This Week in Civic Tech: Boston Hackers, Obama’s Tech Library and 3-D Printed Glass

A look at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / August 20, 2015
An MIT breakthrough has found a way for 3-D printers to produce glass bowls, vessel and other objects. MIT

Innovators Wanted in Boston

Boston’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation is scouting for tech innovators in its recently announced #Tech4Democracy Showcase and Challenge. Under the umbrella of the Harvard Kennedy School, the Ash Center announced the contest as an incentive for Boston’s tech community to pitch ideas in civic tech.

The center dangles a carrot of $5,000 for civic tech startups, entrepreneurs and citizens with the best “new app, Web platform, policy or program.” A panel will run the submissions through a rubric of judging criteria that awards entries based on impacts to democratic institutions, civic engagement and transparency. A second $5,000 prize is on the block for the winner of the contest’s “People’s Choice” award, a category holding to the contest’s democratic theme, and decided based on votes.

The contest is apt to see a competitive range of submissions coming from local tech groups like members of Code for Boston, the local Code for America brigade, and students from Ivy League colleges in the area like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard’s own student body.

The deadline for all submissions is Sept. 27 and the winning apps are to be decided at a demo event on Oct. 9. More details can be found at the Ash Center’s website.

Obama Presidential Tech Library

Anyone tracking the initiatives and exploits of the White House knows President Obama has an affinity for tech. He’s launched federal tech groups like U.S. Digital Servies and 18F, sought to create high-paying tech jobs with his Tech Hire program, and stood as a staunch open data advocate with his open data by default executive order -- and embedded a host of Google, Twitter and other Silicon Valley transplants into White House roles. According to an article from The New York Times, the president has no intention of halting his tech initiatives once he exits the White House.

Post-presidency, Obama is aiming to create “digital first” presidential library and foundation that is backed by an estimated $1 billion in funding. Ties to the Silicon Valley and Hollywood are propelling the library’s usage of tech to chronicle moments from his presidency, but more importantly, push his future campaigns forward. He has had close conversations with Silicon Valley venture capitalists such as Economic Adviser John Doerr, and connected with Kleiner Perkins; Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems; and Silicon Valley notables like billionaire and LinkedIn Co-founder Reid Hoffman.

Obama has kept post-presidential ambitions off the radar as he focuses on his remaining days in office, but as anyone might assume, such funding indicates an ambitious agenda whether it focuses on his initiatives in health-care reform, education, international diplomacy or grass-roots efforts advancing social equality. During a series of private White House dinners — where the president has sought counsel on likely next steps — Hoffman said that on one occasion, the president expressed an interest in bolstering civic engagement and youth opportunities, while asking how social networks can address societal challenges.

Glass 3-D Printing

The advancement of 3-D printing has taken another step forward with a breakthrough at MIT. The team’s leaders, Neri Oxman and Peter Houk, discovered a method for 3-D printers to fabricate objects out of glass. Ironically enough, the modern advancement is the result of an ancient process dating back thousands of years when artisans coiled melted glass to make bowls and other vessels.

The process takes a typical 3-D printer and equips it with a heated ceramic nozzle and an annealing chamber to manipulate the flow and shape the molten glass. While a modified glass 3-D printer is likely in the works, the flow in the current setup is controlled by cooling it with compressed air to the slow the glass, or heating it with burning propane to speed it up. A plunger may be added in the future as another way propel the glass.

Considering potential uses, Oxman and Houk believe that glass printing could inspire a number of valuable applications. If industrialized, they conjectured that the 3-D printing of glass could produce unique lighting fixtures for technical uses and glassware for biological experiments. Unlike the smooth inside surfaces of blown glass vessels, 3-D printed glass can produce complex internal textures both inside and out. At present, initial experiments include optical prisms, decorative objects and vessels, and decorative art to be exhibited at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in 2016.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.