Democracy in the Digital Age

April 1, 2016
Democracy in the Digital Age

HKS Broadens Opportunities for Students to Engage in Civic Technology

By Francesca Schembri, Ash Center Communications 

After the rest of the building had largely emptied out and gone dark for the day, the second floor of 124 Mount Auburn Street was buzzing with activity early this spring. Teams of students were scattered around the offices of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation bouncing ideas back and forth. Some groups were huddled around laptops researching the latest in drone technology, while others used colored markers to sketch out a new interface for a city services app.

The students were prototyping projects to improve governance and civic life, which they then presented by walking through how a user would experience the technologies. The solutions included launching drones to protect emergency personnel responding to 911 calls, community-based strategies to demilitarize the Middle East, a supply-driven garbage collection app for Indian communities, and an app to streamline DMV services like driver’s license renewal.

The Technology and Democracy Workshop Series

The fourteen Harvard Kennedy School students had assembled at the Ash Center that evening to participate in a workshop entitled “How to Handle the Tools of Civic Tech: A Primer for Government,” led by Technology and Democracy fellow Hollie Russon Gilman.  She opened the workshop with one of the largest issues facing twenty-first century government, a problem with which the attendees where no doubt familiar, which she referred to as “the democratic deficit.”

“We see it all around the country, citizens are losing faith in the basic institutions that govern them,” said Russon Gilman. “There are low levels of participations, record low levels of trust in the United States and it’s not just for Congress, it’s for government in general.” Russon Gilman said she believes, however, that “we have, with technology, an opportunity to improve this deficit.” 

Using this idea as the foundation of her workshop, Russon Gilman engaged students in a discussion about some of the innovations in civic technology she had observed through her research and work in the public sector establishing a toolbox of innovation strategies. These included participatory budgeting in New York City, Chicago’s OpenGrid (an open-source repository for public information), and Boston’s Citizens Connect, which strengthens street-level city services by leveraging smartphone technology.

After the student groups had presented their civic technology prototypes, Russon Gilman offered feedback to each student and encouraged them to further pursue the ideas in their academics and practice. “Think about what are the strengths of applying technology to the public sector and what are some of the constraints,” Russon Gilman said as she encouraged students to keep developing and refining their prototypes. 

The Technology and Democracy Fellowship

Russon Gilman is also a Civic Innovation Fellow at the New America Foundation and one of the recipients of the Ash Center’s inaugural Technology and Democracy Fellowship. The other 2015-16 Technology and Democracy fellows are Anjelika Deogirikar, the ORGANIZE Innovator in Residence at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Tiana Epps-Johnson, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Technology and Civic Life, Marci Harris, the Co-founder and CEO of POPVOX, Solomon Kahn, Director of Analytics at Paperless Post, Seamus Kraft, Executive Director of The OpenGov Foundation, and Dhrumil Mehta, Database Journalist at FiveThirtyEight. The fellows are joined by Kirsten Gullickson, Senior Systems Analyst with the U.S. House of Representatives, as a special guest to the program.

The fellowship brings together exemplary practitioners from the worlds of technology, policy, and government with Kennedy School students for a series of hands-on workshops on a broad range of topics in civic technology.  Through participation in the workshops, students gain practical skills and a deeper understanding of how to make use of technology in innovative ways to facilitate interaction between the public and government. 

The fellowship is a two-way street: by leading the workshops and developing a community of learning with Kennedy School students, the fellows will broaden and hone their communication skills, and receive collaborative support as they develop projects in their respective fields that seek to improve the quality of democratic governance. 

Loren Newman, HKS MPP ’16 candidate, said it was “a no-brainer” for him to attend Russon Gilman’s workshop, as he had been “really impressed with the Ash Center’s focus on technology at large and the center’s ability to adapt given the changing nature of the democratic world.”

