Austin Uses 'Speed Dating' with Summer Interns to Spur Innovation

Teams of high school students develop tech-based solutions for city government problems with help from local tech companies.

by / July 25, 2017
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A group of high school interns spent six weeks working within various departments in Austin, Texas’ city government, and the end result was a host of impressive tech-based solutions for civic problems that rival those often provided by private companies.

About 20 students — none of whom are old enough to go buy a beer on Sixth Street — were split into four teams and given a chance to meet directly with members of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, Municipal Court system, Housing Authority, and other agencies in order to learn more about the challenges civil servants face. The students then asked questions before ultimately deciding on the department they wanted to use technology to help, in a process Austin CIO Stephen Elkins compared to speed dating.

The goal of doing the internship this way was twofold: Inspire a desire among the students to work in tech, thereby deepening the pool of available technologists for hire in the coming years; and help civil servants address long-standing problems.

“We’re creating real opportunities for these students,” Elkins said. “It’s not just job shadowing. We put them in touch with companies who have businesses in the city to advise and help them."

The entire internship program, which was paid, went on for six weeks. Students came in each day around 8 or 9 a.m. and left around 1 p.m. Then they spent their final week working on presentations for their products.

Stakeholders were wowed by what the kids showed them.

One team built a chatbot for the Municipal Court after learning that the staff was spending about 2,000 minutes each day handling requests for legal advice, which by law they can’t offer. The chatbot now engages with online users, looks at their individual situations and lays out available options.

Another group went to a City Council meeting, heard complaints about affordability, and developed a calculator that residents could use to find ZIP codes with affordable housing. The other two projects focused on Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department. One is a mobile app, available at atxparks.org, that lists all of the city’s parks, what they offer and how close they are to a user’s present location. It then provides a link to Google Maps to guide people to the park of their choice. The last app was aimed at making the department’s equipment loan system more efficient, tracking what equipment is available, when and where.

Local business and tech leaders heard their presentations and bestowed awards on the teams. Elkins said everyone who saw the work came away impressed, and that he plans to repeat the program next summer.

“I want it to be meaningful,” Elkins said. “I want these kids to go back to their peers and say, ‘I had a great experience, you definitely need to be on the city of Austin’s internship program next year.’ Then they decide technology is what they want to go to school for.”

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.