Using Data to Transform Somerville Public Schools

Imagine you were given the opportunity to transform your school system with new technology. That’s exactly what happened to Uri Harel, Curriculum Coordinator for K-8 education at Somerville Public Schools, in 2015. The City of Somerville had just acquired a year-long brigade of Code for America (CfA) Fellows, and came to Uri asking how they could help.

“I immediately knew what problem I wanted to solve,” Harel told us.

Together with Somerville Public Schools, the CfA brigade spent several months talking about the issue of how to best integrate all of its data sources and more effectively use data to improve the student experience.

The group started making prototypes based around the student data scattered across different systems — a notorious problem in education. Tardiness, special education, testing, grades, and participation were all sorted into different databases.

“What we had was a problem where info doesn’t get shared well,” explains Harel. “We liken it to a medical handoff where shifts change and medical info on a patient doesn’t get shared well. We saw that happening every September when a student gets a new teacher.”

The CfA team created a system that would nightly link all the databases so everyone could see all the data compiled on each student. At the end of their 6-month contract, they had a system working, and Harel’s team used the budget they had to continue to expand the project, adding new layers and technologies.

In the spring, Microsoft sent some of our civic tech fellows to work on this project. There, they showed the Somerville Public Schools team how to use Power BI to create visualizations with the data available on their systems. Fellow Aaron Myran worked on creating a one-page snapshot, where at any point on a dashboard, principals and administrators could see what was happening in Somerville schools.

Most recently, our fellow Ihsaan Patel has taken this one step further by working on two separate modules to contribute to this system. The first focuses on how this combined database can be used to create more balanced and equitable class lists.

“In all schools, creating class lists is a process,” Harel says. “Often, you get classes that have an even number of boys and girls, but there’s always disparities in race, economic status, and sometimes bias toward ‘favorite teachers’ — and this helps create balanced classes and equity within the schools.”

Ihsaan’s Student Selector App, available on Azure, takes all the system’s data, anonymized, and shows users ratios in diversity, grades, participation, and more as you build a classroom — helping build a well-rounded, equitable environment for students.

Ihsaan’s second module focuses on student-specific services and interventions, such as afterschool clubs or tutoring, reading clubs, or summer programs. Harel admits that educators don’t always measure the effectiveness of interventions, and he wants to make that a priority in Somerville Public Schools.

“We have a data analyst, but it often takes time to do a full data analysis of a service. Most districts don’t even have a data analyst,” Harel mentions. ”The code takes any of these services and does a regression analysis to figure out the effectiveness, even down to the subgroup.”

And the best part? The whole project is open source and available for use by all — as it gets coded, any district can use it. School districts can take the code and house it on their own servers.

What’s next for Somerville Public Schools?

In the immediate short term, Harel wants to see Ihsaan’s work hard-coded into the program so it’s available, working, and smooth. Then, he plans to get this program expanded to the high school. In the fall, they plan to bring in two other urban districts to expand.

“We’ll have to hire more coders, maybe a project manager,” Harel explains. “We need someone to train people. Bringing in another district requires a lot of work: making sure the data is secure and people are using the data correctly, training teachers to use the program for good, and most importantly, training administrators to take this work, to look at a program they really like, and see that the data doesn’t support it. How do you use statistical analysis to review a program?”

Moving forward, Somerville Public Schools also wants to ensure this platform allows students to have a voice in what their teachers know about them. They plan on implementing a student module in the future, keeping questions in mind such as: What kind of metrics should students include in their portal? What is your learning style? What motivates you? What are some things your teachers should know about you early on?

As this project expands, Harel and his team also keep privacy on their priority list. They’re focusing on transparency (as all of the current data is available to the public), parent-teacher-student interplay, and overall security. As they build more layers to the project, they’ve had to slow down to double back and make sure this data is safeguarded.

“We want to make sure we’re doing this right,” says Harel.

