community

Making Data Matter at Museum of Science Boston

At the Museum of Science Boston, visitors discover the wonders of the human body by immersing themselves in a series of interactive activities in which they use their own bodies as the test subject. The Hall of Human Life was uniquely constructed by our in-house designers with the process of learning at its core. A wristband marked with a unique barcode allows visitors to take measurements of their own body, record their experiences, and see how their data compares to other visitors. Thousands of data points are generated each day from the Hall of Human Life. In turn, we can use the data to constantly improve the exhibition and ensure each station is functioning correctly.

From the onset, we knew that technology would be the keystone of the Hall of Human Life and that it would require updating as technological capabilities evolved. When the exhibit opened in 2013, we were hosting the data on a Microsoft SQL Server database with a basic Excel dashboard for reporting and analytics. This on premise system allowed for the capture and retention of all inputted data, but was limited to sampling from the last 30 days of data for display in the exhibit. As of October 2016, anonymous data for nearly one million visitors had been recorded. However, because not all of it was accessible in real-time, the entire dataset was not being used in the truly comparative way that was central to the exhibit’s mission.

Like any public institution, we host large groups of visitors every day. This includes family groups, class field trips, Girl Scout troops, Boy Scout Councils, summer camps, or even overnights for elementary and middle school students. Imagine a large group of elementary school students exploring the exhibit and entering their data into the kiosks. When the next visitors come in, they will not be offered an accurate spread of human data. The comparison will be reflective only of the large group of students that previously went through. This was a real problem because the Hall of Human Life was created to harness the true power of comparative data for interactive learning.

To address this technology challenge, we worked with our friends at Microsoft. Through thoughtful collaboration with our staff, they assessed our needs and helped us to complete the Hall of Human Life in a way that was most useful to us for the long-term. Under the direction of Microsoft engineers, a team of interns from Worcester Polytechnic Institute built a prototype system that allows us to host all the Hall of Human Life data securely in the Azure cloud and recall it all back to visitors in real-time. They also designed a Power BI operations dashboard that monitors the exhibit in real-time and an anomaly detection system in Azure Machine Learning that automatically detects hardware failures and outlier data to ensure the data we are collecting is accurate.

Through our partnership, we have fully updated and modernized the visitor-facing technology in the Hall of Human Life. Now this interactive exhibition not only demonstrates the power of immersive learning anchored in comparative data but it is also a model for transformational corporate-civic partnerships.

Boston’s Coordinated Access System: Technology to Help Homeless Individuals Find Their Way Home

Part of our work in the Technology and Civic Engagement team at Microsoft New England is to highlight key technology projects that are solving civic challenges.  

The Department of Neighborhood Development at the City of Boston is taking an innovative approach to countering chronic homelessness with technology. It is inspiring to work alongside such thoughtful government technologists who take a human-centered approach to making the city a place for all individuals to live, work and play!

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

Per the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in January 2016, 549,928 people were homeless on a given night in the United States. Of that number, 77,486 (or one in five) were considered “chronically homeless” individuals. And a number of this homeless population, around 550 individuals, remain chronically homeless in Boston — 220 of which are US Veterans.

So how do we fix this?

Clearly, homelessness is a result of a range of issues, spanning from mental health disabilities to poverty to access to affordable housing. And the City of Boston is looking to address these issues — with the help of technology.

Boston’s Way Home, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s action plan to end chronic and veteran homelessness in Boston, is the city’s tech-forward approach to solving these issues head-on. Through individualized housing and service programs addressing the specific needs of homeless individuals, Boston’s Way Home is utilizing new technology to help end homelessness in Boston.

Boston’s Coordinated Access System (CAS) is a housing match engine that matches homeless individuals with housing opportunities and tenancy support services based on eligibility and length of time homeless. Here, the city is taking a housing-first approach to chronic homelessness, helping people get into a place where they can be stable first, then treating additional issues like mental illness, substance use disorders, or financial instability.

“It’s a lot easier to give people services when you know where they’re going to be every day,” explains Matthew Rouser, Assistant Director, Innovation and Technology for the City of Boston.

Because of these housing matches, individuals are much more likely to be able to work on making healthy changes in their lives, and accept services, once they have a stable place to live.

CAS allows housing navigators to easily coordinate housing opportunities and track steps in the process directly through the platform. This system was implemented early, following Boston’s Way Home goal to house the chronic homeless population of veterans. The city was able to end chronic homelessness among veterans right at the close of 2015. And we’re making progress on the remaining chronically homeless population.

