This fall, the Tech Coalition hosted INITIATE, a tech meetup and hackathon at Snap’s office in Seattle. Over 60 engineers and subject matter experts joined the two-day working session, representing 12 member companies including Adobe, AWS, Cloudflare, Dropbox, Google, GoDaddy, Meta, Microsoft, Pinterest, Snap, TikTok, and Yahoo. We were also joined by partner organizations including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and THORN. 

The event provided a collaborative environment where individuals from various backgrounds and companies could come together to work on important issues in our industry, such as child online safety.

Our Technical Program Manager, Lauren Tharp, sat down with the co-chair of the Tech Innovation Working Group, Shreeyagya Khemka of Pinterest, to tell us more about Initiate.

INITIATE came out of the Tech Coalition’s Tech Innovation working group. As co-chair, tell us a little about the group. 

The Tech Innovation working group consists of engineers, product managers, and other subject matter experts from the Tech Coalition’s industry member companies, who share knowledge and expertise that aid in the development and adoption of technologies that prevent child sexual exploitation and abuse online. We do this by sharing learnings through webinars, organizing pilot programs, and hosting hackathons like INITIATE.

Coming from our positive and inspirational corner of the internet, we have a zero tolerance policy at Pinterest, and believe these efforts require industry-wide collaboration. This gives me and other employees the opportunity to take leading roles in Tech Coalition initiatives, and promote this type of cross-industry collaboration and coordination.

Where did the idea for INITIATE come from?

We’ve had the idea in the works for a while. While we have been meeting with other industry members through the Tech Coalition regularly, we wanted to create the opportunity for us to get together in a room where we could focus on challenges together. Personally, I was excited to be coding in person, side by side with colleagues across industry, as well as our NGO partners, who, like me, deeply care about and committed to child safety online. 

Though INITIATE was ultimately a technical meetup, the format was distinct from other hackathons. Tell us about the planning process and what you hoped to achieve?

The format was distinct because our intent was to ensure that the technologies we built were immediately relevant. The intention was for our projects to lead to outcomes that would directly help solve problems member companies are facing - right now. 

14 companies sent participants to INITIATE to code together - that’s not a headline you see every day. What are both the challenges and the benefits of working across companies on these topics?

This level of collaboration across companies is uncommon. The challenge to an event like this is providing an environment where participants can share learnings and work together while maintaining the confidentiality requirements they have with their organizations. But there is also a fundamental foundation of trust that exists at the Tech Coalition, which helps with this.  

The benefits are multitudinous. We are combining resources and expertise from the best technology companies to innovate on projects with the singular aim of protecting children online. It gives us the opportunity to build technologies that would not have been possible if we were working on them alone. It also leads to resource saving since we can build solutions that multiple companies can adopt, rather than have each company build their own. 

Were there any particular moments at INITIATE that inspired you?

Absolutely, there were a few. First, I was inspired simply by meeting everyone in person; getting to sit side by side with them and build a solution with them. This was huge. I was also inspired during the project presentations and seeing the amazing work that folks had done in just a day and a half. 

As for long-term impact, how do you see INITIATE helping members of the Tech Company get better at keeping children safe online? Are there any projects you plan to build out further?

Yes! We saw so much progress at the hackathon and we want to carry that momentum forward. Participants particularly enjoyed writing code and building solutions together, so we plan to regularly host events where members have the opportunity to do just that. 

What’s your pitch to engineers or managers to inspire them to attend the next INITIATE?

Attending this event will give you critical knowledge across all the cutting edge technologies in preventing CSAM. Not only that, you’ll have the opportunity to collaborate with peers and colleagues industry and NGOs and build solutions that can immediately help industry as a whole in the fight against child sexual abuse online.