February 2014

Simple Solutions for Complex Communication Needs

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Looking for some feel good news during this unrelenting winter we’re having? Need a heartwarming story to warm you up after all of the snow? Cue Dan Bacher and the Speak Your Mind Foundation, who are harnessing the power of the Microsoft Surface to give a voice to those who are otherwise unable to communicate.

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Bacher was working as an engineer at BrainGate, a collaborative project between Brown University and Mass General Hospital, when he shifted his attention to developing the Speak Your Mind Foundation. A nonprofit organization based in Providence, RI, the foundation creates, distributes, and supports communication technologies that help people with neurological injuries and diseases. Just because someone cannot use their voice does not mean they cannot share their personality with the world and speak their mind!

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So what, or should I say who, inspires Bacher to take on this challenge? Someone like Cathy, a woman who was left paralyzed and mute after a stroke 16 years ago (watch Cathy’s story here). While Cathy owns expensive and advanced equipment to help her communicate, the technology is unreliable and crashes far too frequently, leaving her trapped within her own body. The foundation likens this to using a broken smart phone – imagine your smartphone crashing every hour, leaving you disconnected from the world. How long would you put up with the old phone before finding an alternative solution? Technologies developed by the Speak Your Mind Foundation are this alternative for Cathy and others similar to her.

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Part of the reason why Bacher’s technology is so brilliant is that it is simple in many ways (though it does feature custom programs developed by the foundation’s brilliant engineers) and accessible to far more people than traditional technologies. By securing a Microsoft Surface tablet to a wheelchair and running a program that tracks head movements through the tablet’s camera, communication is restored and quality of life is improved. But this is only one of the projects that the organization is perfecting. The Speak Your Mind Foundation boasts three life-changing technologies (plus several others in the works!) to support people with differing communication needs.

While I would love to continue on for pages on the amazing work Bacher and the Speaker Your Mind Foundation are doing, take a look for yourself. Explore their website to learn about their different projects and watch this video clip that shows the technology in action. It is truly remarkable!

Microsoft DigiGirlz Day: The Future Women in Tech

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There is one day every year when high school guys across Cambridge don’t know what to do with themselves. The girls aren’t on Facebook. They’re not at the movie theatre. They haven’t Snapchatted in three hours! The dudes are freaking out.

That’s because it’s Friday, March 7th. And the high school girls are learning how to code at Microsoft DigiGirlz Day at Microsoft New England.

Now that’s girl power.

Later, they are shadowing Microsoft app developers and managers. Then they’re checking out the newest XBox One software, or learning how the business side of things is run from the Microsoft Team. Others are listening to inspiring speeches by women in tech, picturing themselves as CTOs, wearing business suits and heels—kicking the boys’ butts and taking names.

Microsoft is proud to offer technology programs that target youth, and DigiGirlz is a one-day event we hold at Microsoft locations world-wide, designed to give high school girls a better understanding of what a career in tech is all about. The day gives them an inside look at what it’s like to work at Microsoft, or what a career in business and technology actually looks like.

This year, DigiGirlz Day will be held Friday, March 7th from 8:30am to 3pm at the Microsoft New England. You can register here.

There will be live Twitter feeds projected throughout the day at the event, as we encourage tweeting. The official hashtag for the event is #DigiGirlzMA. One lucky tweeter will win a brand new Microsoft Surface.

See you next Friday!

CodeAcross 2014 with Code for Boston: Civic Hacking Our Way to a Better City

Photos By Dana J. Quigley © 2014 | danajquigleyphoto.com

Photos By Dana J. Quigley © 2014 | danajquigleyphoto.com

Saturday morning greeted us with blue skies and the warmest temperatures we’d seen in Boston in many months. And yet, at NERD, 40 intrepid people ignored the siren call of the almost-Spring weather to spend the day inside.

What was their cause? What inspired them?

code_acrossThis last Saturday (February 22nd) was CodeAcross Day. Coinciding with International Open Data Day, the goal of CodeAcross is to activate the Code for America network and inspire residents everywhere to get actively involved in their community. Across the United States and in a number of international locations, people came together to work on technical solutions to better their community.

As both a national sponsor for CodeAcross, and the location host for the Code for Boston brigade, we at NERD were thrilled to participate in this event.

