Civic Tech

Fellow Profile: Emily Sim

Where are you from? Southern California and Seoul, South Korea

School/grad year/major: Tufts University, 2019, Computer Science

Last thing you searched on Bing: How to make hummus from scratch

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? Coming from a technical background, I was fascinated by the Technology & Civic Engagement team’s work at a pivotal juncture of two industries. I wanted to explore how technology is being used for public good.

What’s your favorite civic project in the Greater Boston area? nesterly, which is a startup that matches elderly homeowners with younger subletters to provide affordable housing, companionship, and housekeeping.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft New England? I have helped launch the Starthub Boston’s Civic Innovation page by compiling resources, events, startups, investors, and initiatives. Currently, I am creating a dashboard for District Hall’s usage data. Soon, I will be working on integrating the District Hall form input with a database system, revamping the Venture Cafe Foundation website, and doing user research for a project with the MBTA.

What excites you about civic tech? It’s a relatively new field, yet the amount of community engagement the projects have generated is incredible. There is so much potential to drive more folks into taking action to help their towns and neighbors.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? I hope that more affordable housing is made available in Boston, especially in the more gentrified areas, with partnership between the city, corporations, and caring citizens.

Join Boston Civic Media’s 3rd Annual Conference on June 3

Want to gain insights and approaches for collectively re-imagining public life in Boston?

Join Boston Civic Media’s third annual conference, Civic Imagination: Designing and Building a Better Future, taking place on June 3 from 9 a.m.  to  4 p.m. at District Hall.

Spearheaded by the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, Boston Civic Media is a faculty-led network that aims to advance the transdisciplinary domain of civic media research and pedagogy in the Greater Boston Area. Each year, Boston Civic Media convenes its growing network of faculty, students, activists, journalists, policymakers and nonprofits all invested in “civic media,” or media that creates social change through art, design and technology.

This year’s conference aims to explore the intersection of art, research and activism and is an opportunity to celebrate community-driven public work. From workshops on learning to engage across cultures, borders and divides to DIY biotechnology, expect an exciting lineup of presenters to share strategies, insights and approaches for collectively re-imagining public life in Boston.

The conference includes keynote presentations by Nettrice Gaskins, whose work examines how cultural art and technology made by under-represented groups for creative expression and STEAM learning can ignite our civic imagination, and Mariama White-Hammond, an ecological justice minister who will draw upon her former experiences of social-justice media making with youth to inspire new narratives.

This year, the conference will also tackle the wicked problem of climate adaptation and preparedness throughout the City of Boston with the release of the first ever inter-campus curriculum addressing climate change.

All are welcome to attend! This event is free, but registration is required.

Learn more about Civic Imagination: Designing and Building a Better Future and register here. Can’t attend? Follow along on Twitter using #BostonCivicMedia. 

All I Ever Needed to Know about Civic Engagement I Learned From my Mom

I’ve been listening to a lot of Podcasts lately.  I particularly like the podcasts about successful people where they share details about their lives that led to success or mastery in their field. I like Tim Ferriss, Spartan Up and just found Finding Mastery and am currently listening to a fantastic conversation with Amy Hood. In many of these podcasts, people reflect on the role that his / her Mom / Mom-like figure played in guiding them to success. And there is no question that my Mom’s presence and modeling led me to value civic engagement and the work I do today.

My mom taught me to actively engage with civic organizations. She never just attended a meeting or sat on the sidelines. She engaged and was able to influence outcomes. As a passionate supporter of the Arts, my mom ran the Cultural Arts program at my school to make sure arts programming was a part of our education. And as a professional development / fund raising officer for a non-profit, she supports the Camp where she met my dad, I attended and now my sons go with fund raising advice and guidance. By actively engaging in important organizations, I feel the benefits as much as I contribute, and often even more!