Another initiative launched by the City of Boston to combat chronic homelessness is a digital approach to its Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). While the CAS approaches homelessness from a housing standpoint, the HMIS focuses more on documenting shelter stays, street outreach contacts, and services as well as collecting demographic data on homeless households. Service providers that work with the homeless population (such as mental health organizations, meal programs, day time services, street outreach programs, etc.) are required to record each time a client comes through, and what services are provided to this client. In the past, access to this database has been scattered, with users unable to see anything other than the info their agency entered, leaving their view incomplete. Boston’s HMIS data warehouse is working to unify and clarify this information into one database.

“We’re working to put together a data warehouse that can use machine learning to work to clean up datasets,” explains Rouser, “to get a truly accurate picture of what’s happening with our homeless population. What resources are helping to address the issue? How can we better deliver services to our homeless population?”

Service providers who have access to HMIS can now work on more comprehensive plans: staying in touch with other service providers, keeping themselves updated on client progress, and working to make sure each client is getting all the resources they need.

Boston’s homelessness technology is an agile-based program, being built as it’s implemented (and available open source on github here). The goal is to make these open source projects fully functional through integrated testing environments and getting other communities to implement these ideas.

“What’s really exciting about these two initiatives in this area of work is that we’ve worked with our developers and contractors to do things we’ve typically not done with government,” explains Rouser.

The City of Boston is looking to get these resources into the hands of other cities and government agencies — as well as developers, data scientists, and denizens who are committed to solving our homelessness problem. From there, we can begin to tackle homelessness on a larger scale, all through simple technology.

To date, over 800 homeless veterans and over 300 chronically homeless individuals have been housed. In January 2016, Mayor Walsh announced that Boston has effectively ended chronic homelessness among veterans. Learn more about Boston’s Way Home here. Access the city’s open source resources on github here.

Microsoft New England Team NERDs Out at Generation Citizen Trivia for Changemakers

Being in Cambridge for ten years, we know just as well as any local that we’re housed in an area with some of the top minds in the world. With world-class hospitals, universities, politicians, industry leaders, and more surrounding us, it can sometimes be daunting to acknowledge how much intelligence is in every corner of the city.

Generation Citizen, a national organization (and Microsoft partner) that works to inspire civic participation and empower students through civic education, has recognized this bout of intellect and is working to use it for good. For the past four years, our local Generation Citizen (GC) chapter in Massachusetts has utilized this “intelligence problem” at an annual Trivia for Changemakers night. GC’s Trivia for Changemakers brings together teams from Boston industries, pitting them against each other in a night of trivia, where the winners claim the coveted ChangeMaker’s cup.

All proceeds from Trivia For ChangeMakers support Generation Citizen (GC), a 501(c)(3) education nonprofit serving over 3,000 students annually in Boston, Malden, Cambridge, Arlington, Melrose, Lowell, Brockton. GC provides action civics programming in which youth lead community change projects and develop the skills, knowledge, and motivation to become lifelong active citizens. The result is passionate, responsible civic participation that will revive our democracy and the Greater Boston community.

This year, as in years past, Microsoft employees at Microsoft New England R&D Center jumped at the opportunity to participate in GC’s Trivia for Changemakers. Alongside companies like OpenView, Trip Advisor, Bain Capital and ActBlue, Microsoft team members Aimee Sprung, Shannon Felton Spence, Christopher Scranton, Kavitha Scranton, Maggie Schmidt, Ken Danilla and Eric Sprung took on the challenge. Together, they tackled “common sense” questions like “Who is the current president of the Boston City Council?” (Michelle Wu), identified photos of lesser-known presidents, and dove head-first into challenging questions like What former NBA champion and all-star served in the Senate for 18 years and later ran for President? (Bill Bradley). And to our delightful surprise… our team won!

Thank you to Generation Citizen, OpenView, Trip Advisor, Bain Capital and ActBlue, and our amazing team for granting us this year’s bragging rights. See you next year!

Introducing the Public Engagement Roadmap: Creative Resources for Meaningful Civic Participation

Originally published on Medium by the Engagement Lab @ Emerson College.

We’re thrilled to announce the launch of the Public Engagement Roadmap, a new suite of creative resources aimed at supporting all stages of planning public engagement for non-profits and governments on local, state, and national levels.

Designed and created by the Engagement Lab in partnership with Living Cities and with support from the Citi Foundation, the Roadmap provides an actionable, step-by-step breakdown for creative and effective public engagement. Emphasizing the model of co-production, where citizens collaborate at all stages of decision-making on public issues, the Roadmap balances digital and in-person strategies to help practitioners navigate the ever-shifting landscape of engagement in the 21st Century.

The Roadmap is based on practical findings summarized in Accelerating Public Engagement, a report written by Eric Gordon, Executive Director of the Engagement Lab and Associate Professor at Emerson College, about real-life examples from public engagement during the second cohort of Living Cities’ City Accelerator program. Over the course of 18-months, Gordon and the Engagement Lab team provided technical assistance and guidance to city officials in the program from Albuquerque, Atlanta, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Seattle as they implemented projects to engage lower income residents on issues ranging from post-incarceration re-entry services to public health campaigns.

“The roadmap is a story of what it takes for organizations to actually partner with communities, well beyond checking the box,” said Eric Gordon. “Its focus is on creative methods, where relationships are put before efficiencies. Understanding how to use media and technology to enhance the human part of public engagement is more important now than ever before. That’s the focus of the report, and indeed, that’s the focus of all the Engagement Lab’s work.”

In all, the Roadmap comprises four resources grounded in design-thinking to help organizations map meaningful public engagement:

  • The Toolkit, a dynamic, online assessment that helps gauge where you are with your plan, what your plan’s strengths are, and where you might benefit from some additional guidance, and then gets you started with a series of strategic exercises and practical activities to improve your engagement plan.
  • The Guide, a comprehensive report called, Accelerating Public Engagement, which provides background on public engagement and offers practical, detailed approaches to use when planning on- and offline processes.
  • The Case Studies, a closer look at the stories from participant cities in the City Accelerator program and how they embraced the model of co-production to discover new ways to engage more deeply with the communities they serve.
  • The Game, a tabletop game called, “Chart the Course” that guides players through an entire public engagement planning process and gives teams an opportunity to explore different engagement tactics, role-play possible outcomes with stakeholders, and reflect on the implications of their actions.

“This Roadmap is intended for cities around the country who recognize that the solutions for today’s toughest problems aren’t found in some hidden corner of city hall,” wrote Ben Hecht, President and CEO of Living Cities, “but rather are co-developed through partnerships with residents, community colleges and universities, nonprofits, philanthropic organizations, and the business community.”

Explore the Public Engagement Roadmap here, and learn more about the work of the City Accelerator program here. If you would like to schedule a consultation about the Roadmap, please email info@elab.emerson.edu.

#NERD10: Celebrating Women’s History Month and the Next 10 Years of Microsoft R&D

2017 marks ten 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.

Happy Women’s History Month! What I appreciate most about Microsoft’s New England Research & Development Center (NERD) is our spirit of inclusion and commitment to diversity. I have been working in software for well over 20 years now, and I have never been more optimistic about our ability to change the face of this industry than I am today, in part  because of the energy and work I see happening here at NERD.

Creating a truly inclusive culture is not easy. Diversity by its very nature brings varied perspectives and debate. At NERD, we believe that those are the moments when we learn the most and where the creative spark of innovation lies. A few examples: This month we are partnering with our Kendall Square neighbor Akamai to discuss “Being Bold for Change” in celebration of International Women’s Day. On March 23, our Blacks & Africans at Microsoft (BAM) community is hosting a Minority Students Day of mentoring and discussion.

I started my Microsoft career at headquarters in Redmond, WA and spent many years there. In 2012, I relocated to New England to lead the Microsoft Intune PM team. I love working in Kendall Square and appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit here. We are surrounded by the best in academia, research, innovation, and technology. I can pop next door to enjoy a leadership class on applied neuroscience at MIT Sloan School of Management or head downstairs to our NERD conference center to join a Codess event with women coders. Not to mention, so many more places to eat and grab a cocktail have opened in the last few years. (My favorite is Rosemary’s Baby at Za/EVOO. Yum!)

This month also marks my one year anniversary as the General Manager of NERD—a title that always makes me laugh a little. I have bold aspirations for Microsoft in our area. In December, we started demolition to completely renovate and revitalize our offices at 1 Memorial Drive in Cambridge. Our goal is to create an environment that inspires our engineers—and makes Microsoft the best place to work and build their careers. We will have a Microsoft Garage space in our conference center, which will include collaborative, creative spaces as well as Maker and Advanced Maker labs where people can build, tinker, and prototype to bring their ideas to life. Our space at 1 Memorial will be open, bright, and highlight the amazing technology Microsoft has to offer.

