Digital Diplomacy

State Department continues tech outreach campaign

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Technology attracts the cool kids these days, and federal agencies like the Department of State might be onto something in hosting events like its most recent Tech@State event, which kicked off Nov. 30 at George Washington University.

"There aren't many places where you get this kind of diverse collection of experts," said Carole Robertson-Fenn, chair of i-Ed Inc.

Robertson-Fenn got wind of Tech@State online, and with a background in education, she attended day one of the two-day Tech@State event at George Washington University in hopes of hearing innovative ways to incorporate social media in K-12 classrooms. She was in luck, with panelists and audience members that included tech entrepreneurs, federal employees and contractors -- not to mention non-profit sector election experts, policy gurus and self-proclaimed tech-nerds.

"(Technology) is hot right now," Robertson-Fenn said. "It's everywhere."

It is, yet engaging the tech community is not always a top priority for federal agencies. Tech@State, along with similar efforts at NASA, the Veterans Affairs Department and elsewhere, is an attempt to change that.

Richard Boly, director of the State Department's Office of eDiplomacy, said the department's eDiplomacy efforts began ten years ago under former Secretary of State Colin Powell, with a shift toward shared information over shared data.

Those efforts have continued with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's 21st Century Statecraft Initiative, and Tech@State is now one of the department's signature efforts for embracing the digital age.

The department has hosted a handful of them over the past three years on a variety of different topics - data visualization, mobile money, civil society 2.0 and data visualization, among others. (The topic this time was election technology, with experts speaking on everything from online voting to data-mining.) Each of the free-to-attend events has been a hit among audience members, Boly said.

"The feedback has been great," Boly said. "It's a cheap investment for us to make for a high-index return."

In some ways, the Tech@State atmosphere is similar to what one might find at a Hackathon, with open data and information taking prominence. But, Boly said, "We're all co-equals here," noting that tech-gurus tend to receive the lion's share of the attention at Hackathon events.

One needed to go no farther than social media outlets -- another area where State has made a conscious effort to improve its visibility in recent years -- to witness the response to the outreach efforts.

The tweets rolled in every few seconds -- accompanied by the hash-tag #TechAtState or directed @techAtState - with hundreds of Twitter users promoting Tech@State or reacting to the two-day event's collection of intelligent technology, election and policy panel discussions.

"The panels at TechAtState always seem to bring together the best and brightest. I only wish they happened more often," tweeted communications consultant Gregg Rapaport.

Others re-tweeted an audience member's description of the panelists who discussed digital strategies for presidential elections, calling them a "political tech-nerd dream team."

"I didn't even know the State Department did this," said tech entrepreneur Ram Singh, CEO of 10io. "I've enjoyed it so far."

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

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