Profile: Shannon Felton Spence

Shannon Felton SpenceName: Shannon Felton Spence

Where are you from? I grew up in Denver, Colorado but have made Boston my home since college.

Current education: I am in the last semester of my Master of Public Affairs from Brown University. I did my undergraduate in Political Communication from Emerson College.

What is your experience in the civic sector? I spent three years as the Head of Politics & Communication at the British Consulate General of New England. In that role, I worked a lot with SMART Cities and sharing best practices between the UK and the six New England states.

Last thing you searched on Bing: slow cooker recipes  (…my favorite way to survive the New England winters!)

Why did you choose Microsoft? It was a very easy choice! I am interested in how large corporations partner in the community to make a difference. Microsoft – and specifically the Civic & Tech Engagement team — is doing that in so many amazing ways. I am excited to be a part of that and to work with such a well respected organization.

What projects are you working on with Microsoft’s Technology and Civic Engagement team? I am working on a storytelling project: identifying the cool things Microsoft has accomplished in the community and communicating that to a larger audience.

What excites you about civic tech? Everything! I love how the use of tech can benefit an entire community.

Fellow Profile: Aaron Myran

aaronmyran_1455034528_97Name: Aaron Myran

Where are you from? I grew up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

School/grade/major: I did my undergrad at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada where I studied biology.  I’m going into my second year of grad school at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Last thing you searched on Bing: Warriors – Cavs NBA finals predictions.

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? I’m passionate about making an impact at organizations through building software and improving access to data.  Before grad school, I worked as the Deputy CTO at a political action organization and got a good taste of developing technology tools for my organization.  I wanted to explore how a global tech leader provides software as a service to make their users more innovative.  Microsoft is really leading in this space at the city and national level.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft New England? I’m working with a couple of civic organizations in the Boston area to develop performance data tools and data visualizations/dashboards using some of Microsoft’s technology stack like Power Bi.  I’m putting together some video tutorials on the process to make the development process open and replicable.

What excites you about civic tech? I’m not always sure that the next hip ‘app’ is really making anyone’s lives any better.  I like that there’s a pretty concrete theory of change behind civic technology:  The government provides a bunch of important services (education, transit, voting).  Civic tech makes these services more innovate or efficient using technology and validates their efficacy.

Staff Spotlight: Kristin Kube


Name: Kristin Kube

Hometown: Columbia, Maryland

Job: Business Administrator for the Intune DeX Engineering and PM Teams in Cambridge, MA

Years at Microsoft: 3 years, 7 months

Favorite Local Restaurant: I love Commonwealth in Cambridge!

Last thing you searched on Bing: The singer Ellie Goulding; she was recently in a car accident in Norway and I was reading about it. I was also looking at images of her. I think she is so gorgeous and such a talented artist!

Something cool you’ve worked on recently: My favorite part of my job is event planning! I am currently working on a morale event for my leadership team which will be a bartending/mixology class they take together at Drinkmaster Bartending School in downtown Boston. I get to attend as well; I am super excited!

What inspires you about technology? I love how technology can help people with disabilities. I was particularly inspired by the story of Steve Gleason, a former NFL player who has ALS and who uses eye-tracking technology, which runs on Windows on his Surface, to communicate. This has greatly improved his quality of life. It is amazing and inspiring!

What problem would you like to see solved with technology? I would like to see technology continue to help improve the human experience, whether it be improving the quality of life for people with disabilities, developing new ways for people to express themselves creatively, making our daily lives and tasks easier or exploring the universe. Technology is capable of so much and I can’t wait to see what it accomplishes next!

Voices Of Change — Diversity in STEM Can Change the World

Diversity and inclusion are critical underpinnings to our evolving culture at Microsoft and powerful bridges to the marketplace. They can be determining factors in whether or not talented people come to work for us, and whether people buy our products. Through our investment in diverse partnerships on a broad range of opportunities, we continue to work to increase the pipeline of diverse talent, increase retention and match talent to job opportunities that are vital to our success in the future.This month, we are honored to feature the voices of local leaders who represent our commitment to diversity and use their drive to help the community in which they serve.