We set out to ask some of the phenomenal civic leaders in Boston to share the lessons they learned from their moms and we received an amazing response. We hope these stories inspire and empower you the same way they have affected us:

Teaching and education has always been a passion and priority for my mom. She was a teacher in England when I was born. She was our advocate in school from pre school to college. And when she stopped teaching, she become a volunteer tutor and a mentor at local schools. She took a year to complete a program on teaching children with dyslexia, and volunteered her time to work with children after school that needed that extra help to complete their homework. We all know how important it is to get a good education (and she raised three kids that all got engineering degrees), but what she showed me is that enabling someone to get a good education, is about patience and encouragement, one day at a time, year after year. Thank you mom.

— Elizabeth Bruce, Universities, Technology and Civic Engagement at Microsoft

When my parents divorced, my brother was 8 and I was 6 years old. We watched our my beautiful mother Linda work three jobs: one minimum wage and two waitress jobs. All of her time and energy went into making a living wage for our family. She didn’t have time to get involved in the PTO, town meetings, or weekend hackathons, and any time she had to spend to interact with city hall or school, meant time off and money lost.

It is for single parents like Linda that I think about first when creating or transforming the way we deliver public service to our constituents. Happy Mothers Day to Linda and the busy moms!

Pictured is Sam, Aunt Robyn (another strong female role model), and Linda (right)

— Samantha Hammar, Director of Digital Engagement, Office of the Treasury, Commonwealth of Massachusetts

My mom has always been curious about life and has been a life-long learner. She has always encouraged me to get beneath the surface, to chase those things I found interesting, to understand the “why” behind the world. She truly shaped my thought process, in that I try to understand the systems, the structures, and the “why” in my world. I think this is why I find the civic technology space so interesting—even though we use the lens of technology in the civic space, it’s ultimately about supporting society and the human condition.

— Cathy Wissink, Senior Director, Technology & Civic Engagement at Microsoft

I’m fortunate to come from a family of strong, socially-minded women on both sides of my family, and have always been encouraged to give back to and engage with my community. On my mom’s side, she and my gran have been role models for me my entire life. After raising her children, my gran returned to work — serving as a magistrate for many years and advocating for the rights of her community members. My mom has always been involved in organizations for education, arts, and the community, and even started a company while I was in high school. They’ve both served as constant role models for me, and continue to remind me of the importance of dedicating my time and energy to causes that are important to me on a daily basis.

— Becky Donner, Director, District Hall

My civic tech work is shaped by what my mother showed me about collaboration and picking your projects. Whether as a leader or team member, she believes strongly in asking questions, listening, and learning from everyone in the room, as that’s how you figure out what’s important and can select an effective path forward. She also shows me how valuable it can be to carefully choose what you give your time and resources to (yes, my mother taught me how to say no!). She has shown me how to go all in on the institutions and issues–in her case, from hospice care to reproductive rights–that make a difference to individuals’ lives and across communities. Civic tech and engagement is about thinking beyond what you alone might know or like or need, and I am lucky to have seen from my mother how to think and live that philosophy.

— Elizabeth Grossman, Director of Civic Projects, Technology and Civic Engagement Group at Microsoft

My mother taught me the value of authenticity, honesty, and putting yourself in other people’s shoes. These are core values of civic engagement, and lead to things like user-centric design, transparency, and collaboration being the guiding principles of the civic tech community.

— Annmarie Levins, General Manager,Technology and Civic Engagement Group at Microsoft

My mom is an immigrant woman who was raised in a conservative cultural environment where women are not always encouraged to be outspoken. Once my mom had her own three daughters, she focused on raising us with the opportunities she didn’t have in her life. By bringing us to a mosque that prioritized civic duties, community service, interfaith work and social justice and actively volunteering herself during events like the Walk Against Hunger, protesting the “travel ban”, and cooking for the Mercy Shelter, my mother showed me the importance of showing up and engaging with the community. I was proud of my mom for also supporting my education and focus on Political Science and Human Rights. Most notably, I am proud of my mom for raising her hand to volunteer in her community despite language barriers.

— Sumia Hassain, Partnerships Development Coordinator, MassChallenge Boston

For my whole life, I’ve watched my mom work tirelessly to support the communities around her, whether through planning events for our schools, knocking on doors for local politicians, or encouraging us to get involved with nonprofit work.

