve some of America's toughest challenges, but we showed tech leaders that it's possible to have teams that actually reflect the people who live in this country,” Pittsford said.

While most of the day was work, there were a number of lighthearted moments, including when statistician Jennifer Park had trouble with her slides.

“Who’s a tech person in the room?” she asked, to significant laughter.

The event’s agenda was briefly scrapped midmorning for two surprise guests: presidential dogs Bo and Sunny. The attendees quickly gathered around the two Portuguese water dogs for a photo.

Ina Fried for Recode

Most of the day, however, was spent inside the large, nondescript auditorium connected to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It’s part of the White House complex, but not really what people think about when they think of the president’s office.

Unlike last year, though, we got a tour of the actual White House, with techies spreading throughout the East Wing for all manner of selfies in front of presidential portraits and historic artifacts.

At the end of day, as the event was wrapping up with a reception in the Indian Treaty Room, attendees rushed to the windows at the sound of a helicopter’s rotors whirring. Dozens whipped out their cellphones to try to catch a glimpse of President Obama, who had returned on Marine One after spending the day touring flood damage in Louisiana.

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