— Microsoft New England Staff

I always thought of myself as an artistically brained person. My stereotype of an engineer was that of a left-brained, analytical, introverted person, like Bill Nye the Science Guy. Until my junior year of high school when I took a “Girls Exploring Engineering” course. I was paired with a mentor who was a civil engineer, and she inspired me to realize that you don’t have to sit in a box to be successful in a career. You need to have both the ability to be creative and analytical in order to be successful. That motivated me to join my school’s robotics team, and that’s when I decided I wanted to pursue engineering in college.

I applied to MIT because I was inspired by robotics — and the movie Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr.’s character went to MIT to study mechanical engineering, which I thought was so cool. I learned about an MIT program called MITES (Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science). a program that fully funds students to go to MIT for six weeks. This was a life-changing experience for me.

It was so inspiring to be alongside other people who looked like me and were passionate about learning engineering and science, because I was the only person of color in all my AP classes in high school. I fell in love with MIT because of all radical, creative, crazy energy on campus that I felt during MITES.

STEM education provides an ability for your voice to be heard, to have a seat at the table, when really important decisions are being made in terms of how a product is being designed for the people that are going to use it. In the tech industry, it’s more important than ever to have diversity of thoughts when you’re coming up with solutions to really hard problems, because at the end of the day, an elegant solution covers a wide, wide expanse of different users.

Last fall I had the awesome experience of creating the first-ever Black & Africans at Microsoft (BAM) regional chapter in New England. Together with Women@NERD, we organized the first ever mock interview workshop for college students in the Boston area. We invited students to come in and watch a mock interview done by two full-time Microsoft employees, and then they got to do an hour of one-on-one interview practice with them. We had a mixer at the end where they learned about Microsoft careers.

The event got students excited about careers at Microsoft and helped them get over some of the nerves they had with interviewing. Especially with people who are international students, minority students, or just underrepresented populations in general, it can be really, really intimidating to go into an interview cold turkey and just immerse yourself into a culture that you’re not familiar with. We’re trying to give students the opportunity to get that confidence and realize that they are excellent candidates.

15Education_Gique6(M) (1)

Students at Gique

This is something I talk about all the time with Gique, an educational nonprofit that I started with a friend during my senior year at MIT. We started Gique because we identified as folks that were always at the intersection of left and right brain. Growing up, you’re taught algebra, humanities, science, and history in silos, but when you when you leave the classroom and go off into the world, you don’t experience the world in those same silos; everything is always indelibly intertwined. We wanted to find a way to showcase that — to share that being an engineer and scientist is very much a creative job.

We chose to start our pilot after-school program at the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester because in communities where there are hard things happening and tough problems, it’s so important to have participatory designs. That’s how you really make lasting change. It’s not dropping somebody into a community — it’s having people within the community be part of the solution.

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 5.34.15 PMThis semester we started an after school program at the Boys and Girls Club called #HackDorchester. We have teams of three students paired with a mentors, who are current student in the Boston area, and they have a budget to design a product or solution to one of five problem areas: housing and employment, climate change, citizenship, education, and public health.

At first glance, the fourth to eighth graders are working on what people would consider adult issues, but the reality is that students know what’s going on in their communities. They are experts at their own daily lives and we’re trying to tell them, “You are an expert. You can start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can. And you have the power of using STEM to make an effective change in your own community. You have the potential to change the world for the better.”

Voices Of Change — Bringing Everyone Into the Conversation

Diversity and inclusion are critical underpinnings to our evolving culture at Microsoft and powerful bridges to the marketplace. They can be determining factors in whether or not talented people come to work for us, and whether people buy our products. Through our investment in diverse partnerships on a broad range of opportunities, we continue to work to increase the pipeline of diverse talent, increase retention and match talent to job opportunities that are vital to our success in the future.This month, we are honored to feature the voices of local leaders who represent our commitment to diversity and use their drive to help the community in which they serve.

