“We’re training data scientists to tackle problems that really matter.” It is an understatement in almost every way. And it is the tag line on the website for Data Science for Social Good (DSSG). A three month summer program in Chicago, DSSG brings blossoming data scientists from across the country to work on data mining, machine learning, big data, and data science projects. The Fellows (there are 48 of them) work in small teams on problems whose solutions rely heavily on data. The problem spaces run from education to health to energy to urban infrastructure issues. And by partnering with local governments, non-profits, and federal agencies, they are directly assisting key decision and policy makers.
Housed in a large open space in Chicago’s Loop, the team is led by the Urban Center for Computation and Data’s Rayid Ghani and Matt Gee. Matt is one of those guys who seems to be in multiple places at one time. He’s been at the forefront of the open data movement in Chicago for as long as such a movement has existed. This year, he has curated a cohort of projects that are focusing on a variety of domains from predictions on student enrollment, to government spending policy, to the optimization of health treatment for expecting mothers, to smart meter data analysis. All projects are bound by the goal of using data science to impart positive social impact.
DSSG asked me to have Dan’l Lewin, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President for Technology & Civic Engagement (TCE), speak to this group of motivated and passionate Fellows. The request made complete sense: Dan’l has a clear vision for technology’s impact on civil society; these fellows have a clear vision of how technology can have an impact on specific civic domain spaces. This was clearly going to be a rich conversation.
And it was. DSSG wanted to know three things: Dan’l’s career path that brought him to TCE, his vision around civic tech in general, and his view on how civic engagement could (and does) work in a large enterprise tech company.
Dan’l had always been interested in the spaces where computing is used to solve interesting problems for society. He relayed his career background beginning at Apple in its earliest days. He was brought in by Steve Jobs in 1981 to lead education sales and marketing at Apple. When Steve Jobs left to start NeXT in 1985, he brought Dan’l with him as a co-founder. Dan’l was then brought into Microsoft by Steve Ballmer (another Steve) to be our “ambassador” to the Valley. Dan’l is an integral part of the vast VC community in Silicon Valley.
When he joined Microsoft in 2001, our industry was clearly in transition. Being at an inflection point, Dan’l came in with the philosophy that Microsoft needs to do business on the market’s terms, not on Microsoft’s terms. That meant:
- Building our infrastructure relative to market needs, not relative to Microsoft legacy
- Thinking more deeply about future regimes under which we will be doing business, not just creating great products.
- And doing both without abandoning the legacy that got us here, because you need to serve your existing customers and shareholders
This type of thinking is as relevant now as it was then. The industry is in yet another inflection. We still need to think about doing business on the market’s terms with new leadership in place at Microsoft.
He then turned the discussion to his new Technology & Civic Engagement group. This is the team for which I serve as the lead for Chicago. At Microsoft, Dan’l is known for his insights into what matters, as much as he is for his brevity. It is not uncommon to get an email response from him regarding person X or issue X with two words: “X matters.” Right off the bat, Dan’l shared his insight on civic tech with the DSSG fellows with three predictable words: “Civic Engagement matters.”
Dan’l told the fellows that in the context of Technology and Civic Engagement, this small, but focused team is going to make long term bets in 3 areas:
1) Academic: at the broadest level, we are placing series of strategic investments into the academic community. We will engage people in fields that matter to both the company’s future and to civic society in general. And… we will not tell them what to do. We focus on a few key areas, providing financing and other resources. And then we remain hands-off. The idea is to ensure that there is plenty of data-informed public conversation that helps regulators and policy makers think through problems of society. It is the model we are implementing with danah boyd and her Data and Society Research Institute in New York, for example.
2) Key metropolitan areas: Large cities can be thought of as idea incubators where people live, where data exists, and where experimentation is ripe. Microsoft is betting on Chicago in this important way. It is a great test bed for urban experimentation. But we also want to measure the economic impact of our bets and projects. To that end, Dan’l brought in Simon Wilkie, a well-known economist, to help study that broad impact of our projects and our engagement on society and on the company.
3) Research: We are investing in both the broader and the targeted use of our technology as it relates to research and policy. For example, we are looking at the application of machine learning to political engagement. We are looking at how political leaders can use leading-edge technology to engage civil society and respond to a constituent base. And we ourselves want to engage researchers, entrepreneurs, and civic and political leaders to both learn and to help them understand how to use data to make good decisions.
That, in my mind, is exactly what Civic Technology and Civic Engagement look like when applied from within a large tech enterprise. Both Dan’l’s thoughts around that and DSSG’s choices of problem sets point to a common thread: Our representative democracy framework, colliding with big data analytics, makes a complex and interesting model for study.