As gay pride fills San Francisco, Rand Paul is a no-show at his own hackathon

By Dan Raile , written on June 29, 2015

From The Disruption Desk

Yesterday, battling closed streets and struggling public transport, I attended two very different events in San Francisco:

The first: The climax of the San Francisco Pride celebration. This year’s event was the biggest gay party on earth for decades, all the more poignant and energized in the wake of Friday’s Supreme Court decision removing barriers to same sex marriage across the country. A crowd estimated to contain two million persons -- gay, straight, weirdos, norms, queer and corporate -- stood packed tightly together along Market Street to revel in the midst of a vast party dedicated to ideals of love, dignity, respect, equality and freedom.

The weather was warm and sunny, the costumes skimpy but generally skewing family-friendly, the vibe triumphal if a bit hungover. Or maybe that was just me, as I walked two blocks away against the people current to...

The Second: the somewhat less climactic finale of Senator Rand Paul's Libertarian Hackathon. The event was held in the SOMA storefront coworking space that serves as Paul’s San Francisco campaign HQ. I’d already been there 24 hours earlier for the opening of the event but was returning to the scene of the crime to watch the final judging. (Incidentally, it appears the hackathon was the actual scene of a crime in the wee hours of the night, when the Rand Paul campaign rental van got its window shattered.)

“You should all be very proud to be taking part in this monumental event, the world’s first presidential campaign hackathon,” said Ron Schnell, CTO of the Rand Paul for President Campaign, starting things off on Saturday. It would be one of very few allusions to the concept of pride over the subsequent 24 hours.

The concept of the right to marry for same-sex couples was entirely absent from the proceedings, as far as I could tell.  By the time the event ended, Senator Paul was the last presidential candidate not to have commented on the the legalisation of gay marriage. Only later would he issue a rambling statement opposing the Supreme Court ruling.

The hackathon invited those “passionate about liberty and technology” to spend a full day developing software that “furthers Rand Paul’s mission of protecting our privacy and liberty.” The winners, a group of Frenchmen from team Checkmate, built a “mobile authentication gateway” which purportedly allows for transactions such as political donations to be completed without sharing personal information online. This functionality was demonstrated using Apple Pay.

The future is biometric, said a young French engineer wearing a Nasa t-shirt in his winning pitch, referencing a new Intel biometric release. Another contestant asked for a picture with him because he looked so much like Mark Zuckerberg.

The other six teams focused on apps for pols to conduct and monitor social media campaigns, and apps for voters to educate themselves about the issues. Teams were mentored by two representatives from the Thiel family of funds, foundations and fellowships. It was judged by a panel consisting of Schnell, TechCrunch reporter Alex Wilhelm, and feminist libertarian author/Rand Paul campaign volunteer/privacy company CEO Elissa Shevinksy, whose book “Lean Out” is due out in fall.

So what is the difference between a libertarian hackathon and an ordinary hackathon? Very little, it seems. There was little partisan context to the apps, most of which utilized Google APIs and Amazon servers to work their magic. All the hackers were male and in their teens, twenties or thirties (there seems to have been one woman among the two dozen hackers, but she left before her team presented and I never saw her.) The complimentary supplies of Rockstar energy beverage, Diet Coke, Doritos, candy and peanut butter were decimated.  

The difference was found in the window-dressing. There was a cardboard cutout of Rand Paul for selfies, and placards on the walls read “Defeat the Washington Machine” and “Unleash the American Dream.” The chalkboard wall bore the header “#HackDemocracy” and a sketch of the founding fathers. The Paul volunteer who greeted me at the door was a Texan transplant working for Yelp wearing an American Flag t-shirt.

A few hours before the hackathon began, I received an email containing the event's code of conduct:

The #HackforRand event aims to provide hackers and designers with a safe and welcoming environment... 

Participants who are asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately. Sponsors, judges, mentors, volunteers, organizers, and anyone else at the event are also subject to this policy. In particular, attendees should not use sexualised images, activities, or other material both in their hacks and during the event. This is intended to be a family friendly event, so please keep your audience in mind (children may or may not be present.)  

“If a participant or #HackForRand “volunteer” engages in harassing behavior, the #HackForRand staff and/or our partners at Startup House may take any action deemed appropriate, including warning the offender or expulsion from the event space.  The staff and/or partners may also expel anyone for any reason, or no reason at all, and their sole discretion.”

Luckily, these top-down rules were never breached. At one point things got dicey when a contestant, asked why he had referred to Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi as ‘congressmen,’ answered, “Well, ‘Congressperson’ is the right word. But I also thought that since this is a Rand Paul event we didn’t have to be politically correct.”

“Thank you,” said the judge, and began clapping the team off stage.

Speaking with Ellissa Shevinsky it occurred to me that maybe all Silicon Valley can be understood as a libertarian hackathon. And in many ways the Rand Paul event can be seen as a way to link Senator Paul with the energy, youth and creativity -- and suspicion of government -- of Silicon Valley.

“I support Rand Paul because he has an independent and ethical take on the issues," Shevinsky told me. "I  appreciate his sincerity and awesomeness around privacy and liberty, and that he doesn’t back down. Right now we are seeing that with companies leading the way and breaking the most ground, just blazing ahead. Companies like Airbnb, Uber and [cannabis delivery platform] Meadow. The legislature just has to catch up, because entrepreneurs are not asking permission, they are just going ahead and building the things that people need and want.”

It's not entirely clear, however, whether the hackathon itself fell into the "things people want" category. Turnout was a bit of an issue. Tickets were sold out online, but it seems there were many no-show hackers, and the start time was moved back in hopes of accommodating late arrivals who never came. At the last minute, Schnell amended the rules to allow remote participation. The media were well-represented, however, with Buzzfeed, ABC, Fusion and Re/Code sending correspondents.

The most prominent no-show was Senator Paul himself who, we were told, was safely ensconced in Monterey, perhaps avoiding being photographed anywhere close to gay pride. But not to worry! At the end of the event, the winning team was whisked to a waiting van by Ron Schnell to be driven two hours south to Monterey to pitch Senator Paul in person.  Press wasn't invited to the pitch but after 24 hours of hacking and a two hour drive, it's fair to imagine that team Checkmate might have struggled to bring their A-game. 

With Paul AWOL, the greatest starpower at the event was delivered by MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow and his camera crew. Farrow has previously told viewers that “I’m a Rand Paul fan.” As Buzzfeed reported, Farrow regaled arriving hackers and campaign volunteers with an informal pop sing-along before the hacking began.

“It’s great, you’re famous,” Schnell told the winning team, “At least you will be. You’re going to be on MSNBC tomorrow afternoon.”