More recently, I’ve been blessed to watch her transition into what is undoubtedly her dream job as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. She works constantly and tirelessly around the clock to make individuals’ lives better — whether it be through 7am weekend phone calls to constituents, attending events morning and night, or filing bills in the House to benefit underrepresented individuals within the State.

My mom has a ‘can-do’ attitude second-to-none, and the beauty of it all is that she expects nothing in return. If I can embody even 1% of the dedication she has to making the lives of EVERYONE around her better, regardless of it benefiting her, I will be more selfless, caring, and helpful than most who walk the earth. I love you, Mom, and am so proud to be your daughter!

— Kara Cronin, Partnerships Account Manager, MassChallenge Boston

Urban Farming: From Microsoft to the Dinner Table

Urban Farming at Microsoft. Photo credits: Scott Eklund.

Boston isn’t known for farming and agriculture, but we are known for our strengths in Technology, Collaboration, Innovation and Education. With organizations like 1776 naming Boston one of the top cities to enable collaboration to capitalize on the shift to a digital economy, it’s no surprise we can even apply these strengths to agricultural sciences. I see examples of our prizewinning advancements in technology along the entire farm to table continuum.

One of the truly special pieces of being a member of the Board of Overseers at the Museum of Science is participating in Davos on the Charles. Davos on the Charles is a unique event created by the Overseers, for the Overseers. Panels are created based on various topics of interest and different Overseers take positions on those panels, study up and present a unique perspective. In coordination with one of the Museum’s focus areas, this year’s event was focused on food.

I was a panelist on one of five panels along with three other overseers. Our panel was focused on The Future of your Food: Farming Engineered Foods and I chose to speak about urban farming – an area Microsoft is investing in at our headquarters in Redmond.

Aimee Sprung on a panel at Davos on the Charles. Photo: Museum of Science, Boston

Why is this an area of interest for Microsoft? Well, as our growing push for sustainability merges with industry, we need to be thinking about where our food in coming from and how it is affecting the environment and our bank accounts. We need to reimagine how we sustainably grow plants that sustain us in turn. And even though technology is just a tool, it is becoming just as important as shovels and soil in how we efficiently grow produce.

As farm-to-table dining gains more widespread adoption, it’s important to note the technology, innovation, and collaboration that support this initiative and make it a more sustainable practice.


Freight FarmsBuilt entirely inside a 40’ x 8’ x 9.5’ shipping container, freight farms are outfitted with all the tools needed for high-volume, consistent harvests. With innovative climate technology and growing equipment, the perfect environment is achievable 365 days a year, regardless of geographic location.

Of course, technology plays a big role in how we’re advancing agriculture. The number of manually harvested crops is rapidly decreasing, with startups like Harvest Automation bringing automated processes to planting, maintaining, and analyzing commercial growing operations. We’re even seeing AI being adopted into agricultural practices as indoor and vertical farming grow into more regular practices.


Microsoft’s main campus in Redmond, for example, is growing produce on campus using hydroponics. This practically eliminates the need to transport as the greens are grown in the same buildings where they are prepared and served to employees. Hydroponics also uses 90% less water than soil based growing and by growing in a contained environment, it also eliminates the need for pesticides.

Microsoft has incorporated a Micro-greens project on its Redmond campus, where its cafeteria hosts an urban farming project to grow highly nutritious greens that are grown and served right on campus. This doubles as a cost-effective program that assists in reducing the company’s carbon footprint and is promoting a stronger investment in on-campus agriculture.


One significant food of the future challenge remains in equity in pricing and accessibility. There are food deserts in this country — and in neighborhoods of Boston. Boston’s Food for Free is partnering with Boston Public Schools to set up school markets — food market / food pantry conglomerates open to the community in local schools. Here, anyone in the community can shop for fresh local produce, learn about its origins, and commit themselves to sustainable practices in shopping and eating.

Boston’s Fresh Truck takes this same approach to celebrating healthy food culture, bringing fresh, affordable food to communities in need while providing community outreach, education and programming to promote equitable access to healthy choices.