Improving Nonprofit Data Capacity to Strengthen Proposals to Serve Local Communities

In June, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) at the Urban Institute and Microsoft released a collection of resources and recommendations on extending and expanding training opportunities for staff at civic organizations and governments to help them leverage data and technology to tackle local priorities.  To illustrate the foundations, learnings, and impacts that informed the NNIP study, we are delighted to have NNIP partners from around the U.S. sharing their experiences in developing and operating their local training programs in a series of guest blogs.  Below is one of these experiences. Previous posts in this series are available from the Urban Institute and the Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit partner organizations.

— Elizabeth Grossman, Director of Civic Projects, Microsoft

What can we do to help public agencies understand community needs and fund strong programs to address them? Communities Count in Washington state’s King County, is working with local governments and philanthropies to develop trainings to improve the grant-making process for public investments in health and neighborhood development.

Revealing barriers to nonprofit grant applicants’ success

In early 2015, we analyzed applications that did and did not receive funding from Communities of Opportunity, a regional initiative to stem the tide of increasing racial and geographic disparities in health outcomes. We found that the probability of receiving funding was closely linked to applicants’ ability to use data in proposals. While all funded applications had used data effectively, only 41 percent of unfunded applications had done so. Some of the unfunded proposals might have offered innovative programs or responses to emerging needs in the community but, according to one staff member, “they were unable to articulate their need or link the data they provided to the actual project.”

From this analysis, we recognized that building stronger data capacity among service organizations could improve the quality of the applicant pool and the selection process. We contacted organizations that had been turned down for funding to solicit their ideas about topics that would interest them in a data workshop.

Discovering the demand for data training

Ideas from these interviews guided the development of our first training, which focused on using data to tell a story that supports one’s case for funding. We invited staff from the nonprofits with unsuccessful applications and from other interested community organizations and local governments.

We designed the training with the participants in mind, ensuring that the class was:

    • Small: we limited the class to 30 participants.
    • Accessible: we held the event in a community venue in a low-income area of South Seattle that was easy to reach by transit, car, and bike.
    • Interactive: we left lots of time for questions, plus hands-on exercises.

The workshop filled up quickly with staff from a wide variety of community-based organizations, government, and philanthropy. In the month after training, we also offered follow-up support through customized technical assistance. Participants reported that both the training and the technical assistance were valuable, and said they would attend additional trainings if offered.

The demand for training was confirmed by a long waiting list for the first offering and new requests for training. Over the next several months, human services departments from seven suburban cities pooled their resources to partially support two large data trainings – each filled to capacity, with waiting lists.  

Moving upstream in the grantmaking process

We scheduled our next set of trainings — for nonprofits serving our suburban cities – to take place several weeks before the application deadlines for Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) and other city funding. To ensure the trainings were aligned with the criteria by which applications would be judged, we consulted with city staff who would be rating the applications and customized our curriculum to meet their needs. The workshops filled rooms to capacity in two different locations – training more than 200 participants. A review of the subsequent applications found that many cited data sources included in the trainings.

Our latest efforts center on trainings for organizations applying for funding from Best Starts for Kids, a six-year, $390 million community initiative to “improve the health and well-being of King County by investing in prevention and early intervention for children, youth, families, and communities.” As with the cities, we are coordinating with staff writing the requests for proposals (RFPs) to make sure the trainings align with the goals and evaluation criteria of each team. We offer these trainings in a variety of settings, including bidders’ conferences and webinars.

Sharing Lessons on Training

We have discovered an exciting thirst for learning about data – each workshop has spurred demand for additional sessions. We’ve learned it is most effective when we tailor trainings for each audience, which requires some time investment for each iteration. And we struggle with the tradeoffs between smaller interactive, hands-on workshops and larger, lecture-based classes to accommodate the growing demand. As community groups become more proficient at introductory concepts, they are requesting more advanced courses. For example, they increasingly want to “own” their data and have expressed interest in conducting household surveys, crowd-sourcing data, and analyzing data.  

