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Northeastern University Student Projects Improve Government With AI

The AI for Impact program gives a dozen students full-time work experience applying generative AI to public-sector problems such as transportation services, health care and grant access for businesses and communities.

Northeastern University sign outside on a grass lawn.
Six months ago, the commonwealth of Massachusetts recruited 12 Northeastern University students to work full time on applying artificial intelligence to improve life for Massachusetts residents. Through the InnovateMA program, the students spent their spring semester assisting on five projects for different government agencies, touching everything from transportation to health care to grant distribution, according to a news release last week.

Besides being one of several AI initiatives announced by Gov. Maura Healey this year, InnovateMA is part of a broader AI for Impact Co-op Program at Northeastern University that has students alternate semesters of academic study with full-time work. This spring, their five projects included:

  • RIDE Guide: For the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, they created a door-to-door, shared-ride service for people who can’t use the subway, bus or trolley due to a disability. The new AI guide is a user navigation tool to help the 44,000 paratransit users in the area better understand how to access services.
  • MassHealth Helper: For MassHealth, the combined Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program in Massachusetts, they created a chatbot to serve as a policy hub for call center staff and other public professionals to navigate policy documents quickly and provide comprehensive information to the public.
  • Grants Navigator: For the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, they incorporated AI to predict eligibility for potential applicants to grants from the office. The goal is to make these funds more accessible to farmers, businesses and communities.
  • DOTBot: For the Department of Transportation, they created a chatbot for DOT engineers to navigate standard operating procedures that govern highway projects.
  • Generative AI Sandbox: For state employees, they built a virtual environment to explore new models and applications of AI securely without affecting network resources or other applications. Students and staff working on the RIDE Guide and MassHealth Helper were able to create and test their programs with the Generative AI Sandbox.

“In 20 years of doing this work, I have never seen students make as much progress as our AI for Impact students have made in this last semester,” Beth Simone Noveck, director of the Burnes Center for Social Change at Northeastern, says in a video about the program posted last week.

“From the technology point of view, I’m learning a lot of new things and getting to try a lot of new things,” Dhruv Kumar, a student in the spring 2024 cohort of the AI for Impact Co-op, says in the video. “The other component, being the projects that I build, have a huge impact on the employees of the commonwealth as well as the general population, so that’s been super rewarding for me.”

Northeastern will enlist a new cohort of AI for Impact Co-op students to help build AI products for government agencies and civic organizations every six months. The next cohort will continue work on these five projects, as well as any other proposals that receive approval.

“These student-designed projects display incredible technical skill and professionalism, and they are a testament to what we can achieve by collaborating with our rich higher education ecosystem in Massachusetts,” Technology Services and Security Secretary Jason Snyder said in a public statement. “We have much to learn from each other.”

In addition to InnovateMA, Gov. Healey created a task force in February to study AI and its impact on the state. She has also proposed an economic development bill with $100 million earmarked for an Applied AI Hub that would offer grants for other AI projects across state infrastructures.

“AI has the potential to help us solve some of our most challenging public problems and serve the residents of Massachusetts more effectively and efficiently,” she said in a public statement. “Our state already has an advantage to be a global leader in applied AI because of our world-class colleges and universities.”