It doesn’t just end at the table. There’s strong need for education around food and sustainability in Boston, at Microsoft, and around the world, and this innovation is just a start. In the meantime, I look toward the Museum of Science, which just ran a charette to leverage strategy on how the museum can connect food to technology in the city of Boston. I can’t wait to see how the museum presents this in future exhibits and practices, and to follow the museum’s future explorations in food and agricultural innovation.

From where I sit at Microsoft, I’m curious to see how technology can improve efficiencies for farming, increase local growing / farm to table initiatives and maybe even allow me to be an urban farmer through sensors for irrigation needs or improving how we use space to grow. Could a parking garage become a storage facility for shipping containers that are growing dark leafy greens? Could I be making more sustainable choices in the way I shop and eat? Could growing my own produce provide more sustainable practices for others?

As I reflect on my panel at Davos on the Charles and the Urban Farming work beginning at Microsoft, it’s clear that technology will play a significant role in increasing sustainability in agriculture. I’m excited to watch as new innovations impact the farm to table continuum in Boston. Maybe there will even be some farming startups in this year’s class at MassChallenge – I’ll be looking for them!

To learn more about Microsoft’s commitment to environmental sustainability, head to the Microsoft Green Blog.

#NERD10: Research Lab’s Interdisciplinary Approach Benefits from Region’s Intellectual Horsepower

2017 marks 10 years that Microsoft has hosted one of its Global Development Centers in Cambridge. The Microsoft New England Research & Development Center, fondly referred to as NERD, is celebrating its anniversary with stories and events year-round. Please join us in the celebration on the ground and online using #NERD10.

Jennifer Chayes, NERD Co-Founder

I’ve been here for most of the #NERD10 journey. Nine years ago, Christian Borgs and I co-founded Microsoft Research New England with the goal of establishing the lab as a leader in interdisciplinary research. To accomplish that goal, we’ve brought together computer scientists with researchers from the social sciences and facets of the biomedical sciences. Our work has included projects in areas such as economics, social media and health care, as well as more theoretical projects in areas such as cryptography, theoretical machine learning, mathematics and statistics.

When we established our lab, I knew Cambridge was one of the places in the world where this unique approach to interdisciplinary research could be most successful. The reason: Our lab’s proximity to so many world-class universities and access to such a large community of scientists.

But our ability to form tight bonds with the region’s academic and research institutions has exceeded even my initial, most optimistic expectations.

Through 2016, we’ve had more than 2,500 visitors to our lab here, including interns, and consulting and visiting researchers, with nearly 20 percent of these visitors coming from area colleges and universities.

From the very beginning, we wanted to establish economics as a key discipline within the lab, given that two of the top five schools for economics (Harvard and MIT) are in our backyard, along with the National Bureau of Economic Research. Since then, our economists have contributed to many strategic projects for Microsoft and the industry. A new project that I’m especially excited about is ALICE, a research project focused on incorporating artificial intelligence into economic decision making. This is a quintessential example of interdisciplinary research, as we’re bringing together economists and computer scientists specializing in artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve economic research while pushing the frontiers of AI development.

Christian Borgs, NERD Co-Founder

Another area where we’ve invested is our study of social media. We established the Social Media Collective in 2010 and it’s now expanded to our New York City lab as well. Locally, the team has expanded and now comprises such brilliant researchers as Mary Gray, Nancy Baym and Tarleton Gillespie, each of whom is doing fascinating work on how social media is affecting ethics, public discourse and the future of work. One reason for the team’s success: Our proximity to the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.  The Social Media Collective started here with amazing work by danah boyd, who has gone on to found and be the executive director of the Data&Society Research Institute in New York City.