We now understand the importance of aligning and training both sides – the groups applying for funding and the government staff rating the grant proposals. As funders become more intentional and clearer about what they want to see in applications – with themselves and in their RFPs – they make it easier for applicants to comply and are more likely to adhere to their stated criteria when evaluating applications. Communities Count has a continuing role to play in helping government program staff communicate clearly and consistently about application requirements and in helping nonprofits build a compelling case for the services they provide. We expect this will boost both the quality and the clarity of the information used in deciding how to invest public dollars to improve community health, educate our children, and revitalize our neighborhoods.

Working out of Public Health – Seattle & King County, Louise Carter leads data and communications for Communities Count, a public-private partnership that provides reliable, timely, and relevant data to improve the quality of life for residents of communities in King County, Washington.  She previously worked as an academic researcher at Universities of Washington and Minnesota, a journalist, and communications director in a policy center at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs.

Communities Count is a unique public-private partnership that monitors the health and well-being of King County communities, informs funding and policy decisions, and engages citizens. It operates out of Public Health-Seattle & King County, but also includes other area public agencies, including the Seattle and King County Human Services Departments, the City of Bellevue Parks and Community Services Department, and City of Renton. Local philanthropies – The Seattle Foundation and United Way of King County – also participate.

It Was Epic: One Week Hackathon 2017

The last week of July, the NERD Center joined Microsoft employees from all over the world to take part in the largest private Hackathon on the planet. Thanks to our incredibly talented hackers who poured their hearts, minds and creativity into their phenomenal projects. The passion and dedication was awe-inspiring. Many of them hacked into the wee hours of the night to get their projects completed.

With a 22% increase in participants from last year, this was without a doubt the most epic Hackathon in NERD history.

The Results

238 Hackers:

  • 211 – Cambridge (43% of site)
  • 24 – Burlington
  • 3 – Boston

85 Projects:

  • 10 projects competed in the worldwide judging
  • 13 teams demo’d their projects at the NERD Science Fair

Hack Your Mind

We tried something new this year at the One Week Hackathon @ NERD by focusing time and energy to hack our minds. After all, the Hackathon is all about our awesome employees exploring passions/interests, experimenting with new technology and learning new things.

For those who wanted to learn something new about Machine Learning, AI or Data Science, a quiet space was dedicated for them to spend time reviewing online courses on Engineering Academy, Learn Analytics Portal, Infopedia and Microsoft Virtual Academy.

For those that wanted to learn a new skill like 3D printing, soldering or laser cutting, we partnered with Artisan’s Asylum, a local non-profit, to offer 3 maker classes during the Hackathon.

Changing the Definition of Hacking

The Microsoft One Week Hackathon is the company-wide, multi-day, multi-location event, powered by The Garage, that brings employees and interns from all over the company together to create, innovate, and hack on ideas that inspire them. It’s the largest private hackathon in the world.

The Hackathon continues to lead the way in:

  • Evolving Microsoft’s culture and the way we work
  • Inspiring employees and customers to achieve more
  • Creating value

How do we do this? By changing the definition of hacking. When you think of hacking, you typically envision dudes in a room at 3:00 am chugging down Red Bull, working on a phone app. Hacking is that! But it is also so much more. 

Hacking is anything that brings people together to work on ideas that inspire them.

It is Joanie, a software engineer who wants to improve build check-in times. It is Meixia, a sales manager who has a growth strategy idea to increase cloud adoption and consumption. It is Steve, a finance manager who has an idea for a social marketing campaign to get more Surface Books into the hands of college students. It is Jayashree, an IT support specialist who has an idea to use IoT and robotics to improve farming and farmers’ lives. All are welcome to hack, all ideas, all disciplines, all roles.

Hacking is about learning.

Learn something new, experiment with a new technology, learn a new skill, meet someone new, fail big and learn something from it. If you are a C# developer and you want to learn Python, get on a hack project and experiment with it. If you want to know more about marketing, get on a marketing project or recruit a marketer to join your hack team. If you are from the Windows division and you want to know what it’s like to work in Office, get on a project with someone from Office. Take on a leadership role for a hack project that you wouldn’t normally get to do in your day job and learn from it. Learn how to solder, 3D print, or laser cut. Experiment with machine learning, AI or data science.