The crowd at the Code for Boston event was diverse, pulling from developers, researchers, government, community activists and people just wanting to roll up their sleeves and help think through community problems and their potential solutions.

Code for Boston Brigade Captain Harlan Weber

Code for Boston Brigade Captain Harlan Weber

As Harlan Weber (@WheresHJ), Brigade Captain for Code for Boston, noted: the organization wants to work on lighthouse projects, namely those projects that both serve a real need and demonstrate how technology can help civic life. With that philosophy in mind, the team demoed some of their work to date, including Pantry Pickup, an application that helps facilitate food bank donations, and “Will they tow me?” an app that indicates where your car will be towed in times of a snow emergency. As they demoed their diverse applications, two points became clear:

  • There are an abundance of community challenges that can be helped by unlocking open data; often it’s just a matter of making that data available in an easy-to-understand format.
  • There are diverse skill sets needed in this effort; even those who don’t consider themselves developers can contribute. Beyond writing code, the brigade could use people who can help track down data, help project manage the work, and market the work completed to date.

I came away inspired by what the group had accomplished and their goals for the future. I also look forward to working with Code for Boston moving forward!

For more information, check out Code for Boston’s meetup page and follow them on Twitter.

App demo: willtheytow.me

Tonight at Harvard Book Store! danah boyd talks teens, technology and social media myths at book signing

It's ComplicatedYour 15-year-old daughter grew up with Twitter. Before you can begin to figure out what a “hashtag” is, she’s posting a beautifully complex story of her life on Instagram. As you scroll through her photos, drinking in this online identity that you’d never seen before, she’s on to choosing which track to live-stream from the millions she has at her fingertips thanks to SoundCloud.

Then there are the protests going on in the Ukraine and Venezuela right now. Or the #Sochi2014 Winter Games. You sit down at the kitchen table ready to ask if she’s seen this or that, but your daughter already knows all about them. She looks up from her phone. She “saw it on Twitter.”

How do you feel about the social life of your networked teenage daughter?

It’s Complicated.

But also relevant as constantly evolving technologies continue to impact our lives.

Which is why we can’t wait to check out one of the world’s pre-eminent authorities on social media, youth advocate, MIT alum and principal researcher at Microsoft Research danah boyd’s new book (out today!), It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. And we don’t have to: danah will be here in Cambridge at Harvard Book Store tonight at 7pm to talk with you about it. The event is free.

danah boyd

danah boyd

In the book, danah uncovers some of the major myths regarding teens’ use of social media: identity, privacy, safety, danger, and bullying. But she ultimately argues that society fails young people when too much paternalism, or over-protection, hinders teenagers’ ability to become informed, thoughtful, and engaged citizens through their online interactions. Boyd finds that despite their elders attempting to crack down, teens often find ways to engage and to develop a sense of identity via the social sphere.

Why does Microsoft  invest in social media research? Jennifer Chayes—Microsoft distinguished engineer, managing director of Microsoft Research New England, and boyd’s manager—explains.

“Microsoft Research provides an interdisciplinary environment in which researchers can pursue basic research in a variety of areas,” she says. “Our thriving Social Media Collective, including sociologists, anthropologists, and communications and policy scholars, interacts with computer scientists who understand the structure of the Internet and the web, the security protocols, and the algorithms that enable online interaction.

“This environment leads to a holistic view of social media that informs and advances danah’s research agenda. Of course, we also are thrilled to support her fieldwork with teenagers, which reaches beyond the confines of the online world.”

That research, Chayes adds, is important for Microsoft—and others.

“Microsoft derives incredible value from danah’s research on teens and their online practices,” Chayes says. “There’s a lot of speculation and misinformation on what teens are seeking in their online experiences—how they view privacy, how they connect with each other. Danah busts those myths wide open by actually spending time interviewing teenagers from different backgrounds, on their home turf. Her groundbreaking work informs parents, legislators, and, of course, Microsoft. The more we understand about how teens interact, the more we can ensure that our products enhance these interactions in positive ways.”

Get a behind-the-scenes look at Boyd’s book and the research that influenced her findings in this super interesting Q&A via the Inside Microsoft Research blog.

And we’ll see you tonight!

Civic Tech: Moving the Conversation Forward

Urban Computing via MSFT Research

“Urban Computing” project via MSFT Research. Read more.