Still another area of pursuit has been biomedical sciences. One example is the amazing work by Jennifer Listgarten and Nicolo Fusi at the intersection of machine learning, computational biology and medicine. One high-profile project by these amazing researchers is the direct result of Jennifer and Nicolo becoming excited about working on the powerful gene editing tool CRISPR after attending a lecture given by John Doench, associate director of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard. Jennifer, Nicolo, John and collaborators developed a system called Azimuth that uses machine learning to predict which part of a gene to target when a scientist wants to knock out, or shut off, a gene. The research team, which includes collaborators from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Washington University School of Medicine, published their findings earlier this year in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Machine learning is one of the hottest areas within the computing industry these days, and a focus within our lab as evidenced by our upcoming sixth annual New England Machine Learning Day that’s taking place on May 12 at NERD. The event brings together researchers and local academics, such as Tina Eliassi-Rad from Northeastern University, Roni Khardon from Tufts University and David Sontag from MIT, among others. This program is being chaired by Adam Kalai, whose work on biases in computer algorithms with colleagues at Boston University received popular press coverage within the past year from NPR, MIT Tech Review and other outlets. The day before our Machine Learning Day we’ll be holding the New England Machine Learning Hackathon: Hacking Bias in ML in partnership with colleagues from Harvard, MIT, Boston University and UMass Amherst.

More than 30 years ago, I did my post-doctoral work in mathematics and physics at Harvard, and came to appreciate just how intellectually exhilarating the Cambridge area can be. The work within our lab in recent years has only heightened my appreciation for the intellectual horsepower that exists here. It also has confirmed my belief that establishing a lab here focused on interdisciplinary basic research would benefit Microsoft, our industry and society more broadly. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible and I’m looking forward to the many great collaborations that will form in the decade ahead.

Jennifer Tour Chayes is Distinguished Scientist and Managing Director of Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which she co-founded in 2008, and Microsoft Research New York City, which she co-founded in 2012. These two laboratories are widely renowned interdisciplinary centers, bringing together computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists, social scientists, and biologists, and helping to lay the foundations of data science.

Boston Public Schools’ Transportation Challenge Brings Data to Buses

This year, we are partnering with the BPS Experience Lab, the education segment of New Urban Mechanics. This work has focused on visualizing data on student time on buses – length of trip, frequency of use, and conveying this information to headmasters through a dashboard using Power BI.  Through that work (and some recent Globe articles), we learned that 10% of the BPS budget is spent on Transportation. And as identified by the BPS Long Term Financial Planning Initiative and the 10 Big Ideas to Unlock Resources for Student Success, addressing these transportation costs can free up funds to invest in student success. 

BPS is hosting a challenge to better leverage technology to improve routes and bell times with the ultimate goal of reducing transportation costs. In TCE, we sit at the intersection of government, industry and non-profits and this kind of challenge is a terrific use of the data science capacity of the private sector to enable the public sector to better serve constituents and students.    

We are proud to welcome John Hanlon and Will Eger as guest bloggers to tell us more about this challenge. 

— Aimee Sprung, Civic Engagement Manager at Microsoft New England

Last Saturday, over fifty technologists, academics, and transportation industry leaders braved an early Spring snowstorm (only in Boston…) to join us to kick off the first-ever Boston Public Schools (BPS) Transportation Challenge — a data science competition, open to the public, aimed at improving Boston Public Schools’ bus routes and equitably and efficiently balancing our school start times.  We are excited that this innovative public-private hackathon will help us reach — as BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang put it — “a technical solution to a technical problem, using data science to transform our district” in a way that provides the best outcomes for students and families.  We are hopeful that this solution will come from one of the groups in attendance, including students from Northeastern, MIT, BU and Harvard, or from industry powerhouses like FedEx and Uber, but it could just as likely come from someone reading this blog! So… (shameless plug) if you have a knack for solving these kinds of problems then please roll up your sleeves with us and hack away!

The event helped remind us of a number of things. First, as our panelist Andy Rotherham — co-founder of Bellwether consulting — pointed out, “solving school district transportation problems is incredibly hard.” But as John’s remarks highlighted, it’s incredibly important not just for BPS but for Boston as a whole. Reducing the 45,000 miles our buses drive every day wouldn’t just allow us to reinvest in schools, it would also dramatically reduce our carbon footprint. Rebalancing our school start times could potentially free up funds for investment in the classroom while establishing school schedules that work better for families.