When people bring their passions and talents together to work on an idea or learn something new, it’s amazing what they can accomplish. The One Week Hackathon brings Microsoft employees together to innovate, create, and learn by hacking. It is incredibly energizing.

All of that energy, passion and learning taken back into the workplace, that is how we are changing the culture, inspiring employees and customers, and creating value.

Congratulations go out to all of the teams who had ideas and then turned those ideas into action. Whether it was creating something new, improving an existing process, or learning a new skill… this action, experimentation and learning was epic.

Empowering Small Businesses: Smarter in the City Startup Pulse 24/7

Have you heard? Boston is the tech hub you never knew existed. With plenty of startups, organizations, and corporations embracing tech in the Boston area, we’re always ready to celebrate innovation around us. That’s why we’re happy to support Smarter in the City, the first high-tech startup accelerator in Dudley Square, Roxbury. Smarter in the City’s accelerator program adds fresh voices to Boston’s tech ecosystem, one startup at a time through a five-month program that provides stipends, workspace, a mentorship program, and other resources to help local startups make an impact. We’re excited to bring Smarter in the City’s cohort to our blog as we spotlight the current companies working to drive innovation in Boston and beyond.

— Aimee Sprung, Civic Engagement Manager, Microsoft New England

“30 Minutes until doors open, what will we do?” We still cringe at the thought of that day. It was 5:30pm Paris time on July 7, 2012 and Reaz and I were banging hammers to nails helping a Parisian staging vendor we hired finish the set and runway in order for doors to open on time. This was just one of many crazy instances where us two friends and business partners had to literally roll up our sleeves, pivot, and navigate through the unexpected that comes with hiring a small business service provider. It was numerous stories like this that inspired us to launch our new mission to help service providers manage their operations effectively by leveraging technology and mentorship. Pulse 24/7 is a new startup that empowers small business service providers with their own branded app that automates scheduling, payments, and marketing all from the palm of their hand.

Throughout the past 10 years, Reaz and I founded a boutique consulting firm called (SYNERGY) for luxury consumer goods brands in Boston and grew it internationally to cities like London and Paris. It was this work that led us to employ more than 1,000 service providers and small business owners. During these years we had a front row seat to the evolution of the new on-demand mobile economy and how small businesses were falling behind. While at the same time millennial consumers were demanding a quick, seamless, and transparent experience when dealing with their service providers with just a few swipes. Pulse 24/7 was born to address this urgent need in a fast growing market.

Today’s current freelancer and entrepreneurial surge is the Industrial Revolution of our time and according to many recent forecasts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Forbes predict that 50% of the American workforce will be freelancers and entrepreneurs by 2020. However at the same time, large high tech companies like Uber have invested millions of dollars into simple and integrated technologies that have been cannibalizing small business owners in the US and beyond. Entrepreneurs find it difficult to invest in their own technology and as a result becoming 1099 freelancers for these large disruptors. That was until now! Pulse 24/7 is boldly giving that same technology to small businesses for as low as $9.99 per month. And with our consulting background we understand that technology is not the only solution.

Therefore through our proprietary machine learning capabilities, Pulse 24/7 also monitors the business and intelligently provides in app advice to keep these service providers engaged & growing. Our mission is to help the backbone of the US economy thrive which has always been small business. Now with several partnerships with national organizations since our launch last year, we would not be able to impact so many businesses in such a short period of time without the continuous support of Smarter in the City and Microsoft Corporation. If you know talented entrepreneurs offering an incredible service in your area, we would love to help them win in today’s new on-demand mobile economy!