Cathy WissinkHow time has flown! Even though it feels like just yesterday that I arrived in Boston, it’s already been four months.

Thank you for the incredible welcome to the community. The follow-up from all of you after my first blog has been remarkable. I’ve had the chance to meet with many of you face-to-face, as well as connect with others of you virtually. I’ve appreciated the discussions with you, the connections you’ve shared with me and your thoughts on my new job. The mission of the Microsoft Innovation and Policy Center New England (MIPC-NE)—to connect stakeholders, catalyze conversations and contribute to Boston—has resonated with many of you, and I look forward to more of your input on our work.

So what have I learned over these last four months?

First: the tech community—or perhaps more broadly, the innovation community—here cares about this town, this region, and their neighbors. The community is mindful that with the benefits that come with a tech boom, as we’ve seen in this region, there’s also the responsibility to take care of those not directly benefiting. In many forums and events focused on innovation, we’ve discussed the topics of income inequality and the impact of gentrification, followed by how the tech community can contribute.

People also understand that technology, while a paradigm shifter in many aspects, is really just a tool to solve *human* challenges and provide *human* opportunities. We can’t focus on technology for technology’s sake; rather, we need to start with the problems we’re trying to solve with that technology. We need to ensure we get out of the echo chamber that the tech community can sometimes be, and connect with those people who understand community challenges and opportunities.

Finally, there’s some concern in the community with how we create sustainable and repeatable solutions that are accessible to a diverse cross-section of the population. In the tech space, we often talk at the highest and most abstract levels about societal and community challenges, but at the same time we provide one-off technical solutions that our community partners struggle to use or maintain over time.

With all of the above in mind, there is an opportunity for the tech community to come together and coalesce behind scoping and creating solutions that solve city challenges. This concept of “civic technology” is not a new one, and there are a number of organizations working hard in this space. Most notable are our colleagues at the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, who live and breathe civic technology. The Code for Boston group focuses on community-based civic innovation as well, and in fact will be holding a CodeAcross: Boston 2014 event tomorrow at NERD, focused on civic hacking. I’ve heard a lot of energy in my conversations with people in startups, big companies, co-working spaces and government on this topic. There’s clearly passion to develop civic solutions throughout the ecosystem, to help solve a city’s problems.

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We here at the MIPC-NE look forward to joining the effort in civic tech and are taking a few immediate steps to help move the conversation forward:

  • You may have seen that MassChallenge announced a new Microsoft-sponsored sidecar prize in technology and civic engagement for the 2014 Accelerator.  As the first corporate sponsor of Mass Challenge, we look forward to deepening our partnership with this prize and seeing the creative solutions that will emerge as part of the process.  Applications are open!  If you have a civic tech solution, apply for the 2014 MassChallenge accelerator here.
  • We will host a panel March 27th on this topic at NERD. While we’re still working on the specifics, there’s great interest in the community and we’re excited to start this conversation with everyone.
  • And because communities convene in a number of ways that aren’t always face-to-face, we’re looking into how we can convene the community virtually.
  • We’re also initiating conversations with diverse stakeholders across the city to determine how Microsoft can best contribute to the civic technology space.

And with that final point, here’s where I’d like to open the conversation up to you: what are your thoughts on civic technology? What are the problems the tech community should focus on? How do we create a sustainable approach to civic technology? How can Microsoft be involved?

I look forward to continuing this conversation with all of you.

You can follow Cathy on Twitter at @cathywissink to keep up with her latest #civictech work. 

Boston Public Schools Shadow Day: Showing Students What Those 1.5 Million STEM Jobs Really Look Like

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MassTLC President & CEO Tom Hopcroft made a good point this week at their annual meeting: “The history of technology in Massachusetts has been well chronicled. But what is happening around technology in Massachusetts today – and what the future promises – is far more exciting.” Every facet of our future is 100 percent dependent on today’s youth—the workforce, the developers, the innovators of tomorrow.

In an age where there will be more than 1.5 million computer science jobs to fill within the next four years—where 81 percent of MA tech executives plan on hiring in 2014 alone—it’s really our duty to prepare them, by training students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics earlier on.

“Boston’s labor market data make it clear that technology professions offer the greatest opportunity for young people seeking to advance themselves economically,” Neil Sullivan, Executive Director of the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC) told us.