— Microsoft New England Staff

Milton Irving

I’m going to start with the story of why. Why is the issue of equitable access to technology so important, for me, as an African American Executive Director of a technology organization?

I had the opportunity to go to a Metco school. It’s pretty much where kids from the inner city are allowed to go to school in the suburbs. When I was in the first or second grade, I had my first experience with technology, which was amazing. We had this computer that went to every classroom, different days of the week, and my first experience was with the Oregon Trail. So I got into coding. It was just mind blowing to me that then, when I would come home to the inner city, kids didn’t have that access.

I was so amazed: “Why don’t they have this opportunity? Why isn’t the playing field leveled?” That’s when I first got in my mind: this has to change. The old attitude that it takes a village is so extremely important to me.

What we have missed in the minority community is simple: opportunity. We are not given the opportunity to succeed. That needs to happen; it’s just so important. At no other time in history ever has a minority population been the largest population in public school systems, and if we don’t change that, then we are looking at the destruction of our economy over the next few years, and that just can’t happen. It is so very important that we get this right. I am going to be very committed to doing so.

The Timothy Smith Network provides that opportunity — and not only through the deployment of technology, but through the deployment of the services and the programs to leverage technology within the community.

Since 1996, we have been able to deploy more than 12 million dollars worth of technology into the Greater Roxbury community. Today we have 29 different technology centers, and all of these centers run differently, but they are all focused on leveraging and infusing that technology into service models. It’s not the technology alone that will make a difference; what will make a difference is the instructional design around how we blend the technology into a service offering. For example, the Timothy Smith Centers are located inside agencies that address a broad range of economic, therapeutic, health, educational, training, human and social services needs of the community. That’s what we provide — the knowledge, equipment and design to help individuals be able to serve the community more effectively.

This moment in time is my civil rights movement. This is my opportunity to put my stake in the ground and say: enough. It should never have gotten to the point where we are still having the conversation about equitable access to technology and STEM education. Everything about our lives has changed: The way we eat, the way we travel, the way medicine is given, the way we receive information. But the way we teach in our inner cities and school systems has remained the same — it is the desk, the book, the teacher standing up front. We need to be very laser focused, as innovators, in how we infuse technology and the opportunities it can provide.

Being able to provide STEM education will allow people in the African American and minority communities across the board, the opportunity to become a part of what’s happening — to be a part of the conversation, not to be overlooked.

What happens a lot is people have these great intentions and ideas of how to be able to assist the African American community to get ahead; but what doesn’t happen a lot is the intentional conversation with that community. Just to ask, “Where are you?” “What are your needs?” “What’s important to you?” I think we, a lot of institutions, miss that vote.

So what could be done in the future? I think at the end of the day it’s allowing the African American community not to be talked to, but to be listened to. To be a part of the conversation. The opportunity that STEM education provides the black community is no different than what it would provide for any other community. It’s the opportunity to be a part of the economic and social nature of America.

Milton Irving is the Executive Director of the Timothy Smith Network. The Timothy Smith Network (TSN) is a member organization established to build the capacity of Greater Roxbury’s Timothy Smith Centers. The mission of the TSN is to increase the capacity of the Greater Roxbury community of Boston to effectively use and access technology by providing technology-related services, educational programs, and resources as well as strengthening and supporting the individual Timothy Smith Centers.

Jennifer Chayes Receives Honorary Doctorate from Leiden University


Earlier this week, Jennifer Chayes, managing director and distinguished scientist of Microsoft’s New England and New York research labs, was honored by Leiden University with an Honorary Doctorate. It’s very rare that Leiden University bestows an Honorary Doctorate to an individual who isn’t a professor, but this news comes as no surprise to us, as Jennifer has excelled in her 20 years at Microsoft. As a leading researcher in the fields of statistical physics, stochastics and discrete mathematics, she has made major contributions to Microsoft — and to other female researchers inspired by her work and leadership. All of us here at Microsoft New England congratulate Jennifer on this honor.

