Fellow Profile: Erin Simpson

 |   MSFT Chicago Staff

Fellow Profile: Erin SimpsonWhere are you from? Menomonie, WI

School/grade/major: University of Chicago/4th Year/Public Policy

Last thing you Binged: Broad City

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program?

Folks in the Civic Tech community in Chicago spoke highly of Microsoft, suggesting that they were really a sincere supporter and a great model for how they wanted tech companies to engage. Talking with Microsoft about how they viewed their role in the Chicago ecosystem, as a supporter of the great community and neighborhood organizations that are driving progress, I could see that this was a place that knew how to value good ideas and diverse perspectives. Similarly, they were really open to my interests and suggestions, encouraging me to pursue the issues I was passionate about and doing a great job of supporting me in that work.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for MSFT Chicago?

Right now, I’m working with the Center for Neighborhood Technology to support the 2015 Urban Sustainability Apps Competition in Chicago, which is going to bring together community leaders from across the city with teams of developer and designers to tackle some of the big challenges that our neighborhoods are facing around sustainability (Learn more here! http://www.cntideas.com/). Leading up to the competition, Adam and I are teaching a series of civic app development workshops for non-coders to help them grow their ideas into apps. I’m also working with the Digital Youth Network to spearhead Microsoft’s participation in the Chicago City of Learning Initiative, which is bringing together the incredible learning resources of all different kinds from throughout the city into one website so that kids can find them online and get recognized for their participation with digital badges. I also got to lead some of our Day of Code activities at the Museum of Science and Industry. During all this, they’ve really encouraged me to experiment with different data, development, and mapping platforms to work on making city data more usable and accessible.

What excites you about civic tech?

Civic tech excites me because it’s grassroots, it’s agile, it’s thoughtful, and it’s open to diverse voices and ideas. Combined with the incredible need that we’re seeing from the public sector, I think the stars are aligning for something very impactful. I’m excited by the way the civic tech movement is proving to be a community-building force. It’s creating a culture of civic engagement across groups that wouldn’t collaborate otherwise, which is cultivating the space for the interdisciplinary solutions demanded by a lot of the pressing challenges we’re facing today.

How can public policy further ventures in civic tech (and vice versa)?

In some cases I think public policy’s role is that of a supporter: being responsive to the needs of the civic tech space and proactive in fostering the movement. In some cases I think it needs to be thought of as a partner: included in the ideation and implementation process. In some cases I think it’s healthy for public policy to be made the competitor: successful civic tech projects can help constituencies conceptualize what they want out of public services and inspire them to encourage their elected representatives to improve. Civic tech is creating a space for the community to come together and create solutions either with or independent of government, and I think that both independent and collaborative projects have an important role to play going forward.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities?

I think civic tech has made excellent progress on demonstrating to cities that opening data isn’t just the right thing to do in principle, but also something that can generate very tangible benefits, and I hope the movement continues to push city governments to become more open and transparent. I also see a lot of potential for addressing sustainability issues; in the same way that mobile health technology and wearables are helping people work toward the behavior change that’s central to improving health, I see a parallelism in the potential to support the individual behavior change that’s necessary to reduce aggregate environmental impact. I also think it’s incredibly important to think critically and creatively about how to include low-income communities in civic tech innovation across all the issue areas that civic tech is focusing on, not just those that primarily affect under-resourced communities.

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