Feb 2nd Women in Data Science “Hacking Bias” Ideation session @ NERD

At Microsoft NERD, we are home to an incredible group of researchers, engineers, and professionals. Microsoft NERD engineers and data scientists work on Azure Machine Learning, Office 365 security, Office collaboration, Skype, Xamarin, my own Microsoft Intune, and much more.  Under the leadership of Jennifer Chayes, we host Microsoft Research Lab-New England which is known for its interdisciplinary approach to research by our researchers, as well as a large group of postdocs, interns, and distinguished visiting faculty members.

Take a look at the predictions from the women of Microsoft Research on what to expect in 2017—hmm, I think some predictions already came true. I encourage you to explore our job openings, and to the students out there, we offer a number of internship opportunities right here in Cambridge.  I hope you’ll review the opportunities that exist here and consider joining us as we build our secret sauce, a spirit of inclusion and a commitment to diversity that makes me proud to be a leader here.  

Working Forward: Shannon Felton Spence, Brown University Master of Public Affairs Candidate

I always knew I wanted to grow up to be a part of the bigger picture. It is a privilege to be part of a community, and the power of the human connection is what makes a society strong. I never wanted to have just a job. Rather, I want to lead a career of consequence.

Through my post-college years, I weaved my way through various mission-driven positions in Boston. Then, in 2013, I joined the public affairs department at the British Consulate General, Boston. As a lifelong anglophile and challenge-taker, I was excited to represent the British government in the town that’s famous for kicking it out. Truly a dream job! My role was to promote British culture and policy throughout New England. I spent much of my time talking to and learning from local organizations – both in the private sector and NGOs – as well as government.

The fabric of diplomacy is built on connecting with others and finding opportunity through partnerships. There is an understanding that no one has the resources to go it alone. Initiatives are stronger when the responsibility is shared. Collaboration also leads to greater innovation and creative solutions.

In the UK, private sector involvement in the greater good dates back over 100 years. In 2017, it is understood that participation in society is linked with an organization’s standard operations. The US has also come a long way in recognizing the opportunity that exists for the private sector to play a key role in community advancement. Tackling the challenges of the 21st century requires coordination across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.  

I left my job at the British Consulate to study for my Master’s degree in Public Affairs. I chose Brown University for its historic commitment to social justice through creative solutions. Through my courses, I’ve learned about smart policy design and data-driven decision making. When it came time to complete my consultancy, I could think of no better place than Microsoft. I wanted to explore the private sector lens on community engagement and responsibility.

With its mission to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more, Microsoft has demonstrated a real commitment to being part of civic solutions. Boston and Cambridge are hyperlocal cities with high levels of participation. There are so many people and organizations working toward a greater good. The Microsoft Technology and Civic Engagement (TCE) team has expertly navigated this ecosystem to form meaningful partnerships and drive impact. I am fascinated by the way their work around innovation equity is enhanced by their commitment to collaboration within and across sectors. It is truly diplomacy in action.

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.

Do You Want to Know What Really Happens to the Stuff You Donate?

Microsoft is proud to be launching our third year of Civic Tech focus at MassChallenge with the Civic Tech Scholarship. The scholarship recognizes 5 startups as they enter the MassChallenge accelerator with a cash grant to help them grow their businesses. Microsoft’s Civic Tech Scholarship aims to identify startups helping elected officials deliver improved services to citizens, increasing communication with residents and enhancing government effectiveness. The ultimate goal is to identify solutions that foster citizen engagement and transparency between government and constituents. This blog post highlights the work of one of the 2016 Civic Tech scholarship recipients.

— Aimee Sprung

donii-homepage

For many of us, donating is the most socially conscious way to offload the things we no longer need. You don’t want to throw away that perfectly good sweater you never really loved, or the baby toys your toddler doesn’t play with anymore. The best thing would be to give them away… right?

The answer is a little more complicated. Most people think that by donating items they are gifting them to someone in need. The reality is that the majority of what we donate is ultimately resold for profit. The Council for Textile Recycling estimates that only 20% of donated clothing items end up in thrift stores. The remaining 80% is sold to wholesalers who then resell them largely in underdeveloped countries at marked up prices, or into industrial processing streams.

The used goods trade is a multi-billion dollar industry, based almost entirely on our charitable donations.

donii-infographic-verticalThis unfortunately isn’t great news for developing economies. As countries in regions like Africa and Central America are flooded with used clothing from the US and Europe, their native textile industries are unable to keep up. It’s a cycle that puts manufacturers, factory workers, and even skilled laborers like tailors, out of work. It’s gotten bad enough that many African countries are banning imports of secondhand goods outright.

