Fellow Profile: Maira Khwaja

| MSFT Chicago Staff

Maira KhwajaWhere are you from? Pittsburgh, PA

School/grade/major: University of Chicago

Last thing you searched on Bing: Tennis racquets for free and on sale

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? I was first exposed to the civic tech community through Chi Hack Nights (formerly Open Gov Hack Nights), where people spoke highly of the support Microsoft gives to the civic tech community. Former fellows also loved their experience and went onto very creative, meaningful work after graduation, giving me a lot of confidence in the diverse opportunities that Microsoft could offer. The Technology & Civic Engagement (TCE) team is just my style – small and dedicated – and really values diverse ideas from community organizations as the driving force behind their collaborative work, which aligns with my philosophy of how to create sustainable progress in Chicago’s neighborhoods.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for MSFT Chicago? I’m currently designing a multi-tiered curricula for senior citizens around cyber security and basic internet literacy in partnership with Chicago Public Library’s cybernavigators program, Chicago Housing Authority, and Department of Family & Support Services. I’ll be working with Adam and Tom Schenk, Chief Data Officer at the City of Chicago, on organizing city-wide learnathons this summer.

I’ll also be continuing our partnerships with YOUMedia and the MakerSpace labs at CPL and the Digital Youth Network in the Chicago City of Learning Initiative, so that kids can find our learning resources online and get recognition for their certification through digital badges. I also look forward to leading Day of Code activities at the Museum of Science and Industry!

What excites you about civic tech?

I love how civic tech makes “tech” accessible and useful to anyone. It removes the fear and often scary skills entry barrier from the tech world, making the civic tech community very welcoming. You can walk into Chi Hack Night without ever having written a line of code, and within one evening, someone can show you how to make a simple, useful map. A welcoming community allows for a diverse community. For example, some Chicagoans involved in coordinating after-school programming know that there are students who stop attending learning opportunities because using public transportation alone gets difficult or dangerous. At Chi Hack Night, a team works on a project called RideWit/Me, which helps youth safely coordinate transportation plans together to after school events. The nature of this project needs a diverse team – experienced programmers, students acutely familiar with specific concerns of transportation routes, educators who know after school programming. So many Chicagoans meaningfully work together, which makes for a stronger city.

What makes Chicago unique in its use of civic tech? Chicago’s neighborhood-driven approach to civic tech really excites me. When we value community voices from day one when designing a new innovation center, for example, we know that civic tech initiative will be sustainable. When you walk into one of the Blue1647 locations in Pilsen, you know immediately that it was built for and by community members, from the people coordinating the organization to the examples used in discussions. Chicago has a diverse and broad enough civic tech population to create local meetups and projects very specific to our own neighborhoods.

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

I think the current push for open data from the government from the civic tech community is really important. This isn’t only to stay transparent and accountable, but also to give people data to create useful tools for their cities. Civic tech also proves that tools can’t be made solely by developers: the knowledge base of those familiar with all communities in a city are necessary for the most effective projects. I hope civic tech’s unique practice of bringing diverse voices, and more and more low-income voices, to the project design table, will influence local government to regularly do that in other areas as well.

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