The event also illuminated the evolution of our bus routing system, something that is still a work in progress. Mike Hughes, the Assistant Director of BPS Transportation, reminded us of this when he said during the event’s panel discussion: “When Boston Public Schools began creating bus routes in the 1970s, we unrolled large and detailed maps of the city and used push-pins to mark bus stops and connected them with multi-colored string to form unique routes.” Needless to say, our routing and fleet management has evolved dramatically since then. Today, our 650 buses drive  45,000 miles a day and serve 25,000 riders at 231 public, charter, and Parochial schools.

Technology has played an increasing role in planning these routes. Push-pins and strings have been replaced by routing software and digital maps. However, our software still can’t solve this puzzle without placing a significant burden on our excellent drivers, who often have to operate on  inefficient routes, or on our talented transportation staff, who need to troubleshoot and fine-tune the computer-generated routes each summer.

And why is that such an issue? As research into the Traveling Salesman Problem has found, as the number of stops increases the permutations of possible routes grows on factorially (n! – that is, possible permutations increase faster than exponential growth). Therefore calculating the optimal solution by brute force becomes impractical after about 20 stops. And we have 5,000 unique stops, at which our buses stop about 20,000 times per day (the same stops often serve multiple buses).

Things get even more complicated when you factor in the many “rules of the road” that we have to consider when routing. These rules establishing ride-time maximums, bus-stop placement rules, and so on, quickly make this problem nearly impossible to solve.

But there’s hope! With the tremendous advances in digital mapping, the rebirth of the Traveling Salesman problem in academic circles, and the sheer growth in computing power, we believe that now is the time to try to solve this historically unsolvable problem. We think that there just might be someone out there who can develop an algorithm that creates a more optimal solution to both routes and school start times.

As we think about our wish list, we know that this algorithm must be adaptable. We want to better understand the true costs of our various policy choices regarding walk to stop distances, ride times, and student assignment. Given the interconnectedness of our system, we’ve learned that seemingly small changes can snowball into large cost changes. What we want in the end is a tool that not only reliably automates efficient bus routes but also acts as a calculator of sorts, quickly and agilely determining the system-wide impact or cost of various policy scenarios.

Lastly, this is a technical challenge – but one with a very real human component. For 25,000 students, their school day begins when they step on the bus. Therefore this challenge isn’t just about improving efficiency. It is also about ensuring that our students reach schools safely and on time. It is about ensuring that schools start and end at times that work for more families. It is about reinvesting in our schools.

We hope to see your entry in the our routing challenge – make sure you don’t miss the 4/30 deadline and visit our website to learn more!

John Hanlon has served as the Chief of Operations for Boston Public Schools since July of 2015. Prior to becoming COO, John worked for the City of Boston as the Commissioner of Property and Construction Management where he oversaw the management, maintenance, and operations of City Hall and other municipal facilities across Boston. He previously served as Chief Operating Officer for Scholar Athletes, a nonprofit that supports public high school athletes and was the longtime Executive Director at the Dorchester Educational Enrichment Program, a nonprofit that offers mentoring services for middle-school youths. John is a proud Boston Latin School graduate and Dorchester resident, where he lives with his wife and four children. He holds an MBA from Duke University and a BA in journalism from Boston University.

Will Eger is a Strategic Project Manager in Finance for Boston Public Schools, where he works on developing and implementing the district’s Long Term Financial Plan. Prior to this he was in Parthenon’s education practice and was a high school math teacher in Philadelphia. He has written on education for The Atlantic, Ed Week, the Huffington Post, and Higher Education in Review as well as a full length book on the Tea Party. He has an A.B. from Harvard College and a M.S.Ed from the University of Pennsylvania.

PULSE@MassChallenge: A Finger on the Pulse of Healthcare Innovation

With healthcare remaining a top priority and concern for Americans, it’s up to us in the innovation industry to inspire change and bring solutions to some of the biggest challenges in the healthcare industry. MassChallenge’s latest venture, PULSE@MassChallenge is here to tackle those challenges. The innovation accelerator describes PULSE as a startup-friendly approach to digital health innovations–and we’re thrilled to be a part of it. 

For years, Microsoft has been a sponsor of MassChallenge, igniting innovations across the civic sector by supporting civic ventures within the accelerator. We’re excited to take that one step further, as we join the PULSE team in sponsorship and help accelerate digital solutions in healthcare. 

Microsoft is excited to work with PULSE@MassChallenge to support seven exciting health ventures, providing BizSpark support, mentorship, and research connections:

Innovators in PULSE@MassChallenge receive the following support to help their digital solutions grow:

  • Digital Healthcare Lab: Connecting entrepreneurs with world-class strategic partners in healthcare
  • Community Access: Join the world’s preeminent digital health community
  • Office Space: Free offices in the heart of Boston’s healthcare ecosystem
  • Health Challenges: Resources driven to specific, top opportunities in digital health
  • Champions & Advisors: Mutual matchmaking with corporate & institutional Champions, mentors & advocates ready to help startups achieve success.
  • Awards: $250,000 in awards, no equity taken. 

Healthcare is a major industry in Massachusetts, and a human priority. It can be challenging for startups to engage the hospitals and large healthcare institutions here, but PULSE is paving the way to make this connection possible.

We’re thrilled to join a growing list of top-tier stakeholders invested in PULSE, including the Mass Competitive Partnership, Mass General Hospital, Shire, and more. 

PULSE innovators convene monthly for PULSECHECK, a speaker series and workshop opportunity. Join the PULSE team on April 19 for PULSECHECK: How HACKATHONS Create Companies alongside MIT Hacking Medicine at Hatch Fenway.

Harvard Social Enterprise Conference: Leveraging Technology for Impact

A perennial question for social entrepreneurs is the question of scale. And perhaps the two greatest levers for scaling social enterprises are technology and government. So, it should come as little surprise that the topic of civic technology featured heavily at last month’s Social Enterprise Conference at Harvard! Here, I’d like to share some of the insights presented.

The Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, now in its 19th year, is an initiative of students at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government, meant to bring together practitioners, students, and academics to discuss the most pressing issues of organizations and society. This year, topics spanned a wide range, and included a variety of panels regarding civic technology. Microsoft’s Aimee Sprung moderated a panel on “Pitching the Public Sector,” while others led panels on mobile technology in the developing world, education technology, and many other topics.

Nearly 1,000 practitioners, students, and academics were part of the 2017 Social Enterprise Conference.

Their conversations were wide-ranging, insightful, and eye-opening for those in the audience who have ever thought of leveraging technology to impact problems they care about. Here are just a few of the lessons they shared:

  • Technology is just a tool. It’s easy to get excited about all of the possible features and capabilities that technology can bring to bear on social issues; it can also be easy to lose track of the fact that technology is only one tool to address these challenges. In schools, even the most advanced learning platform won’t be useful without outstanding educators. Technologists should think of themselves as one part of a larger puzzle in addressing social issues like education, which includes other pieces like process improvements, human capital support, changes in resource use, and more.
  • Governments can be great clients. Governments often get a bad reputation as clients to technology companies and other service providers. But our panelists reminded us that the opposite can also be true: governments can be uniquely outstanding clients. Not only do governments offer unparalleled scale and opportunity to work on important social issues, but there are also marketing and sales advantages. While sales cycles to governments can be long, the turnover rate of existing government clients is very low. And although governments are often unwilling to try brand new solutions, leaders in government talk to one another frequently, making it easy to sell high-quality products that already have a few users.
  • Always keep iterating. Nothing is a substitute for talking to users, understanding their needs, and iterating your technology to meet those needs. This can be especially hard for new startups, who lack both resources and a large client base on which to test new ideas. Panelists offered some creative ways to gain access to those first clients, such as leveraging a university’s brand name (as a student). But mostly, they reiterated how important it is to choose to tackle a problem that you care about enough to get out of the office and into the field.

For more information about the conference, visit our website:

Daniel Goldberg is an MBA Candidate at Harvard Business School and an MPP Candidate at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he focuses on performance improvement, innovation, and service delivery in the public sector. He is the Director of Marketing & Attendee Relations for the Social Enterprise Conference.