Brand innovator and marketing strategist, Andy Jacques has been Awarded by the Massachusetts House of Representatives while just a teenager as Boston’s youngest creative visionary making an impact in his industry. Since then, through consulting he has been praised for his proven ability to transform businesses, brands, and creative blueprints from inception to definitive successes as the COO of SYNERGY Consulting helping many brands launch and accelerate in 4 different countries. Currently in his latest role as Co-founder of Pulse 24/7, Andy’s marketing savvy combined with his passion for innovation fuels his new mission to democratize technology in favor of small businesses everywhere.

Fellow Profile: Ihsaan Patel

Where are you from? Corpus Christi, Texas

School/grad year/major: Harvard Kennedy School / 2018 / Public Policy

Last thing you searched on Bing: Places to eat lunch in Kendall Square

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? I came to the Kennedy School to better understand how to use technology, particularly data science and machine learning, to improve the delivery of public services. Microsoft’s fellowship program allows me to do exactly that by helping government and non-profit organizations solve some of their problems with my technology skills.

What’s your favorite civic project in the Greater Boston area? District Hall is a unique public space that allows anyone in Boston to become a part of the excellent innovation community within the city. While I haven’t had much time to visit it during the school year, I am excited to get more involved during the summer.

Who is your civic tech mentor/idol? I found the story of the team that fixed (,16641,20140310,00.html) really inspiring as a testament to the impact civic tech can have on society. One of the members of the team came to speak to my class last semester and his stories helped spark my belief in the possibilities of civic tech.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft New England? I’ll be working on a number of projects with different organizations in the Boston area this summer, including:

What excites you about civic tech? While technology advances at lightning-speed and transforms much of the way we live, the public sector has lagged behind in its ability to improve its own services through technology. Civic tech has the potential to leverage the opportunities provided by technology to improve the lives of all members of society, not just the most well-off.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? Traffic congestion deeply affects the quality of life in cities, from a transportation, environmental, public safety, and public health perspective. Civic tech can play a role in designing systems that help reduce congestion both in planning and operations.

Microsoft New England Picks: Not-To-Miss Events, August 2017

The dog days of summer are finally settling in, and we’re ready to see what August has to offer. Join us at these top events this long, hot month:

August 2

The Diversity Playbook with Resilient Coders

GA + Resilient Coders are teaming up again in August to leverage design thinking to understand the challenges employers are facing as they work to increase diversity in their organizations. At this event we are getting our hands dirty, defining the problems, setting meaningful goals, and making a commitment to change.

August 3

Lunchspotting at Essential Design

Lunchspotting is an event designed to get Boston-area professionals in technology, engineering, marketing, and venture capital together to connect, share stories and, of course, eat lunch! Join us on Thursday, August 3rd, from 12:00-1:30pm, at Essential Design for our next Lunchspotting!

Talk Data to Me

Launching A Career in Data

In August we are inviting Boston experts working in data science and data analytics to share how they got started in the industry and give advice on how to break in.

August 4

How Women Lead | BostonSpeaksSeries

BostonSpeaks invites you to join our monthly panel breakfast series for the entrepreneurial community! Learn, network and get inspired every month as we invite some of the most exciting entrepreneurs and top thought leaders in Boston to discuss tricks-of-the-trade in their fields and the success principles they gained along the way! First Friday, Every Month!

August 8

PULSECHECK: Application Launch 2.0

Our first program just ended, but our next one is right around the corner! Join us back in our home at Hatch Fenway for the PULSE Application Launch on August 8th!

ReDev Boston: MassTLC’s Annual Software Development Conference

ReDev is the Boston’s premiere conference for Developers and Technical Executives who are striving to push limits and bring their organizations to the next level.

August 9


We know Boston is one of the best cities in the world to live, work and play. This summer, we bring the Hub’s coolest young professionals together to enjoy the city we call home at a huge party: BostonFest.

From food truck favorites to local music, the best employers and beloved brands, BostonFest is our can’t-miss celebration of everything we love most about the city.

Mass Innovation Nights 101

Our next event, Mass Innovation Nights 101, will be hosted by MIT Sloan Executive Education and will feature new startups influencing innovation and tackling process improvement. Join us at MIT Sloan on the 7th floor of Building E52 in the Samberg Conference Center for one of the best views in the Boston area and a night of networking and new product showcases. Share the event on social media using #MIN101 and tweet us at @MITSloanExecEd and @MassInno.

