Technology and Democracy Fellows Ignite Civic-Tech Discussion

August 15, 2017
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DropCapodern technology has amplified human productivity, created networks of individuals worlds apart, and streamlined our day-to-day lives, bringing the world to our fingertips. From our personal lives to business, we clamor to apply technology to increase efficiency and advance our activities. Should we apply technology to our democracy with the same fervor? How can we meld modern technology with practices and institutions born well before the age of the light bulb, let alone the computer? What are the social and ethical risks of automating tasks typically reserved for humans? During the 2016–2017 academic year, seven Technology and Democracy Fellows at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation embarked on a mission to tackle these profound questions.

The Technology and Democracy Fellows are appointed each academic year with a mandate to explore technology’s role in improving democratic governance—with a focus on connecting theory to practice and on helping Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) students develop crucial technology skills. The fellowship’s second cohort was comprised of:

  • Leah Bannon, Organizer, Tech Lady Hackathons, and Product Lead, 18F, General Services Administration
  • Trevor Davis, CTO, National People’s Action, and CEO/Founder, ToSomeone
  • Noel Hidalgo, Executive Director, BetaNYC
  • Harlo Holmes, Director of Newsroom Digital Security, Freedom of the Press Foundation
  • Hila Mehr, Senior Analyst, Market Developments and Insights, IBM
  • Dhrumil Mehta, Database Journalist, FiveThirtyEight
  • Hollie Russon Gilman (Senior Adviser), Civic Innovation Fellow, New America Foundation and Postdoctoral Research Scholar, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs

Passion Projects

Each fellow is an experienced technologist with a passion for democratic governance. Throughout the year, fellows develop innovative projects drawing from their personal and professional experiences and are supported by HKS faculty and staff. The diversity of the fellowship is showcased in the wide array of projects undertaken. For example, Hila Mehr focused on artificial intelligence (AI) applications for citizen services. Mehr sought to turn AI, the buzzword, into AI, the set of practical tools that can enable government employees to focus their time and energy on more creative and important work by reducing administrative burdens. Meanwhile, Noel Hidalgo took on the challenge of developing accessible educational tools to teach community-based organizations how to make the most of New York City’s open data. He developed “Cards for Service,” bringing to mind the beloved game “Cards Against Humanity,” as part of a replicable toolkit to teach individuals and groups how to use NYC’s 311 data, ultimately empowering communities with data.

Student Workshops

In addition to working on their individual projects, the fellows developed and led a hands-on workshop for HKS students interested in honing their technology skills. Small groups of students armed with laptops dove into data, learned how to iterate quickly using design thinking, navigated GitHub, sketched out basic code, and explored the applications of thesePull Quote 1 technologies in civic and public spaces. In November, Harlo Holmes demystified the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), sharing best practices and helpful tools to ensure FOIA requests are submitted in a way that will get a response from a technically fickle system. In March, Leah Bannon introduced students without a coding background to government application program interfaces (APIs). Reflecting on her design thinking workshop, Mehr said, “I enjoyed experiencing the enthusiasm the students had. They were open and ready to learn about new ways of working.”

As a second year fellow, Dhrumil Mehta drew on his work using natural language processing in journalism to show students how to tell stories with data. However, his student engagement didn’t stop there. Mehta also taught a J-term or Winter-session course titled “Programming and Data for Policymakers” that garnered student evaluations such as, "On a per-hour basis, this is perhaps the most valuable course I have taken at the Kennedy School." During the five six-hour classes, Mehta provided hands-on programming exercises in the context of government and politics to help students build essential core technology and data skills.

Tech and Democracy Ignites

The 2016–2017 Technology and Democracy Fellowship concluded in May with a final event titled, “Tech and Democracy Ignites.” The fellows joined HKS students, faculty, and Ash Center staff for a series of high-energy, fast-paced Ignite talks—five-minute presentations comprised of 20 slides that automatically advanced every 15 seconds. Academic Dean Archon Fung introduced the evening and Director of Digital HKS and Lecturer in Public Policy David Eaves emceed. Engaging presentations from students, fellows, and Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Computer Science Jim Waldo elicited cheers from the crowd.

PUllQuote2Though this year’s fellowship program has concluded, the 2016–2017 Technology and Democracy Fellows will remain an important part of the discussions happening at the Ash Center and in the public sphere. Ash Center Executive Director for Programs Tim Glynn-Burke stated, “The Technology and Democracy Fellows have contributed in meaningful ways to the Ash Center, to HKS students, and to a broader community interested in the increasingly dynamic intersections between democratic governance and digital technology, media, data, civic tech, security, design, and more. Over the year it become very clear that each of the fellows' commitment is igniting public discourse and igniting action across all sectors. Their work is impressive, and yet there are still many issues at hand that need their skills and passion to help understand and navigate. We applaud all that the fellows accomplished this past year and will look forward to following their further successes.”

Recalling her time as a fellow, Mehr said, “My experience has been fantastic. I've been able to engage with the HKS professors and students—there are so many passionate individuals in this community! I've enjoyed getting to know the community members who care deeply and think thoughtfully about the potential and impact of technology in government.”

Hidalgo shares Mehr’s sentiments and provided some advice for his fellow technologists, “This fellowship was a great resource to take my hat off for a few months, to use Harvard resources to reflect on the things that the civic-tech community has done over the last few years. I recommend if you've been working on technology and democracy in some way, shape, or form, or civic engagement for the last five years, that you should apply or think about a project.”

The 2017–2018 Tech and Democracy Fellows will join the Ash Center this fall. You can learn more about the new cohort here. If you’re interested in applying for the 2018–2019 fellowship, join the Ash Center mailing list for more information about programs, events, and the next application deadline.

Additional Resources

Watch the Tech and Democracy Ignites event on Ash's Facebook page.

See photos from the event on Flickr

Check out the 'Challenges to Democracy' blog to read more about what the Ash Center's democracy program is working on. 

See also: Ash Features, 2017