Right now, there is a talent crisis amongst students in these fields, so how do we inspire them to pursue the fields needed to future STEM careers?

Math and science classes are a little different than shadowing a developer who’s actually in the field creating a new Android app at the Microsoft New England Research and Development Center. Or the guy behind the latest Xbox One software. On Friday, January 31, for the Boston PIC’s 19th annual Groundhog Day Job Shadow for Boston Public Schools, we aimed to inspire students by bringing them into the thick of things, experiencing first-hand what technology-focused jobs are actually like.

“The participation of Microsoft and other high-tech companies in PIC initiatives is critical to fostering student interest in high demand career areas, such as computer programming and software development,” Sullivan said. “The PIC seeks to expand participation in job shadows and other work-based learning opportunities in the technology sector in the months and years to come … to encourage talented and motivated students to aspire to a technology-related major in college.”

Have we peaked students’ interest in tech majors and jobs this year? We let some of the students who shadowed Microsoft NERD employees shared their Job Shadow Day experiences and answer that question themselves.

The Students with Microsoft's Alvin Chardon

The Students with Microsoft’s Alvin Chardon

“The visit to Microsoft helped me explore my career interest as well as other careers in technology,” said Julian Smith Sparks after the trip. “I’m interested in learning more about the technology industry and possibly a career in computer programming and software design.”

“My favorite part about visiting Microsoft for Job Shadow Day was seeing the ‘behind the scenes’ on how apps are created,” said Kimetra Thompson. “You wouldn’t imagine how much work goes into making the simplest app. First comes the idea of the type of app; then you have to map out how to navigate through the app and so much more.”

“A great part of the day was just talking to Alvin Chardon about Microsoft and his career and how he got to where he is now,” said WanFai Lee.

“I was never interested in a career specifically in computer science or programming or the technology industry so much as I was interested in engineering in general,” Lee admitted. “Going to Microsoft allowed me to see one aspect, the program engineer side. And I have to say, it looks pretty fun.”

Improving the Social Enterprise Ecosystem in Massachusetts

While we like to celebrate Boston as an innovation hub, our neighbors to the south in Rhode Island took the lead last Wednesday at an event at the NERD Center to teach us a thing or two about social enterprise ecosystems.

Social Enterprise GreenhouseRhode Island’s Social Enterprise Greenhouse has led efforts to create a vibrant social enterprise ecosystem in their state – bringing together practitioners, business leaders, academics, impact investors, students, and policy makers with hopes of cultivating economic development and innovation. And their work has been successful, leading to the proposed SEEED Act, legislation that would establish the Commission on the Advancement of Social Enterprise. The Commission would then make recommendations to the federal government on how to support and utilize social enterprises.

SEA MA 2Social Enterprise Massachusetts (SEA MA), Massachusetts’ counterpart to Social Enterprise Greenhouse, valued the advice and discussion from the event. Around 80 people from nonprofits, mission driven enterprises, entrepreneurs, human service providers, foundations, consultants, academics and others (a very diverse crowd indeed!) sparked conversations and asked relevant questions to the topic at hand.

 

Kelly Ramirez

Kelly Ramirez

Kelly Ramirez, CEO of Social Enterprise Greenhouse, lent her expertise as the featured speaker. With over 15 years of social enterprise and international development experience, Ramirez spoke on how Massachusetts can connect key stakeholders and improve the innovation ecosystem in our state. With new insights in hand, Massachusetts’ social enterprise community will continue to grow and flourish.

LampsonFest: Celebrating a Computing Legend

lampsonColleagues and friends will gather at the Microsoft New England Research & Development Center today to celebrate the many and momentous accomplishments made by computing pioneer, Microsoft New England Researcher, and Adjunct Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at MIT, Butler Lampson.

The citation for the A.M. Turing Award presented to Butler Lampson 22 years ago says it all:

For contributions to the development of distributed, personal computing environments and the technology for their implementation: workstations, networks, operating systems, programming systems, displays, security, and document publishing.

As amazing as it might seem, Lampson, indeed, has made seminal contributions to all of these foundational computing advances. His career is as accomplished as imaginable. Oh, the stories that could be told …

Today, they will be. Lampson’s colleagues from his storied computer-science career will brave the snow to pay tribute to a man whom his boss, Jennifer Chayes, a Microsoft distinguished scientist and managing director of Microsoft Research New England, refers to as “one of the all-time greats of computer science.”

