Student-run fellowship expands for second year
- By Chase Gunter
- Jun 25, 2018
· A student-run initiative is establishing itself as a national pipeline to give students tech experience in the federal government.
The Civic Digital Fellowship, launched last April by a group of undergrads who founded the civic tech organization Coding It Forward, is back — this time, at more agencies and with more fellows.
Last year's program hosted 14 fellows, selected from more than 200 applicants, at the Census Bureau. This year, more than 900 students across the country applied.
Thirty-six fellows will be spending their summers at Census, the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services and State, as well as the International Trade Administration and General Services Administration.
Based on feedback from last year, the 2018 cohort has "a lot of the same skillsets," said co-founder and rising Harvard junior Chris Kuang. "We've found these positions and these skills are consistently ones that are in great demand in the federal government."
The hope of the founders is the students and their skillsets would be a "shock to that status quo" in terms of "bringing the cutting edge of how technology should be built into [government’s] work," Kuang added.
The range of projects students are working on during their 10 weeks in government would back that up.
At State, for example, fellows are tackling aspects of the department's website redesign, ranging from open data policies to handling FOIA requests via the site.
At Census, fellows could find themselves working in the bureau’s open innovation lab.
Across various HHS components, machine learning around data related to the opioid crisis and hospital records are on fellows' docket.
Another point of emphasis for the founders is getting a diverse cohort from a range of backgrounds. Historically, tech sector demographics have disproportionately slanted white and male compared to the general workforce. The 2018 cohort, by contrast, is majority women and people of color.
"If they're building software and working on projects representative of the whole country, we want our cohort to look like the country as well," said Athena Kan, one of the co-founders and a rising senior at Harvard.
For their work, fellows receive a stipend as well as housing, travel and other expenses from the program and participating agencies.
"We're really a great option for agencies that are looking to reconsider their digital needs for their talent strategy," Kuang said. "We heard feedback last summer at our demo day that if they had contracted out some of the projects fellows had worked on, they would have expected it to take twice as long and cost three times as much."
And working on real technical projects, as opposed to menial tasks, also matches how the students want to spend their summers.
"We make sure to build the fellowship based on what fellows want," said Kan.
That goes for what the fellows do outside of their respective agencies, too. This year, the program is offering more in the way of professional development opportunities, teaming up with organizations like the Washington Post, Nava and government agencies for fellows to conduct site visits in off-hours. Among the fellowship’s sponsors and partners are the Knight Foundation, the Shuttleworth Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov Foundation and a member of the Coding It Forward advisory board, said the co-founders have built "the on-ramp by hand that government should have a long time ago."
"The thing that's most missing in our civic existence right now is a clear way for someone who despite all the noise and all the anger and frustration that's permeating everything… [does] want to step up and serve — it's really hard to do it," he said. "And they’ve found the same thing themselves, and said, 'screw it, we're going to do it ourselves.'"
Based on a survey about career interests administered when fellows accept their offer, the goal of the site visits are to help students "understand what civic tech looks like" in its many forms, said Rachel Dodell, another co-founder and recent graduate of Wellesley College.
"It's a really organic, kind of casual opportunity for fellows to be able to understand what these types of workplaces look like and what types of organizations are in the field as well," she said.
Kan emphasized a point of pride about the program is bringing together "people who wouldn’t meet because they’re so geographically split together."
"A big part of the fellowship is really that you have people coming all across the country who are committed to using their technical skills for social good, but don’t necessarily have a community where they are," she said. "Then they come, and they all realize they’re really committed to civic tech and making government work better."
Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.