What The Civic Digital Fellows Built This Summer
Yesterday, the Coding It Forward Civic Digital Fellowship culminated in an afternoon of lightning talks, panels and live demos in which fellows showcased what they've built this summer. The Civic Digital Fellowship is a ten-week program in which graduate and undergraduates studying computer science, data science and design are placed across federal agencies to craft innovative solutions to tough problems. The 2018 cohort hosted thirty-six fellows across eight agencies: the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of State, the Department of Veterans Affairs Digital Services, the Census Bureau, the General Services Administration, and the International Trade Administration.
Demo Day showcased a wide array of projects, from user experience re-design to data analytics to automate internal processes with machine learning. Fellows at the State Department created a beautiful and effective new user interface for State.gov that allows users to better access and understand information about programs relevant to them. A fellow at the Census Bureau used machine learning to optimize the commodity flow survey and identify errors that were draining agency resources to pinpoint and address manually. A fellow at the National Center for Health Statistics within HHS drew new insights into the opioid crisis through data analytics.
The office of the CTO at HHS hosted three fellows this year, who supported the HHS CDO's data sharing initiative and Freedom of Information Act request process prototyping. Across the board, fellows innovated cumbersome processes, eliminated digital barriers that stood in the way of people accessing government resources and information, and leveraged data to answer pressing questions.
The panels featured rich discussions about human-centered design, machine learning, data for public good, and the intriguing intersection of worlds that is civic tech. One major theme was the need for government to design with rather than for users, and how federal agencies are applying this sentiment. A user-centered design process requires multiple iterations driven by conversations with the people that will use the final product.
The need for increased communication and data-sharing between government agencies was also highlighted. Innovation in government often looks different than in tech companies. The "move fast, break things" philosophy is not always possible in the civic space where stakes are high and lives are at stake. However, many fellows remarked that their agencies were far from resistant to implementing new ideas and bringing technical solutions into their workflows.
The desire and talent to implement technical innovation is present. The hard part is building teams and communities centered around continued experimentation and innovation to keep projects alive and thriving. These agencies' willingness to give these young technologists the opportunity to plant the seeds of innovation within their teams is an indicator that they understand this, and are already thinking about how to continue innovating and iterating.