Read more about Jennifer’s honor — and her achievements — on the Leiden University website.

Make way! ChickTech is coming to Boston

Chicktech Boston

Growing up as the daughter of two engineers, engineering was always a career option at the back of my mind. Despite this, I didn’t really understand exactly what engineers did on a day-to-day basis until I participated in a summer engineering program while in high school. It was the first time I got actual hands-on experience with all of the different aspects of engineering. I was hooked!

The program was specifically for high school girls, designed to get more women into the field. At the time, I wasn’t really aware that there was a large gender imbalance in engineering fields. In college, I was selected to be a teaching assistant for a similar program – a competitive position – and never really experienced first hand the impact of disproportionate representation. However, the full reality of the lack of women in engineering finally hit me as I was leaving school to enter the professional world for the first time. Out of my graduating class of about 50, there were only 6 women.

Being told, “you don’t look like an engineer” on a daily basis bothered me. But being one of just a handful of women bothered me even more. Why is it that – despite pursuing undergraduate education in equal numbers – so few women ultimately choose to pursue a life in engineering? More personally, why did I?

Then I remembered: the summer engineering program I took in high school. I was not only lucky enough to have hands-on experience in engineering workshops with other ambitious young women, but I was also mentored through this experience by strong young women already pursuing engineering in college. That’s when it dawned on me that I could provide the same mentorship and guidance to other young women, and by doing so teach them that engineering is a viable option for their futures. ChickTech Boston was born.

ChickTech is a national nonprofit, the mission of which is to build confidence in young women to pursue careers in STEM by providing them with early and consistent mentorship. By starting the Boston chapter of ChickTech, I now have the chance to mentor girls and young women, and by doing so, build a community that empowers them to find a home in STEM. Fortunately, I’ve found large community of like-minded people here in Boston who are volunteering their time and expertise to help make this chapter a reality. ChickTech has two distinct programs that have already been widely successful in other chapters around the country. These are:

ChickTech: High School

We start by asking teachers and counselors to nominate female students who show an aptitude in technology but may not have the opportunity to learn. We request that at least one-third of the nominees be eligible for the free lunch program. This recruitment strategy gives potential participants an immediate boost of confidence and a sense of recognition. It also yields a very diverse group of girls.

ChickTech: High School kicks-off with two days of hands-on activities and workshops. It concludes with a technology showcase in which 100 girls share what they’ve created with the community.

ChickTech: High School keeps girls engaged throughout the year with a series of follow-up workshops, extending the learning process to include:

  • One-on-one mentoring for a year with a technology professional
  • Internship opportunities at local tech companies
  • Tech-focused scholarship, career and resume workshops

ChickTech: Career

ChickTech: Career is a series of woman-focused continued education events held throughout the year. These events build attendees’ technology and professional expertise and create a supportive community among adult women.

I couldn’t be more excited about starting the Boston chapter of ChickTech. I think the combination of hands-on workshops and dedicated mentors has a lot of potential to empower inner city high school girls. As well meaning as our goals might seem, it’s not without its difficulty. Providing ongoing workshops is expensive, and part of our mission is to provide them at no cost to our girls. As such, we are currently looking to raise $15,000 to build a strong and sustainable high school program and provide continuing workshops throughout the year. Our most pressing need is to raise enough money to kick off ChickTech: High School by next fall. If you can donate any amount, please do so by visiting our web site. You can also sign up for our mailing list so you can stay up-to-date on future events and fundraisers.

Pattaya Hongsmatip

Pattaya Hongsmatip is a network design engineer at AT&T, program manager for Chicktech Boston, and InstaGrandma for CreativeMornings Boston. She received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Boston University. With donuts in her belly and coffee running through her veins, she’s ready to tackle her next project.

