Civic Digital Fellows showcase a second year's work in Washington

Thirty-six students from across the country spent the summer tackling tech challenges that ranged from data transparency to website redesign to machine learning.

teamwork (SFIO CRACHO/Shutterstock.com)

Thirty-six students from across the country spent the summer in Washington, D.C., tackling tech challenges for government as part of a student-run fellowship program now in its second year.

The fellows, participants in the Civic Digital Fellowship program led by a group of undergrads who founded the civic tech organization Coding It Forward, were stationed across six agencies: the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services and State, the Census Bureau, the International Trade Administration and the General Services Administration.

At an Aug. 9 demo day hosted by the Partnership for Public Service, the fellows -- whose academic focuses range from physics, computer science and data science to public policy, economics and Afro-American studies -- showed off their tech deliverables, aimed at improving data usage, expanding machine learning and leveraging customer-centered design.

“A really exciting part of the fellowship is seeing how projects might vary from one agency to another, [and] how they tie in,” said Chris Kuang, a co-founder of Coding It Forward and rising Harvard junior.

For instance, at HHS, fellows worked on projects relating to the opioid crisis that entailed manipulating raw data, restructuring presentable data and increasing data sharing between agencies. They also provided better information to the public about what agencies are doing in response to the opioid epidemic and about how federal investments (and the epidemic itself) have changed over time. Other HHS fellows worked on improving the Freedom of Information Act process for requests pertaining to Medicare.

One group’s project was modernizing the State.gov website by increasing data transparency and redesigning heavily trafficked pages. Another group at State worked on making it easier for diplomats preparing for foreign service assignments to find and access information that had been previously scattered throughout the department's intranet.

Fellows at the VA coordinated with veterans to improve the GI Bill School Feedback tool to allow users to more easily make their input on the process heard.

At Census, fellows in the bureau’s open innovation labs modernized tedious tasks with machine learning and improved public access to the data held by government’s premier statistical agency.

Jeff Meisel, Census' chief marketing officer and an early champion of the program, said a difference between this year’s program and last year’s was organization, “as there was a full year to really optimize the program.”

Last year, he said, “we had no idea if it would work, let alone be scalable across government,” noting that the inaugural fellowship was pulled together in about three months, had fewer participants and was hosted by just Census.

Frankie Devanbu, a recent graduate from Olin College of Engineering who worked at HHS this summer, said, “it’s embarrassing to say, but I also don’t think I had that much of an understanding of what the federal government looked like besides politics, besides Congress and besides our president.”

And after a summer of working on civic tech, Devanbu said flatly, “I’m staying.”

“I really have been loving working at [the National Institutes of Health] and specifically with my team at [National Center for Biotechnology Information],” she said.

Devanbu isn’t the only student taking a shine to government service. Meisel, a former Presidential Innovation Fellow, said the number of fellows who expressed interest in staying on board after the fellowship doubled compared to last year.

“I believe this is attributed to better project placement, highly engaged mentors and a deeper understanding within the agency on how best to utilize this elite talent to drive mission impact,” he said.

Natalie Moore, a product manager at the U.S. Digital Service and a Coding It Forward advisory board member, said the program is “not only an opportunity for fellows to be immersed, but is also a huge win for agencies that host them.”

That the program is run and tailored by students for students is key to its success, Meisel added.

“There’s no other program like it in the federal space,” he said, “We think it can become a best-in-class model to bring the next generation into public service.”

NEXT STORY: The shadow rulers of the VA

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