August 10

Boston’s FIRST Food Innovation Startup Tour

Perhaps you’re making a move to Boston to launch your new food venture? Or maybe you’ve been working here a while but you’ve never engaged in the food community? Or you simply see the flaws in our food system and want to know what solutions are at the forefront of sustainable change?

Join Branchfood for an immersive walking tour of Boston’s food startup ecosystem. Meet leaders in the food innovation community, discover emerging companies disrupting the food system, and talk directly with fellow entrepreneurs.

August 31

Minute to Pitch It 2017

On August 31st, MassChallenge’s 128 Finalists will only have one minute to pitch their startup idea to an energized crowd of hundreds of innovation enthusiasts. You don’t want to miss this opportunity to see first-hand the lengths these entrepreneurs will go through to deliver massive value in one minute!

Dr. Cathy O’Neil Presents Opportunity and Challenge to Fix and Create Ethical, Fair and Effective Predictive Models

Last week, Microsoft Research New England and Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society welcomed to NERD Dr. Cathy O’Neil, the New York Times bestselling author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. Dr. O’Neil spoke about the effects of predictive models that are often harmful and mysterious to large segments of society and the populations they impact. You can view Dr. O’Neil’s talk on WGBH here:

Data science uses analyses of historical data to predict what may happen in the future. These predictive formulas may seem unbiased because they create numbers, percentages, and scores that the average person assumes is objective math. As Dr. O’Neil pointed out, these algorithms and calculations can be significantly flawed in several ways — the data they collect, the assumptions they make, and the conclusions they draw. Decision-makers in the hiring, credit rating, education merit, law enforcement, and justice systems could not only be relying heavily on biased data, but also perpetuating inherent, historical inequities embedded in the data set and/or formulas they use. 

One vivid example that Dr. O’Neil presented is the common use of student test scores to determine which teachers are effective and which ones are not, possibly leading to their dismissal. How does a school district determine which teachers should be dismissed? One school district in New York assessed teachers’ performance based on how their students’ test scores in the current year compared to an anticipated test score (primarily drawn from the students’ score in the previous academic year). If a student performed better than the anticipated score, the teacher was rewarded points and given a higher rating. If the student performed worse, the teacher was penalized and given a lower rating for the negative difference. Reliance on the difference between the anticipated and current scores led to a system in which teachers of poorer students, who may have greater challenges and obstacles, were penalized and fired. While news media could find and publish the ratings under the Freedom of Information Act, Dr. O’Neil was blocked from obtaining the algorithm that calculated these ratings because they were proprietary models created by private companies who sold them to school districts. Without access to the algorithm, a Stuyvesant High School math teacher plotted the published ratings of teachers who taught multiple classes. They created a scatterplot to show only ~24% correlation between the students’ scores and the teachers’ ratings. In one instance, a teacher who was fired due to “low performance” in the public school system was hired within days to a private school. “Did the algorithm create the desired outcome for the school district and its kids?” Dr. O’Neil asked.  

The audience was motivated and called to think about their own ethical responsibility as they create or use predictive models, and to increase awareness of these issues often biased against the least powerful in society.  

TUGG Tech Night at the Museum Spotlights Local Nonprofits

How do you bring together tech workers, leaders, investors, the art community, and local nonprofits all in one night?

Ask TUGG (Technology Underwriting Greater Good) — their annual Tech Night at the Museum brought this diverse web of individuals together to celebrate nonprofits using technology for the greater good. Held at the ICA Boston on July 13, the event was a celebration of the convergence of art and tech — amplified by the event’s sponsors, Invaluable and Cuseum.