Tech4Change: By Students, For Students 

Newman is also the co-chair of Tech4Change, a student-run Professional Interest Council at the Kennedy School. Since its establishment in 2012, Tech4Change has been committed to expanding technology-related course offerings and opportunities for HKS students to develop technical skills, as well as increasing awareness of civic technology-related careers. Newman believes it is critical that the Harvard Kennedy School and the Ash Center continue to be leaders in civic technology education as “these endeavors are taking information and making it accessible and adjustable to more people.Any time you do that, in the public sector, you’re making the lives of people better.”

Last spring, Tech4Change held an HKS Technology Summit with the support of more than a dozen student groups and research centers. Students, faculty, administration and staff came together to address the growing need for more courses and workshops related to civic technology. As a result, HKS students can now receive academic credit for CS50 (Intro to Computer Science) and two other data science electives. Jim Waldo, Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Computer Science at Harvard, taught a new course in the fall of 2015 about the promise and peril of policymaking in the cyber sphere. Adjunct Lecturer Nick Sinai is currently teaching a field class on technology in government, while lecturers Jesse Littlewood and David Eaves are offering respective classes on social change in the digital age, and technology in public service innovation.  HKS students are taking an active role in expanding their opportunities to learn about civic technology in theory and in practice.

The Innovation Field Lab: Where the Code Meets the Road

The Innovation Field Lab is one of HKS’s most unique offerings for those looking for practical experience leveraging civic technology to better serve the public. Created by HKS Lecturer in Public Policy Jorrit de Jong, and Ash Center fellow and Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, the Field Lab, now in its second year, provides roughly 30 HKS students with a unique opportunity to identify real-world challenges relating to data capacity, design, and implementation.

Last spring, Field Lab students partnered with the municipal governments of three Massachusetts cities, Fitchburg, Chelsea, and Lawrence, and created a program to link spreadsheets and databases across their departments. The tool allowed the cities to better address the issue of problem properties in their communities. “The Field Lab is really about making government more collaborative, more data-driven, and more results-oriented,” said de Jong. “Problem properties are an ideal topic to focus on because everyone understands their effect on neighborhoods, but the class is more than just learning about how to ameliorate or prevent this one specific problem. It’s about learning how we can have transformative impact on city government as a whole.” 

Indeed, the story of technology and government is in some ways a story of innovation in government, and the Ash Center has long been a source of research, teaching, and impact on the practice of public sector innovation.

#Hack4Congress and #Tech4Democracy: Building a Community 

Beyond academic offerings and fellowships, the Ash Center has worked to engage a larger community of innovators around the challenge of leveraging technology for democratic innovation through major community events. In the spring of 2015, the Ash Center held #Hack4Congress, a series of three “not-just-for-technologists” hackathons in Cambridge, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.  In partnership with the OpenGov Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting citizen participation in government, #Hack4Congress brought together technologists, academics, students, and former public servants to tackle problems of inefficiency in Congress. The three winning teams travelled to Capitol Hill in May to hold a live demo and discussion of their solutions with a panel of Members and top staff from House Leadership and Senate offices.

In October, the Ash Center hosted the Ash Center hosted the #Tech4Democracy Showcase and Challenge, where over 350 participants had the opportunity to learn about 28 unique civic technologies developed in the Greater Boston area. The projects ranged from apps to help citizens hold town hall-style meetings or engage with their representatives to platforms that connected people around shared values to take action in the communities. Participants and a panel of judges voted to award two $5000 awards to their favorite projects. #Tech4Democracy was held as part of HUBweek, a joint venture between The Boston Globe, MIT, MGH and Harvard University to showcase the growing and vibrant community of students, entrepreneurs, and technologists in the Boston area using technology in creative ways to leverage democracy and make government more inclusive.  

Meeting the Needs of the Digitized World

Within the past year, the Ash Center and the Harvard Kennedy School have responded to the growing need for future public leaders to be equipped with a solid foundation in technological skills in order to navigate an increasingly digitized world. The Kennedy School is on its way to establishing itself as a leader in both research and practice at the intersection of government and technology. The Ash Center has not only engaged students in the study of civic technology, but has formed a wide network of practitioners, innovators, and passionate citizens ready to use the tools of technology to make government more efficient, accessible, and democratic.  

Ash Center Technology and Democracy Fellows 2015-16: