Cathy Wissink

director + kale enthusiast

Cathy Wissink
Meet Cathy
Cathy embraces what others may tend to avoid. Kale? Loves it. Bugs? Enthralled by them. A cross country bike ride? No problem for Cathy. Solving some of society’s most critical issues by working with everyone from tech leaders to politicians to community leaders? Bring it on.

City to City: Igniting Best Practices from Boston to Austin

One of the youngest populations in the country. Concerns about affordable housing pushing out the creative class and old-timers. Exciting repurposing of older industrial neighborhoods to support innovation and placemaking.

Reading those sentences, you might think I was talking about Boston. Those descriptions also fit the city of Austin, where I had the chance to join the Boston Chamber’s “City to City” trip last week. Designed as a trip to learn and share best practices between cities, this event included sixty Bostonians from government, private sector and community organizations. We explored several locations, met key city leaders and discussed a number of civic topics important to both cities. We also got a chance to eat some delicious Texas barbecue and listen to some of the best music the country has to offer!

Some takeaways I had from our delegation:

  • Now more than ever, public-private partnerships matter. You may think of this as private sector funding public projects, but it’s much more than that. It could be the ability to convene a diverse set of stakeholders, or making connections beyond the public sphere. It could be finding a way to apply a private sector approach to a community problem. It’s really about broadening the inputs into a challenge.
  • It’s important to be able to creatively look at what a space is to what it could be. The new Austin Community College campus at Highland is a fantastic example of this. Transformed from a 1970’s era retail mall, the new campus has the space to accommodate over 6,000 students and includes a state-of-the-art center for innovative learning. It took vision and collaboration to look beyond the original space and re-imagine it into today’s thriving campus.
  • Finding a way to support a thriving creative class is very hard, but necessary to keep an authentic city culture. We heard many diverse perspectives on how Austin’s musicians needed support, as well as differing opinions on how that support could be provided. The support artists need is also more than just venues and performance opportunities—issues like health insurance and affordable housing were raised. There are no easy answers but all agreed it was a challenge to address.
  • In this political climate, it will be necessary for cities to work together to thrive. Cities handle many of the same challenges that may not be addressed at the federal or state level, and frequently, there already are connections between mayors, or innovation offices, or economic development offices that permit a free flow of ideas. Now more than ever, the good ideas will need to be shared frequently and proactively.

I should also mention that it was a true honor and pleasure to spend three days with some of Boston’s most thoughtful and committed leaders to hear their perspectives what we were learning in Austin and how it might apply to our city.

#Recap — The 2016 Boston Civic Media Consortium

How can we design media and technology to make a difference?

Last Friday, the Boston Civic Media Consortium held their 2nd annual conference—this year, focused on Technology, Design and Social Impact—to examine that question. Held at NERD and sponsored by Microsoft’s Technology & Civic Engagement team, the conference brought together 200 Boston-based attendees from academia, community organizations, government and other stakeholders.

The energy was high as attendees participated in a diverse agenda, including four different tracks examining the role of civic media: civic art, inclusion and engagement, media literacy, and systems and advocacy. Much of the day was hands-on, with workshops in areas as diverse as accessibility tools, the Boston Data Portal and civics in the classroom. Lightning talks across the civic media space provided opportunities for the audience to hear in a bite-size fashion from diverse stakeholders working in media, city and state government, universities and advocacy roles. And because it wouldn’t be a conference without a panel or two, the day included those as well, on designing for inclusivity and service learning centers.

The end of the day celebrated the release of the newly-published bookCivic Media: Technology, Design, Practice”, with presentations from a number of the authors and essayists, including Eric Gordon, Paul Mihailidis, Ethan Zuckerman, Sarah Williams and Catherine D’Ignazio.

Microsoft New England is honored to play a role in convening, sharing and celebrating the depth and the interconnectedness of the Boston civic space, and look forward to next year’s event!

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Visit the Boston Civic Media Hackpad for live notes from the consortium here.

Municipalities — Don’t Go It Alone On IT!

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Every day, our Technology and Civic Engagement team works to bring technology to citizens and government to help make our cities better. While our community is rapidly adapting to technology on a global scale, it is important that we take the time to introduce important technologies to our local governments to make everyday processes even easier. The following blog by Amy Dain of the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass Boston showcases the importance of bringing digital access to our government desks.
— Cathy Wissink

While most sectors of the economy have undergone a revolution in how products and services are delivered, city and town government is beginning its digital evolution.

The cautious pace of change so far is understandable.  Our public managers have figured out, through decades of practice, how to deliver a wide array of critical services, on tight budgets. The potholes get filled; the businesses inspected; the houses permitted; the police dispatched. Managers are risk-averse when it comes to changing what works.  Still, entrepreneurial managers are experimenting with IT upgrades. They see the potential benefits that better data systems could provide for them: information to solve problems, increase efficiency, and improve two-way communication with constituents.

What makes less sense is that we have hundreds of city and town governments (351 cities and towns in Massachusetts) figuring out information technology independently, for the most part. Why should every community have a unique information system when they are delivering similar services?  And why should each community have to invest significant resources to figure out which IT systems to purchase? As one DPW director said to me last week, “It doesn’t make sense to have 10 communities using 10 systems.  The cost of that is ridiculous.”

There are many reasons for us to increase the coordination across municipalities to upgrade IT.  Common data standards could enable greater cross-municipal comparison and collaboration in service delivery.  Bulk purchasing will cost each municipality less.  Some issues are so important and tricky, such as the security and privacy of municipal data, that local experimentation may not be the best way to address the risks.  Local managers who have not already overseen IT upgrades could benefit from guidance from experienced IT practitioners. And, without outside support, the cohort of early movers may be smaller than ideal, as the pioneers face relatively higher costs and risks in implementing new information systems.

We need to do more to support the early movers, learn from their experiments, and spread the best solutions.  Right now only a few municipalities use GPS to track plows during a snow emergency.  Many departments of public works (DPWs) have started using IT to communicate with constituents, but a much smaller cohort of DPWs has started to implement robust back-end IT systems for managing the work. DPWs have a long way to go in developing data systems for inventory management.  Wellesley has a strong information system for managing its fleet of vehicles, Boston built an app to schedule road repairs (so utilities dig before a road is resurfaced, and not right after), and other communities are implementing software solutions to a variety of challenges, but we lack good avenues for spreading solutions across the region.

Until now, entrepreneurial individuals in local government have been leading the way with IT upgrades, but efforts have been largely uncoordinated and expensive.  It is time for the local leaders to come together, with support from the state, universities, and regional planning agencies, to learn from each other and to move the digital evolution along more smoothly and systematically.

Amy Dain is an associate with the Government Analytics Program (GAP) at the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass Boston.  

For a more detailed discussion of IT in municipal government, see Amy’s article in CommonWealth Magazine:

Taking a 21st Century Approach to Innovation in Australia

JoinedUp Boston

Governments around the world are grappling with the concept of innovation: what is it? How does it benefit society? And how can the power of innovation be harnessed to benefit constituents? You may recall Microsoft New England had the pleasure of convening an Australian delegation in July to explore these topics and brainstorm the Boston best practices that could be leveraged in Australia.

We are honored to see this work begin to bear fruit “down under”, and are thrilled to see our Australian friends taking steps towards their own 21st century approach to innovation. We hope to continue to share and learn from our Australian colleagues.

See how Australia is leveraging some of Boston’s best practices in innovation:

Adelaide looks to Boston as SA government eyes future as tech startup centre — Australian Financial Review

Boston lessons for Roy, Husic — Australian Business Review

Joined-Up Innovation — Accelerating Australia’s Ecosystem

MICROSOFT: Australia has a lot to learn from startup powerhouse Massachusetts — Business Insider Australia

Microsoft New England is Thankful!

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Thanksgiving is a time of year where we ideally slow down from our daily pace, and reflect on what is important to us: family, friends, health, goodwill towards others. I’ve always appreciated the fact that the focus of Thanksgiving is celebrating connections between people near and far.

As part of our civic engagement work for Microsoft New England, we are fortunate to work with a breadth of passionate, compassionate and thoughtful people who work in a number of ways towards building a stronger community. In the spirit of the season, we thought it would be a good time to express our gratitude to some of the people who devote their energies, brainpower and resources towards the greater civic good. We are grateful for:

  • The civic technologists who look closely at community challenges and thoughtfully pursue solutions. There are so many organizations in this space for which we are appreciative: from Code for Boston, to startups like Agora and CoUrbanize, to the City of Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.
  • The people and organizations who support said civic technologists, by providing resources, funding, space, ideas and support. From the venture capitalists who take a chance on a civic technology startup, accelerators like MassChallenge that kickstart a civic startup’s growth, to District Hall and Venture Café who create the space for ideas and community networks to flourish—many people contribute towards the support of the civic space.
  • The government entities who both remind the tech community of its societal priorities as well as support civic innovation. We are so fortunate to have thought leadership at the city, regional and state level in the civic technology space, who represent the opportunities that technology can address, sponsor civic technology activities, and lead as talented practitioners.
  • The educators and educational institutions who teach the skills needed for civic innovation, whether that’s coding, the civic process, or the steps to citizenship.
  • The citizens who are willing to take an evening, or set of evenings, to share their knowledge, give input, write code for a worthy civic cause.

By no means is this an exhaustive list. There are people who, by their daily actions, demonstrate civic affiliation, whether it’s voting, picking up a piece of trash, or volunteering their time. Whether your civic activities are public or private, professional or personal: we are grateful for what you do!

Is there an organization we should add to our list? Let us know — tweet to us at @MSNewEngland or by using our #civictechbos hashtag.

Boston’s innovation “secret sauce”: observations from the #JoinedUp Australia visit to the Boston innovation ecosystem

JoinedUp Boston

The idea hit the team late January this year. The first blizzard (of what would be many) had just struck, and the Civic Engagement team at Microsoft New England (MSNE) was hosting a colleague from sunny Australia. She had come to job shadow us, to see what ideas might be borrowed from the Boston innovation community. During her week here, we got a chance to introduce her to colleagues in local government, private sector and the startup space. The goal was to talk about innovation and what might be portable to Australia, which is grappling with pivoting their economy away from a dependency on natural resources and manufacturing, towards more innovation.

In spite of the bitter cold and increasing snow during her visit, our Australian colleague was inspired by the conversations she had here. There was an enthusiastic community in Boston, willing to share their insights. Could Microsoft find a way to bring together big thinkers from both the Boston and the Australian innovation communities to talk about innovation?

Seven months later, under significantly sunnier and warmer conditions, a 25-person group from Australian government, private sector and startups arrived in Boston to do just that. Under the joint auspices of Microsoft New England and Microsoft Australia, we convened a number of meetings to talk about the diverse facets of Boston innovation—the roles of government, urban planning, philanthropic organizations and place-making, as well as best practices like MassChallenge, CIC/Venture Café and District Hall. There were formal presentations, but also informal gatherings, tours and hands-on activities to fully immerse the group into the innovation space.

We got a chance to hear from the group about their key takeaways. Here’s what they observed:

  • Good innovation policy often means good urban planning. It’s important to think about the role of physical proximity, how it creates opportunities for face-to-face engagement, thus building trust that provides the glue for innovation.
  • There’s a sense of purpose to the work in Boston, where innovation is frequently aligned with social impact.
  • Cities appear to be the logical size when it comes to thinking about innovation places.
  • While there are large innovation initiatives, it’s good not to wait for a master plan, but rather, deliver smaller-scale innovation to help set tone and promote culture.
  • Innovation requires taking risks, and being comfortable that not every idea will lead to success.

Representing Boston as part of Microsoft New England, I was honored to be able to share such a rich ecosystem with key stakeholders from halfway around the world. Thank you to all of MSNE’s partners who came together to share their passion and insights in such a substantial fashion! I am grateful and humbled to work in a community of such generous and thoughtful people willing to contribute their time to foster international innovation.

Neighborhood Data: How can we use it to our advantage?

Neighborhood Data: How can we use it to our advantage?

Neighborhood data. What do we mean by it? Who’s collecting it? How is it being collected? How is it being used?

Increasingly, our society talks of “data-driven decision making”. In the more quantitative aspects of life, this has the potential to be relatively straightforward. However, cities and other jurisdictions are using data to drive decisions that impact citizens in their neighborhoods. Communities, by virtue of them being a human construct, means that it isn’t simple or appropriate to generalize a neighborhood to a number, set of numbers, or a color on a map. How do we ensure that data-driven decision making in neighborhoods reflects the reality of life in that neighborhood? How do we ensure members of a community have agency when it comes to conclusions being made based on that data?

Last week’s Conversation in Civic Innovation sought to address this issue. In spite of the beautiful weather, we had a strong turnout at NERD to hear four data specialists from the government, startup and urban planning space discuss their work with neighborhood data, comprised of Holly St. Clair, Elsa Sze, Chris Horne, and Greg Lipstein of DrivenData.

We then broke into groups to discuss topics like appropriate data sets, visualization of data, engaging local communities with the data, as well as leveraging private sector data alongside open data.

The evening’s discussion centered around four major questions:

  1. How do we decide which data set to use? Are some data sets more effective, or more appropriate to use, than others?
  2. Is the data set complete? Was there a portion of the population over- / under-represented? How will this skew any initiatives going forward with the community?
  3. What are the best ways to combine data sets for (1) effectiveness, (2) visualization, (3) end results, to be defined by each group?
  4. How do we get people involved in collection process of data? Are we using the right tools to analyze our data?

Each speaker outlined key points once the group reconvened from the break-out sessions.  Elsa Sze, of Agora, for example, stated the importance of data visualization, and how Agora lays out key municipal data in a comprehensive manner. In addition, governments must state a pre-determined level of success prior to analysis. Data should be viewed in a vertical fashion rather than the traditional horizontal view. Elsa proposed creating a central database to share best practices as a possible solution.

Holly St. Clair, of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, provided additional feedback. Holly also stated that change is one of the only constant trends we can rely, especially with ”big data”. She also agreed with Elsa, expressing the need for accessible useful data.

Chris J. Horne’s group emphasized the community’s desire for data to help provide solutions to neighborhood problems. In addition, collection methods should be representative of the entire community, not just a particular subset of the population. To build on Elsa and Holly’s points, they emphasized the importance of creating a sub-culture of effective data collection.

Lastly, the conversation with Greg Lipstein pointed out the lack of resources, stating that we should use all the open data available to us. Their solution was a method using combined public and private data to help the government perform better.

As the facilitator for the evening, a few things stood out to me:

  • The audience was diverse in terms of background, experience and area of interest. Often, when you host an event as a technology company, you often get primarily technologists in the room. As always, there were some of those at our Civic Innovation Conversation, but they were greatly outnumbered by community representatives (including local government), students, and private citizens who wanted to learn more and discuss this topic.
  • There is a strong interest in understanding how individuals can be involved in the data collection, feedback and decision-making process. I got the sense that people wanted to roll up their sleeves and learn by doing. In other words, people were new to this idea of data-driven decision making, but they weren’t going to let their newness to the topic stop them from being fully involved.
  • I was very happy to see the conversations emerge, both in the small groups as well as at the networking event afterwards. As the evening progressed, the lines blurred between the panelists and the participants, since we are all “experts” when it comes to living in our neighborhoods.

And speaking of conversations, we at Microsoft New England, as well as our friends at Venture Café, would like to keep this conversation moving forward. Let us know what’s on your mind when it comes to neighborhoods, innovation and data.

Conversations in Civic Innovation: Innovating Our Neighborhoods


Photos via Nicole Fichera, District Hall

Civic - InnovationWe spend a lot of time talking about innovation in Boston today. But what does innovation mean when you step outside of Kendall Square, or the Innovation District? What will it mean when places like the new Roxbury Innovation Center opens? How can the city foster an inclusive and productive approach to innovation in all neighborhoods, such that the benefits of innovation are available to a broader swath of the community? What is the role of technology in neighborhood innovation, and how can it be meaningfully applied?

This topic—and those subsequent questions—will be examined by Microsoft New England and the Venture Café Foundation in our second year of the event series Conversations in Civic Innovation.

We kicked off this topic last Wednesday at District Hall, with a compelling set of speakers representing a range of neighborhood constituents, including: Damon Cox (Boston Foundation), Vicky Wu Davis (Youth Cities), Milton Irving (Timothy Smith Network), Malia Lazu (Future Boston), and Gillian Pressman (Generation Citizen). Kevin Wiant of the Venture Café Foundation moderated the event and kept the pace lively.

In a series of five-minute lighting talks, our speakers introduced the following topics:

  • How do we create a more inclusive environment for Civic Innovation, particularly for inner city communities.
  • Getting enough stakeholder engagement to sufficiently execute innovation
  • Importance of developing technical Infrastructure that supports business growth
  • Innovation that makes it easier to galvanize social movements and have them organize more effectively
  • Importance of getting youth more engaged in civic policies

Civic Inno 2Inspired by these topics, the audience then broke up into groups to discuss the above and come back to the group with their thoughts and potential actions.

It was a lively and thoughtful conversation, going long into the night, covering the above topics and inspiring new questions and ideas like: how can the innovation community plug into the community? How do we ensure the approach around innovation is conversational and not transactional? In this increasingly data-driven society, how do we ensure neighborhood data is handled with care and respect? I was inspired by the thoughtfulness of the conversation, as well as the participants’ desire to move beyond just talk, and do something useful.

At the end of the evening, people lingered with newly-made acquaintances, still discussing the night’s topic. It was clear that we had just scratched the surface of neighborhood innovation, and that there were many other conversations and engagements to be had. We look forward to digging deeper, continuing the conversation, and thoughtfully contributing to the city’s discourse on neighborhood innovation.

Looking Back: A Year of Civic Engagement in Boston

Cathy-Wissink-300x300It feels like just yesterday that I arrived in Boston, having taken on a new role for the company at Microsoft New England. The loosely-defined role of “civic engagement” was not just new to me—it was a net-new role to the company and I was the first to take on this job. Where would the job go? Where would we focus? What could we accomplish?

A year in, it’s hard to imagine not having a civic engagement team in the city. There’s a thirst in the community to determine the role that technology can play in areas like education, citizen services, as well as government transparency and efficiency. At the same point, it’s been crucial to thoughtfully consider all potential solutions to civic challenges, which may—or may not—include a technology option.

You may recall from our introductory post announcing the MIPC-NE and my role that we had three goals:

  • Connecting the region’s tech/business/academic/government stakeholders in ways that complement and extend the work of others;
  • Catalyzing important technology and public policy discussions about issues that have a direct impact on this region’s economy; and
  • Contributing more directly to the health and vitality of the local technology community and broader regional economic development opportunities.

We’ve kept busy this last year, trying to remain true to the “three C’s”, as the team calls them. To that end, here are some highlights of our work:

CodeAcross 2014 with Code for Boston

(L-R) Ken Chan (Microsoft), Sam Berg, Jared Kirschner, Fatima Sarah Khalid (Microsoft), and Andrew Arace at HubHacks!

  • We were also asked to contribute to a number of events demonstrating Microsoft’s role—and responsibilities—at the intersection of technology, business and policy, including:
  • Participating in District Hall’s Innovation and the City event as an “anchor institution”.

Our own Cathy Wissink (second from the left) spoke on a panel about anchor organizations at Innovation and the City.

TEALS helps CRLS expand CS offerings.

With all this work, we’ve been fortunate to partner with a great number of organizations, government entities and individuals during this year, all of whom share a desire to make this a great place to live, work and connect.

What’s next for the Civic Engagement team in Boston? We’ll continue to stock of what we’ve done, what worked (and didn’t); we’ll keep the conversation going with our constituents and partners to see where Microsoft can best contribute, and we’ll keep you involved as well. Thank you for your engagement and feedback—we look forward to the next year!

Our Takeaways from “Privacy, Surveillance, and Rebuilding #TrustInTech” with Brad Smith & Professor Jonathan Zittrain


The technology ecosystem is evolving at a remarkable rate, both in terms of how the technology is changing and how individuals are leveraging that technology in their personal and professional lives. With the rapid global advance of innovations like cloud-based services and increasingly powerful mobile devices, governments are grappling with how the legal and regulatory frameworks appropriately address this technical evolution in a timely fashion.

As a result, striking the balance between technology innovation and the legal implications of said innovation is challenging. Nowhere is this more evident in today’s ecosystem than in the juxtaposition of personal privacy and national security in a post-9/11 and post-Snowden world. Our General Counsel, Brad Smith, joined Professor Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society to discuss these challenges and potential ways forward, in an event entitled: “Privacy, Surveillance, and Rebuilding Trust in Tech.”

It is a complex topic, touching on international law, cultural expectations of privacy, and the distributed nature of cloud-based technology, with many other nuances in the space. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying the discussion, I wanted to call out three thoughts—or rather, questions—I took away from the discussion:

  1. With the globalization and extreme interconnectedness of the internet and cloud-based services comes the need to re-think the concept of legal jurisdiction. It’s easy today for an individual to use a service that may be physically located outside of the country in which they reside. Which nation’s (or jurisdiction’s) law applies to that individual using that service, and who gets to enforce that law?
  2. How does government find a way to deliberatively make decisions regarding technology law, given the rapid rate of innovation change? How do we ensure there is time to be thoughtful and critical about potential changes to law, when technology moves so quickly?
  3. Who needs to be at the table when the intersection of law and technology is discussed? Is it policymakers? The tech industry? How are an individual’s rights represented in this discussion? How does this conversation change when technology spans international borders?

It is a fascinating time to be working at the confluence of technology, law and business, and I’m very proud that Microsoft has decided to take a leadership role in raising these crucial issues for discussion.