Tech Night at the Museum wasn’t just an everyday networking event. While the night gave plenty of time to socialize (and snack!), TUGG took the time to spotlight four of its portfolio nonprofits —MbadikaMedia GirlsResilient Coders, and Transformative Culture Project (TCP). At the beginning of the night, each nonprofit was given a minute to pitch their organization’s mission:

  • Mbadika spotlighted using tech to overcome challenges. At Mbadika — which means “idea”, everyone unleashes their inner innovator and entrepreneur. This organization focuses on letting our younger selves realize their ideas.
  • Media Girls empowers girls from grades 6-8 to realize their self-worth using social media. The girls create positive projects using social media at both afterschool programs and workshops during the school day. Their goal is to empower young girls to be part of the solution by creating positive content.
  • Resilient Coders presented on working with youth from underserved communities and teaching them the basics of web development. Resilient Coders operates a digital agency working with real clients, and employs their own graduates to build that work. “It allows us to incubate those individuals further,” explained founder David Delmar. “They get not only technical experience, but also professional experience… and that makes all the difference.”
  • Transformative Culture Project (TCP) explored the intersection of technology and art as a cultural apex. TCP is teaching young people digital media as a workforce development model.

After the pitches, the event split off into breakout sessions: TCP leading a tour of the ICA’s exhibit Nari Ward: Sun Splashed, Mbadika and Media Girls hosting hands-on activities, and a talk with Resilient Coders students.

Funding the Future with Action-Based Scholarships: Smarter in the City Startup ScholarJet

Have you heard? Boston is the tech hub you never knew existed. With plenty of startups, organizations, and corporations embracing tech in the Boston area, we’re always ready to celebrate innovation around us. That’s why we’re happy to support Smarter in the City, the first high-tech startup accelerator in Dudley Square, Roxbury. Smarter in the City’s accelerator program adds fresh voices to Boston’s tech ecosystem, one startup at a time through a five-month program that provides stipends, workspace, a mentorship program, and other resources to help local startups make an impact. We’re excited to bring Smarter in the City’s cohort to our blog as we spotlight the current companies working to drive innovation in Boston and beyond.

— Aimee Sprung, Civic Engagement Manager, Microsoft New England

Giving up everything in Vietnam, my mom took a chance and brought my brother and me to the U.S. in 2005. I was 10 years old and without any formal English lessons, the thought of leaving our country to go to another was terrifying. Yet my mom worked tirelessly to provide for us. She believed with her whole heart that, with an education, we could do anything. I rarely saw my mom growing up because she worked tirelessly…as a cook, at nail salons and caring for Cerebral Palsy patients, amongst countless other jobs. With exhausted eyes in front of the stove, day after day, was her unwavering smile as she cooked dinner for us – a seemingly effortless task that took so much strength.

The endless devotion she showed us during those years is still the source of my motivation. I thought that if I could just outwork everyone around me, eventually my mom could stop working. So during my senior year of Boston Latin Academy, I was studying for the SAT, taking AP classes, participating in extracurricular activities, and volunteering.

I thought all of my hard work paid off when I was accepted to Northeastern University. But the cost of $60,000 per year was unimaginable; there was no way we could afford it. So I did everything I could. I wrote over 120 essays to apply for over 40 scholarships in hopes of funding my education. Which I did – earning over $500,000 in scholarships.

Students currently endure the largest student loan crisis in our nation’s history, with a national student loan debt of over $1.4 trillion and an astonishing lack of immigrant students’ access to education. So my team and I created ScholarJet.

ScholarJet is the future of scholarships. We are changing the way students finance their education and the way donors give through “action-based scholarships.”

The foundation of ScholarJet is our firm belief that “it is not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you.” Our scholarships enable students to show their true potential through challenges related to STEM, arts/media, community service, and health. Instead of writing essays, students can run marathons, paint paintings or even develop apps.

To fund these scholarships, we work with individual donors and philanthropic organizations. Donors are provided a unique opportunity to inspire and motivate students, while organizations can promote their mission through student’s actions. This is all done through our robust web platform that streamlines the entire scholarship process.

