What's New in Civic Tech: Harvard Students, U.S. Government Partner to Address Digital Skills Gap

Plus, Chattanooga joins Kansas City in adopting a Facebook chatbot, DARPA invests $65 million in developing two-way brain-computer interface, and NYC launches a pair of tech initiatives in Brownsville.

by / July 13, 2017
In September 2014, this phrase on the side of Harvard University's Gund Hall offered motivation for the Graduate School of Design’s $110-million fundraising campaign to support expanded research and financial aid for students, among other things. Flickr/Niklas Tenhaef

A nonprofit organization aimed at inspiring young people to use tech for social good is partnering with the U.S. Census Bureau to provide fully-funded data science and technology internships within the federal government.

This summer marks the beginning of the effort, which brought 14 interns from top academic institutions (think Harvard, MIT, Cornell and Duke, among others) to work at the Census Bureau. The program is called the Civic Digital Fellowship program, and it’s the flagship initiative of Coding it Forward, the aforementioned nonprofit, which works with about 1,000 young technologists from colleges across the country who are interested in using their skills and abilities for social impact.

This program was founded by Neel Mehta, a senior computer science major at Harvard who has interned with both Microsoft and the U.S. Census Bureau. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Mehta said in his career he’s had difficulty finding government technology internships that offer comparable opportunities to those found in Silicon Valley and throughout the private sector.

“I realized, more generally, there are no on-ramps for helping young, socially-minded technologists get involved with the government,” Mehta told The Huffington Post.  

Mehta also said that interest in this program has been high, with 226 applicants vying for the 14 internship positions, landing the acceptance rate at about 6 percent. While the inaugural program is involved only with the Census Bureau, Mehta and the group are in talks with other agencies for future installments, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and the State Department.

NYC Launches New Smart City Technologies and Young Innovators Program in Brownsville

New York City has rolled out a pair of new programs in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn: a smart city solutions lab initiative and a tech education program for young people in the area.

The smart city solutions lab will benefit from a series of meetings that the city held in partnership with Brownsville community leaders to find out what the neighborhood needs and how smart city tech can improve the quality of life there, all while simultaneously spurring economic development. Some of the priorities that grew from these sessions include cleanliness of public spaces, safety and access to healthy foods.

The Brownsville Innovation Lab was first announced in March, and initial tech demos will be installed at Osborn Plaza in Brownsville, including the latest version of Bigbelly’s solar-power trash cans, which hold as much as five times more waste than a standard can, and two Soofa smart benches that use solar power to provide free charging for tablets and phones. This program was launched on July 8.

That same day also marked the start of the new tech education push for Brownsville youth, which began with hands-on workshops to learn about STEM concepts by building solar-powered cars. The workshops, which are part of the Bank of New York Mellon’s Young Innovators Program, strives to spur an interest in tech, and organizers hope that over the course of a year, it can reach more than 1,000 Brownsville young people at a variety of interactive events.  

Anyone interested in learning more can visit http://innovation.nyc.

DARPA Invests in Neural Implants to Allow Brains to Communicate with Computers

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded developed contracts aimed at creating neural implants that could make it possible for the human brain to speak directly with computers at near-instantaneous speeds, the federal agency announced in a press release.

Of the five research organizations and one company supporting this effort, which has been dubbed the Neural Engineering System Design program, three are prestigious universities — Brown, Columbia and the University of California, Berkeley — while the others are the Seeing and Hearing Foundation, John B. Pierce Laboratory, and Paradromics, Inc. All five now have teams to develop related tech.

The possibilities of this complex effort are intriguing, to say the least, with therapy for brain, hearing and vision damage being among the most practical outcomes. In fact, several of the teams will focus primarily on using a high-resolution neural interface to support sensory restoration in vision, hearing and speech. In simpler terms, there could soon come a time when this tech allows blind people to see through computers, and deaf and mute people to overcome their respective challenges as well.

“The work has the potential to significantly advance scientists' understanding of the neural underpinnings of vision, hearing and speech, and could eventually lead to new treatments for people living with sensory deficits,” DARPA wrote in its press release.

The way it does this is significantly complex, as one would expect. The tech involves implants in the brain that are capable of converting electrochemical signaling used by neurons into ones and zeros that computers understand, all at a near-instant speed.

According to the release, part of this effort will involve a collaboration between scientists and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in order to make sure the work takes into account long-term safety, privacy, information security, compatibility with additional devices and other regulatory aspects.

Is the Future of Open Data Accessibility Facebook Chatbots?

A recent trend in major cities has seen civic innovators going beyond the simple publish of open data to also give citizens new and easier ways to process and comprehend the info.

Google-esque search engines and easy-to-read maps have sprung up on many open data portals. Recently, Kansas City, Mo., also created a Facebook chatbot to help with this cause.  

While this may strike you as a lonely existence for the chatbot, as it was the only one of its kind when it was created to help citizens find historical data about building permits — just a solitary robotic being living forever inside Facebook — it is lonely no longer.

Chattanooga, Tenn., recently launched its own version in what the Sunlight Foundation calls a similar effort to provide the public there with easier access to open data. Both cities say their chatbots are in early, experimental stages. There seems to be no word yet on what would happen should they ever begin to chat with each other, presumably after one sends the other a message asking, "U up? I need to know how many arrests happened in a certain neighborhood last October."

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.