Recap: #CivicTechBos — Impact of New Media on Civic Initiatives

While social media began as a way for friends to connect online, its uses have transcended far beyond that original intent. Social media has become a tool for activists, reporters, and unheard populations to connect together and spark new change. And with it, new media has developed on the digital and social spheres to rapidly transform the way civic initiatives take place.

Last night, we hosted our quarterly #CivicTechBos Conversations in Civic Innovation with Venture Cafe, with a focus on how the rapid growth of new media has transformed civic initiatives.

Speakers included:

Miss the conversation? We’ve gathered some highlights from last night’s event on Twitter Moments to keep you up to speed. Join us at our next event this summer!

Analyze Boston — New Open Data Hub Helps Citizens Visualize Their Lives

Boston’s new and improved open data hub, dubbed Analyze Boston, will go live April 6. Need to find facts, figures, or maps related to the area of Boston you live in? Analyze Boston is your newest civic tech tool for that and more. The City of Boston decided that its existing open data portal needed a major revamp. The new version was launched in beta in late February to spark conversation and get feedback before the site’s official release.

What’s the difference?

First and foremost, usability. The teams behind it, the Analytics Team & DoIT Boston, with the help of CKAN & OpenGov Open Data, put a major emphasis on user experience and user engagement as it relates to data. As a result, the data is easily searchable and paired with much needed descriptive information to make the datasets more intuitive.

“That’s the goal with this new platform — making sure it’s both used and user-friendly,” said Howard Lim, the product manager for Analyze Boston.

With plain language and vivid imagery, the city’s new online presence aims to engage a broad audience from all corners of Boston to understand the various ways government enhances lives and provides services.

“We’re purposely calling this Analyze Boston because we think those plain words might make data a little more interesting to a broader audience regardless of someone’s technology background,” Lim said.

The goal is to build knowledge around public data, he said. This time around, the datasets on the new portal will all be under a public domain license. That way, both residents and internal stakeholders can use the data how they see fit and perhaps bring critical solutions and civic tech tools to urban challenges. Application developers will be able to access and integrate datasets through robust APIs. Other users will be able to search the datasets through flexible search tools. And on the new mobile-friendly platform, users are met where they’re already at.

“Eighty percent of the world has a smart phone. Maybe people can search open data sets on the T, and say, “oh, I found something that’s interesting,” and then get back home to work and plug away at it,” Lim said.

The new data hub currently has about 115 data sets available, from CityScore, food establishment inspections, rainfall data, public safety data and more. Lim said more data sets are to come, and they’ll be constantly updated.

“Realistically, there will always be more data and knowledge to build, and we have to continue to be amenable to what the people want to see, so our work will continue,” he said. 

A map from Vision Zero, an example of what our users can do with open data

Why is access to open data important?

It’s worthwhile to be proactive in the sharing of information, Lim explained, and if cities like Boston can lead the way in transparency, other cities might be keen to follow. Boston residents will be able to see how city government works and that their tax dollars are being used in a respectful and responsible manner to better the spaces we live, work and play in.

As the growing digital catalog of information for the city’s institutions that publish data, Analyze Boston helps citizens visualize their lives.

“This digital catalog is very valuable because it allows people to see that information does indeed exist, all in one place, without having to comb through various web sources to find what they’re looking for,” Lim said.

Since the beginning of Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration, he, along with the city’s innovation team, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, has emphasized the importance of open data. Last year, the city launched the Open Data to Open Knowledge initiative, and Mayor Walsh has encouraged city agencies to publish data online for public consumption. In May 2016, Boston appointed Andrew Therriault as its first Chief Data Officer.

“Our goal in creating the Analyze Boston platform is to better fulfill the promise of open data and open government, by seeing open data not just as a collection of datasets but as a platform for sharing knowledge,” Therriault said in a press release.

April 6 marks the start of a month-long Analyze Boston Open Data challenge. Interested candidates are encouraged to share analyses, visualizations, models and applications incorporating data from Analyze Boston. The challenge culminates with a showcase and prizes on May 6 at District Hall.