Here’s a video showcasing our scholarship at Northeastern:

ScholarJet was recently accepted into MassChallenge’s 2017 Boston Accelerator program, won $20K from the Vietnamese Global Entrepreneurship Challenge, won the Greenhorn Summit Pitch Competition and Mass Innovation Nights #92. We are also a part of Smarter In The City and the Northeastern IDEA Venture Accelerator.

We’re looking to connect with individual donors and companies who want to create impacts that go beyond the scholarship amount and help us become the future of scholarships. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, and Facebook!

Coming to the U.S. from Vietnam when he was 10 years old, Tuan Ho understands the value in pursuing his education. With the help of his mother, he relentlessly pushed himself to work hard in high school while helping out the community around him, eventually graduating Boston Latin Academy with high honors. In order to pay for college, Tuan took matters into his own hands and applied for over 40 scholarships. Now he is attending Northeastern University on a full ride, studying mechanical engineering. Because of the adversity he had faced, Tuan started ScholarJet with the vision of increasing access to higher education for students. He strongly believes that it is not who you are underneath, but your actions that define you.

KinTrans & Microsoft — Hands Can Talk

Many of you reading this post hear and speak as one of your basic senses that help you to effortlessly talk to a pharmacist about your prescription, or to talk to your friendly mobile phone representative about the latest options for upgrading. These benign interactions that come so naturally for you are a totally different experience for people who cannot hear or use spoken language, or who have lost their hearing. Many deaf people learn sign language – another language equally recognized in cognitive brain function as spoken language. It’s a visual language unto itself. For as many spoken languages in the world, there are the same sign languages. Both are rooted in legacy cultures and vary from region to region.

Think about this: technology today allows us to automatically translate spoken language decently. There are ear-buds, for example, that allow for translation between people having face to face conversations in different languages, or translation technology for websites in other languages. Advancements in automating natural language processing and using artificial intelligence technologies make this happen.

Solutions for recognizing sign language, however, have relied on human resources in various forms: physical interpreters, interpreters through video, and other types of use of humans to recognize and translate sign language. Dependency on professional interpreters or family and friends is a tough way to have a conversation about your medical condition with your pharmacist, or buying a new phone and maybe adding other family members to your plan. Simply, we humans are not scalable. Sure, texting has taken on its own value in replacing pen & paper, but these types of conversations are hard to have with typing, or writing.  

KinTrans Inc. has created a technology platform that facilitates these types of conversations by using artificial intelligence in a new way to recognize this full body movement language, and any sign language in the world. KinTrans’ chat solution is designed for the business environment in the immediate term to improve communication with Deaf customers at points of sale and service areas. The chat solution translates signs into voice and voice into signs in real time. This functionality allows the Deaf to realize independence and businesses to realize new value creating opportunities from this large market segment.

KinTrans and Microsoft: Joining Forces for Inclusion

Microsoft has been an integral part of KinTrans’ development, embedded at various steps along the way. From using the Microsoft Kinect 3D depth camera to providing hosting credits on Azure through BizSpark Plus, Microsoft has been a vehicle of support to this early technology startup.

Microsoft Gulf, headquartered in Dubai, UAE discovered KinTrans in a local incubator in 2015. KinTrans was one of 5 startups selected to meet Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, during a visit to Dubai in January 2016. Mr. Nadella spoke with KinTrans about the future of Microsoft Azure and the Microsoft platform at large to bring about inclusion of all people, to digitally transform how the global community works together. Since that time, Microsoft Gulf sponsored KinTrans at the 2016 GITEX technology conference in Dubai, the QITCOM technology conference in Doha, Qatar, has made Developer Experience team resources available, and hosted KinTrans in the Dubai Microsoft Technology Center.

Today, Microsoft New England continues supporting KinTrans Inc., through civic engagement opportunities in Boston and working side-by-side with them in the MassChallenge accelerator. The goal together is to demonstrate how a deep technology platform, combined with innovative machine learning applications can open new, scalable opportunities for communication with Deaf in the marketplace, in the workplace, in schools, healthcare centers and civic institutions.   

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