LampsonFest, they’re calling it, and advance indications are that it will be as illuminating and compelling as the man it celebrates.

The Alto -  the first practical personal computer.

The Alto – the first practical personal computer.

The day will include a series of talks revisiting the history of computer systems—and issues of current concern. Those discussions will be presented in the context of Lampson’s brilliant, transformative career, one that took him from studying physics at Harvard to gaining a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley to the innovation greenhouse that was Xerox PARC back in the ’70s, then on to the Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) and, eventually, Microsoft Research.

“Butler Lampson has had a major impact on Microsoft,” says Peter Lee, Microsoft corporate vice president and head of Microsoft Research. “His technical expertise and contributions spanning computer security, distributed systems, operating systems, networking, software engineering, and algorithms have contributed in incalculable ways to Microsoft’s success.”

Rest assured that such accomplishments will provide the fodder for many fond remembrances today, less than two months after Lampson’s 70th birthday.

The scope of the day’s activities—and the star power involved—can be gleaned just by a casual look at the agenda. The names of the presenters and their talks would excite even the most hard-boiled of computing enthusiasts:

“When Butler speaks,” Lee concludes, “People listen. I listen. When I am thinking about how best to make Microsoft Research the best place it can possibly be, I always consult with Butler Lampson. He is an integral part of the heart and soul of Microsoft Research.”

As the excitement for today’s event built, the stories began to pour forth. Read more of them via the Microsoft Research blog here. And make sure to follow us on Twitter at @MSNewEngland, as we’ll be retweeting your tweets from today’s event.

Happy birthday, Butler Lampson!

Calling all Startups: MassChallenge 2014 Accelerator Opens for Applications Today

MC Alumni Jobs

  • $194 million revenue generated
  • 2,503 jobs created in Massachusetts, more than 3,900 worldwide
  • $2 billion+ total current valuation of Alumni

The amazing results listed above were generated by MassChallenge (@MassChallenge) – the world’s largest startup accelerator, catalyzing 128 early-stage startups per program. In addition to the mentorship, community, education and training, all MassChallenge finalists have access to over $10 million of in-kind deals and support and compete for over $1 million in cash grants. In addition to the $1 million in cash prizes, sponsors award additional grants in the form of Sidecar Prizes.

As a founding sponsor of MassChallenge, Microsoft is excited to be sponsoring a new Sidecar prize focused on Civic Tech for the MassChallenge 2014 Accelerator. We will be posting more information on civic tech in the coming weeks and look forward to hosting info sessions to engage a variety of civic tech startups in the 2014 MassChallenge Accelerator.

In the meantime, we congratulate MassChallenge on today’s launch and encourage local startups to apply TODAY!

Microsoft’s Response to the President’s ConnectED Call-to-Action

We heard the President’s ConnectED call-to-action, and here is our billion-dollar response to put affordable technology in the hands of U.S. students nationwide

Surface in SchoolsPhoto via microsoft.com

As Massachusetts schools move to the PARCC standardized testing from MCAS, they are acquiring devices so all students can complete the tests online. Schools need devices—and soon!

Beyond standardized testing, these devices can also provide students with the 21st Century skills they need to be career ready. A recent IDC study found that modern skills such as communication, problem solving, and self-motivation mixed with the technical Microsoft Office skills like presentation, spreadsheets, and analysis are necessary to secure a job in a high growth, high wage occupation now and through 2020.

Thanks to an exciting announcement from Margo Day, VP of U.S. Education at Microsoft, we have a fantastic answer to address this challenge:

Office 365“Microsoft is establishing a program for all U.S. public schools to have access to – and deeply reduced prices for — Windows-based devices. Through our hardware partners, we will bring to market a multitude of Windows-based devices, as well as provide access to an array of software and services tailored for education, including Bing for Schools, Office 365 Education (making more than 12 million copies of Office available to students for free at qualifying institutions), and Microsoft’s Partners in Learning teacher training resources.”

This offer is a terrific opportunity for Massachusetts schools to make sure students have the skills they need for more than 300,000 jobs in STEM fields alone that will be open when they graduate.

Read Margo’s complete blog post here.

Contact me (aimees@microsoft.com) for more details to take advantage of this opportunity in Massachusetts.