The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) Announces Jennifer Tour Chayes as the 2015 John von Neumann Lecturer

ChayesPhase transitions in discrete mathematics and computer science, structural and dynamical properties of self-engineered networks, graph algorithms, algorithmic game theory, and computational biology. Jennifer Chayes’ research career has spanned many areas. In recognition for her leadership in the research community, as well as her contributions to mathematical physics and the theory of computing, today, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) announced Jennifer as the 2015 John von Neumann Lecturer.  The Lecture is the highest honor awarded by SIAM, and was established in 1959 in honor of the Hungarian-American mathematician after whom the prize is named.

Jennifer is co-founder, Managing Director and Distinguished Scientist at Microsoft Research New England and Microsoft Research New York City. Jennifer co-founded Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2008, and Microsoft Research New York City in 2012. Before joining Microsoft in 1997, she was for many years a professor of mathematics at University of California, Los Angeles.

Additional details about the award and Jennifer’s research background can be found in SIAM’s press release.

Citizinvestor funds PB projects in the community


As civic innovation grows throughout the Boston area, participatory budgeting is an excellent example of how technology can improve government transparency and quite literally engage citizens in an online process to determine how a city’s budget is spent.  As defined by Wikipedia, participatory budgeting (PB) is a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, and a type of participatory democracy, in which ordinary people decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget. Participatory budgeting allows citizens to identify, discuss, and prioritize public spending projects, and gives them the power to make real decisions about how money is spent. When PB is taken seriously and is based on mutual trust local governments and citizen can benefit equally. In some cases PB even raised people’s willingness to pay taxes.

I’ve observed successful participatory budgeting processes in Chicago, Boston, Somerville and recently Central Falls in Rhode Island.  The entire process was powered by a Microsoft partner: Citizenvestor.  (Great name too, right?).  I recently sat down with Tony DeSisto, Co-founder of Citizinvestor to learn more about the company and their work in participatory budgeting.  Our conversation is summarized below.

  1.       What is Participatory budgeting?

We funded this project in Boston in 2012, it was our first successfully funded project on the site. We also built the participatory budgeting site for last year’s Youth Lead the Change program in the City. We funded two projects in San Mateo County in 2013: 3 Months of Bicycle Sunday and Restore the Thornmint . We did a number of projects around Chicago, including our largest to date, Spirit of the American Navy, but nothing with the City of Chicago.  I would categorize what we do, civic crowdfunding, as one of the new and innovative funding methods, like participatory budgeting, that democratizes the budget process and allows people to invest in their community.

  1.       Tell us about a successful (local) project?

One local project that we love to highlight is Central Falls, Rhode Island. This is a small one-square mile city that went bankrupt in 2010 and elected a 26 year old Mayor in 2012 to help bring the City back. We were one of their first partners and helped them fund permanent trash cans and recycle bins for their main park. The project had arisen after the Mayor met with middle school students who equated the trash in the park with a lower sense of self worth and lack of pride in the City. Not only were the funds raised, but during the project, a cleanup was organized through the site and over 100 people showed up. Central Falls is now a customer for our new product, Citizinvestor Connect, a custom white label site for civic engagement and crowdfunding. Here are two stories about the project, Boston Globe and CNBC.

  1.       How does Citizinvestor help?

Citizinvestor helps by providing a platform and the tools necessary for our local government partners to successfully raise the funds they need. We also provide a best practices guide and some templates to help them with the marketing of their project. Our Connect product not only helps our partners raise funds, but also emphasizes input from the community and increases engagement.

  1.       How can technology help drive civic engagement?

Technology is a key component in driving engagement. Today more than ever people have the tools and forums to let their voice be heard and participate in the decision-making and governing process.

For more information about Citizinvestor, visit their website or on Twitter at @citizinvestor.

