Why we built our own period tracker

If you’re reading this and you have a menstrual cycle, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve used a cycle tracking app before – like millions of people do every day. And yet, there is a shocking lack in the diversity of how these apps are designed. Most cycle trackers are full of regressive notions of femininity, pink is still the color of choice. Maybe someday I will understand what flowers and butterflies have to do with blood flowing out of my vagina each month. Even beyond the reinforcement of gender stereotypes, the data handling policies of most of these apps is questionable. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported in 2017 how many of these applications do not secure user data appropriately when transmitting it to their servers and what happens to the data once it gets there is often quite obscure to the users.

I was frustrated with the choice of cycle tracking apps. I had used a particular app for a long time, but, like most users, I never actually read its terms of service. Then, nagged by a friend, I finally did read them. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but I was shocked to find that I had given the app permission to share intimate data about my body and sex life with third parties. I set out to look for something better, something that would work how I wanted it to, and that would keep my data private. I quickly realized that I was not alone: When I saw a tweet by my friend Marie, asking if anyone would be up for building an open-source cycle tracking app, I didn’t hesitate a second to reply “yes”.

Fast forward one year: we’ve built a cycle tracking app called Drip that addresses what bothered us most with conventional apps on the market. Drip is open-source, keeps your data private and is designed in a gender inclusive way. I really enjoyed working on it in an all-women team. It’s a stark contrast to teams I’ve worked in previous jobs, where I was often the only woman. We are supported by a bunch of awesome volunteers, or “condriputors” as we’ve come to call them. Their diversity sets drip apart from most other open-source software projects, which tend to be mostly run men. What motivated me the most: We don’t just talk about the shortcomings of the apps out there, instead we build an app that fits our values and needs.

In university, I studied social sciences and spent a lot of time talking and writing about how technology and society are intertwined, and how technology is never neutral or objective – instead, it matters who designs and builds it, and what their agenda is. Don’t get me wrong, these are important research and politics questions, but looking back, it seems ironic to me that I spent so much time with these topics in a purely academic fashion. I come from a family of people working in tech, yet I had always been convinced that programming was not for me, the prevalent gender stereotypes reliably did their number on me. Only well into adulthood did I discover that the opposite was true: I love programming and building things.

That discovery didn’t come out of thin air: I was working as a project manager, coordinating website projects, where I first experienced tech work first hand. I realized then that I was pretty unhappy coordinating tasks, time and money, and would much rather work with the developers to solve a particular bug. But it wasn’t until a friend explicitly invited me to join his informal coding learning sessions, that I actually tried it out - and loved it. I quit my project management job without having a clear plan about what to do next. It took me a couple of months until I realized that this programming-thing I was learning on the side could become my new profession. I was incredibly nervous when I had my first job interview as a programmer. I was so nervous I could barely think. Ever since I’ve loved what I’m doing and sometimes can’t believe I’m getting paid for doing something that really doesn’t feel like work to me.

When I began working as a software developer, I started to see the digital world around me differently. I am no longer only theoretically aware that the software surrounding us is designed in a certain way, but I can now see what individual decisions go into the development and what values and beliefs shape the product. More importantly, I can reason about how I would build things differently. This is not to say that I can or want to build every piece of technology I use from scratch. But it is totally possible to change the things that bother me. It is empowering to know that I can take action and that I don’t have to wait and wish somebody else would do it for me.

Here is what feminist technology means to me: Diverse groups of people designing and building technology for themselves, to address their needs, to challenge the status quo. Not just because this makes for better technology, but first and foremost because building stuff yourself is fun, liberating, and not to mention profitable. However, way too many women don’t yet feel like it is for them. To me, building an app that serves my needs has been satisfying, as building anything for yourself would be. And, luckily, it has also broadened the choices for others.

Go to the Drip App website. Follow the Bl00dyHeath Team on twitter.