Even considering the clothing and household items that are sold in thrift stores, our donations are generally not getting to the individuals and families in our community with the most urgent needs. Large donation and thrift centers in the US are not in the business of outfitting or equipping the needy. Rather, the sale of our donated items finances their operations (often worthy programs like employment for the disabled, but in some cases shady operations which barely qualify as non-profit). The result is that our stuff rarely makes its way to people living in shelters, to single mothers struggling far below the poverty line, or to teenagers living on the streets: namely, people for whom even thrift store prices are out of reach.

Donii is a social enterprise whose mission is to get the stuff you donate directly to the people in your community who need it most. Donii works with local charities like homeless shelters and youth welfare programs so that, through them, you can give to people with critical material needs. Simply tell Donii what you want to give, and select from a list of local human service organizations that need it. Donii picks up the donation for you, and you get a personal note telling you how it will be used and a tax receipt when the charity receives it. Each organization on the Donii platform gives the items they take in directly to a person or family in their programs.

donii-boxes-in-the-nerd-center

Boston’s most socially innovative companies, like Microsoft New England, are partnering with Donii to empower their employees to give better. Rather than waiting for the perfect time to drop your stuff off at a donation center, bring them to work with you… you’re going there anyway! Donii will pick up and deliver for you, giving you the confidence that your items are being put to their best possible reuse.

Donii partners with companies looking for creative and effective ways to engage employees in a year round social impact effort. Companies get ongoing impact metrics and dynamic stories about how their donations have helped people in their community. They build meaningful connections with nonprofit organizations throughout the city. And they join a growing list of companies dedicated to having a positive impact in Boston, putting them visibly at the vanguard of local poverty alleviation.

Residents of Greater Boston donate millions of items a year. If every donation were matched to a person in need, we could wipe out material need as effectively as food banks and soup kitchens have minimized hunger. Isn’t it time to start giving better?

19th Annual MassTLC Leadership Awards Gala Honors Boston’s Best

masstlc-awards_logo2Last week, we were honored to join the Mass Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC) at the 19th annual MassTLC Leadership Awards Gala at Boston’s Seaport World Trade Center. This night recognized Massachusetts’ leaders and newcomers in the innovation economy, in the company of hundreds of top tech executives, community leaders, and more.

After highlighting the winners of 16 separate impact categories, from Emerging Executive of the Year to Best Use of Internet of Things to Innovative Technology, the awards shifted to more individual honors. The MassTLC Distinguished Leadership Award, honored to individuals growing, changing, and inspiring lives through developing and promoting technology in the region, was awarded to the following leaders:

Want to join these Distinguished Leaders in transforming your community?

Join New Urban Mechanics in igniting Boston’s public spaces at the Public Space Invitational (or create your own!). Follow Vicky Wu Davis’ footsteps and volunteer to support YouthCITIES’ March-to-May Bootcamp or recommend the program to a teen near you. Nominate a nonprofit for Resilient Coders’ Resilient Rebuild, which will (re)build a website for a non-profit organization for free. Consider how you’re promoting diversity in your company like Akamai does, and seek companies who want to take real action to drive diversity. Or… enact your own idea to make direct change.

Congratulations to all the winners!

Missed out on the gala? Catch up below with some of the top tweets from the night:

Small and Midsize Businesses Get a Boost at Microsoft Stores

New England-based businesses have something to celebrate: four Microsoft Stores in the region have rolled out SMB Zones. What are those, you ask? SMB Zones are spaces where you can get hands-on access to business-grade technology — and they were designed with entrepreneurs and small and midsize business (SMB) owners in mind.

The nonprofit Smaller Business Association of New England has approximately 600 small business member companies. To further support these businesses and their employees, Microsoft Stores are also offering the Accelerate Your Business leasing program – created to help small and midsize organizations choose the technologies that best meet their business needs as well as get training, support, warranties and deals for combined solutions.

The new programs can be found in Microsoft Stores in Burlington, Mass.; Danbury, Conn.; West Hartford, Conn.; and Salem, N.H.

To underscore Microsoft’s commitment to SMBs, on Thursday, Sept. 22, entrepreneur, author and CNBC contributor Carol Roth will host a live-streamed event at the flagship Microsoft Store in New York to discuss how small business owners can use technology to solve problems and take their business to the next level of success. Register here for the event and tune in online starting at 4 p.m. Eastern Time to hear from Roth as well as a handful of other entrepreneurs.

In addition to the SMB Zone and the Accelerate Your Business program, SMBs can access a host of in-store and on-the-ground support, training, and services designed especially for them. Check out the Microsoft U.S. Small and Midsize Business Blog for more details.