By Steve Kelman

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A civic tech summer fellow becomes a full-time fed

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Coding It Forward is a student organization started mostly by Harvard undergrads to promote summer tech fellowships in the federal government. In the summer of 2018 they placed 36 interns in six agencies. As I have watched the program’s growth, I have been eager to see whether the summer internships are leading to anything more lasting. Even summer interns can be important for tech-starved agencies, but for deeper impact, it would be great if some of the internships translated into longer commitments.

In a recent conversation with Harvard junior and Coding It Forward Executive Director Chris Kuang, he told me it has. Of the 2018 fellows, two have gone on to work full-time at Census and one at NIH. In the two cohorts, seven fellows have continued to be involved with their agencies part time after their fellowships. Others have taken jobs for mayor’s or governor’s offices.

Kuang then introduced me to Christian Moscardi, a 2018 fellow at the Census Bureau who has gone on to a permanent position at the agency. Moscardi is a 2014 Columbia computer science grad who went to work after graduation at a company providing training (“a sort of boot camp”) for people making a transition into being data scientists.

Moscardi discovered civic tech because of that community’s interest in using open data, which he initially liked as a source of data for exercises in doing machine learning that he was teaching in his courses. Searching the web for information about open data, he came upon the Manhattan Code for America brigade, which was working on open data with the city government.

“After seeing the potential of open data, I wanted to learn more and to meet the folks involved in the broader community of people using tech for good,” he said. “As I started going to more events, I met a community of incredible, like-minded people who wanted to use their skills to do good for their community, rather than make the next billion-dollar app. I wanted to get more involved and after asking around, I became involved with the leadership committee in January 2017.”

For the next 18 months, Moscardi volunteered about five hours a week editing the brigade’s newsletter and taking the lead on organizing a one-day 300-person event that brought together tech folks working for the city and civic tech enthusiasts “to discuss how we can use technology and data for social good.”

He found out about the Coding It Forward summer internship through the New York City Code for America newsletter, and decided to apply, hoping he could somehow apply a separate interest he had in transportation (he listed this as his area of interest in his application). He got assigned to the Census Bureau to work on something called the Commodity Flow Survey that Census conducts for the Department of Transportation, which requires 100,000 companies to fill in shipping data information.

Respondents had to give a free-text answer to a question about what kind of products they were shipping, and then to code in “an extremely obscure product coding … which was very time consuming,” Moscardi said. The idea of the project he was assigned to work on was to use raw shipping data the companies were already collecting and develop an automated way, using machine learning and natural language processing, to turn that raw data into usable codes, thus obviating the need for filling out a survey.

Moscardi used information from codes entered from previous surveys to develop predictions about correct codes based on shipping data. The model went through several iterations to improve its accuracy. By the end of the summer, an algorithm had been developed with high accuracy.

Why do this? ”I’ve done work that will impact the lives of 100,000 people, make their lives easier, which is a lot harder to find in private industry, he said. “I am checking the box of improving government, not just making money. It’s a really good feeling.”

“The big thing I learned this summer is that innovation in government can work on a remarkably quick timescale,” Moscardi said. “I was able to produce some cool results that had immediate impact. I didn’t know that would be the case -- it was exciting and motivating. I was facilitated by a group of folks I’m working with who are motivated by innovation, even taking risk. This was risky because it was a brand new methodology for Census; machine learning hadn’t been used a lot there. My boss has given me a lot of trust and independence – he cares about results. And Census and Transportation took what I developed this summer and put it into production.”

Moscardi did add that, compared with being at a tech startup, his work has involved less collaboration with other IT subject matter experts. ”I am the only data scientist on this team and generally don't work directly with others in a technical capacity on projects. That’s been an adjustment.” This is an issue the government needs to keep in mind when young tech talent is involved in projects.

“With that said, I have worked with a great group of folks who run the Commodity Flow Survey,” Moscardi added. “While not data scientists per se, I cannot sing their praises enough. They're incredibly knowledgeable, engaged, excited about innovation, and have great ideas about how to improve the survey. This has included one analyst allowing me to shadow her daily work of processing survey responses, another beta-testing a tool I developed that applies my machine learning algorithm as an AI-assisted search tool, and others still coming up with suggestions and ideas about how we can use machine learning to improve survey operations in a number of ways. They have deep experience, great ideas, and are a joy to work with.”

As the idea of young civic tech folks working for government increases, government will have to think about its need for SME data science talent, so the new people aren’t isolated and unable to learn through collaboration with other experts.

At the end of the summer, Census offered Moscardi a full-time job working on the same problems, and he took the offer. How long will he stay? ”I’m pretty open and flexible,” he told me. “I’m open to this becoming longer term, not sure quite.” I doubt he’ll be doing this in 10 years, but he is more likely to continue some sort of civic tech involvement. And the government is already benefiting from his talent.

A key message I got from hearing Moscardi’s story is that it is unlikely that a person will make a transition from private sector to government work in one fell swoop. In this case, his path started with volunteer work for Code for America, proceeded to a Coding it Forward internship, and only afterwards moved into full-time government employment. Furthermore, his full-time government job represented a continuation of what he had been working on for his internship, rather than a fully new set of responsibilities. 

Without, I hope, trivializing the analogy, Moscardi’s path regarded me of what door-to-door salespeople call the “foot in the door.” If you can get somebody to undertake a small change (in this case serving as a Code for America volunteer), it becomes easier to get them to make larger changes afterwards. For the civic tech community and for agencies, the lesson is to provide young people with low-cost ways to initiate a commitment and test the waters. My advice to both Code for America and Coding it Forward is to see if there are ways they can make an initial engagement with civic tech even lower-cost.

There is a second lesson here for government folks as well. After writing several blogs on the civic tech movement, I am now really convinced that this movement is a crucial ally and source of help for government tech folks. I’m not sure how many government people are aware of this potential – I certainly wasn’t until writing about this. Government people need to become aware of this, and work proactively to reach out to this community. Are civic tech people being invited to any of the many conferences our community organizes, for example? They should be a regular feature. What can the CIO Council do to connect civic teach people and federal agencies?

Getting young people to sign on as feds will continue to be a hard slog. But Moscardi’s experience provides a path forward for those of us hoping that committed young people can be a source of government tech talent.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 13, 2018 at 7:04 AM


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