Girls from New England head to Technovation Finals

technovation-logo-300x137On the first Friday in May, Microsoft was packed with girls. Yes, GIRLS! The 10th floor was filled to capacity with young women interested in technology and proud to show off the amazing apps they developed for a national competition called Technovation. I was honored serve among a truly stellar panel of judges:  Julia Austin (formerly Akamai), Kara Shurmantine (MassChallenge), Tracy Rosenthal-Newsom, (formerly Harmonix) and Pamela Aldsworth (Silicon Valley Bank).

Rachel Nicoll of Mass Tech Leadership Council’s Education Foundation shared that some of our finalists will be heading to California to pitch in the Technovation Finals for the chance to win $10,000!  She sat down to answer a few questions about Technovation and the interview is included below.

Share Technovation with a young woman you know today!

  1. What is Technovation?

Technovation is an international program that teaches mobile app development, entrepreneurship, and community engagement. High school and middle school female students work in teams of up to 5 to develop mobile apps to solve a problem in their local community. Teams work with a classroom teacher or coach at their school and a female mentor/role model as project manager from the technology or related industry. The program is free and open to all girls age 10-18 with any level of experience (“beginners welcome”).

  1. What kind of participation did we see from Massachusetts?

There were 40 teams from 18 schools signed up at the start of the season; 28 teams finished. A bit of attrition is normal, but the numerous blizzards and school closings really hit the teams hard. We are looking at ways to address the Technovation schedule and get the students in “Technovation-mode” earlier so this is less of an issue in the future. Let’s get 40 to finish next year!

  1. Tell us about the apps that won the MA regional competition.

Five teams  – 4 high school and 1 middle school – from the Massachusetts Regional Showcase progressed to the Semifinal round. There are 18 teams representing US/Canada at the high school level – our 4 Massachusetts teams represent almost 1/4 of that region!

AMEKA (Winchester High School) addresses the issue of impaired driving via their Safe Guard Driving app. Through a series of tests, users can ascertain whether or not their vision, reaction times, balance & cognitive ability are impaired or not. In the future, the app has the potential to be connected to ignition interlock technologies if partnered with an automobile company.

Seventh (Phillips Academy) created The Pack: Safety in Numbers, a comprehensive safety app intended for teenagers and young adults that addresses the problems of sexual assault, hazing, and substance abuse in unfamiliar situations. The Pack is an expanded, digitized version of the time tested buddy system, including a friend-compass and check-in code among its features.

Techtonic’s (Winchester High School) application, ENKI, is intended to serve as a bridge between members of the school community. Teachers are able to post assignments, students are able to communicate with their peers and advisors, users can interact with teachers and classmates using the messaging capabilities, and all users receive automatic updates. Students are able to interact with their peers as well as interact with their teachers in a scholastic environment. The academic atmosphere of ENKI ensures that these communications will solely be scholarly.

WoCo (Phillips Academy) designed PraisePop as an interactive, social, and positive way to engage with the community. Too often people feel alone, excluded and unacknowledged due to negativity; PraisePop counteracts this by providing a method to spread positivity and inclusivity in communities by anonymously sharing uplifting posts.

Appily Ever After (Blake Middle School) created OpportuniTeens to connect non-profit organizations with teen volunteers. Using this app, teens can fulfill volunteer opportunities within local communities, organizations have a place to spread the word about these opportunities, and high school students can acquire community service hours to graduate.

  1. What’s next for the Technovation competitors?

Two of the MA semifinalists, AMEKA and WoCo, have been selected for the World Pitch Event in San Francisco on June 24th. They will pitch their apps live in front of a panel of judges at Yelp’s headquarters, competing against 4 other teams in the high school division for the top prize of $10,000.

Last year’s regional winning team, SKARA, competed in the Boston TechJam Pitch Contest and came in 2nd. They got a lot of great exposure and Constant Contact’s Small Business Innoloft hosted them over the summer to continue to work on their app. I wouldn’t be surprised if a Technovation team or two pop up on the roster for this year’s TechJam Pitch.