August 2014

Bring Your Tech Skills to the Classroom

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It’s common to hear young people today described as the first generation of “digital natives.” We often simply assume that they are gaining the skills they need to succeed in the data-driven, technologically-advanced 21st century. So it’s doubly disappointing to read the recent article by Ali Hibbs, published in Metroland, that summarizes the sad state of computer science education in public schools:

New York state doesn’t even recognize computer science as an official subject, putting us behind the state of Texas which, dubiously, has recently voted to fold computer-science courses into their foreign languages curriculum. In fact, only 14 states in the nation count computer-science classes toward graduation requirements, so that, if they’re offered at all, students must take them as electives. Only 5 percent of high schools in the United States offer Advanced Placement Computer Science and, even more disturbing, a disproportionately low number of students that do take these courses are women and minorities.

Python may be difficult to learn, but it’s not rocket surgery. Fortunately, a variety of efforts have sprung up to attempt to improve the situation. Online resources like Codecademy, Code.org, and vibrant online community forums provide tutorials and curricula to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. Unfortunately, that minimum requirement still leaves many people out. Enter TEALS:

TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) intends to bring volunteer software engineers into 18 high school classrooms this fall to teach computer-science concepts to participating students and a teacher—who will eventually take over the course—in the mornings before their (presumably much more lucrative) day jobs.

Volunteering for a good cause is great. It’s even better when you bring your valuable professional skills to bear. Microsoft employees and other companies’ developers are serving a critical role in bridging the gap between online resources and classrooms full of kids and computers.

Read the full article about computer science education in New York, or learn more about the TEALS program in this New York Times profile. You can even sign up to pitch in on the TEALS website.

Crowdsourcing Our Shared Future

Crowdsourcing Our Shared FutureCitizens and their governments are finding new and meaningful ways to communicate through innovative information and communication technologies (ICTs). One particularly successful method is crowdsourcing – the process of soliciting and putting to use information, ideas, funding or judgments from a large group of people, enabled by the internet’s low barriers to participation.

Here in New York, crowdsourcing has become an increasingly important tool to address civic challenges, and is also being adopted nationally and around the world. Last month, New York City began a new initiative, called the Rat Reservoir pilot, to crack down on rat populations by partnering with communities, watchful citizens and experts to crowdsource improved online visualizations of rat locations across the five boroughs. Another worthwhile New York project is Crashstories.org, which allows drivers and witnesses to contribute to a crowdsourced map of traffic incidents, to which governments and others can then respond with more targeted services and preventative interventions. At Microsoft, we’re committed to furthering the impact of crowdsourcing through projects ranging from our Chip In program to budding partnerships in the fields of participatory budgeting and disaster relief.

Attributes of crowdsourcing – such as commons-based peer production and online polling – form what Daren Brabham describes in an IBM report as “a mix of top-down, traditional, hierarchical process and a bottom-up, open process involving an online community.” In this way, crowdsourcing allows governments and citizens to become partners in more effective, informed, and inclusive strategies for governance.

“Collaborative governance,” as Beth Noveck, founder of the GovLab at New York University, calls it, allows governments to reach two kinds of audiences: a non-expert crowd and a diffuse but expert group. Based on the principle of the wisdom of crowds, the non-expert group can in many cases collectively produce judgments which are better than those made by individual experts due to the wider range of perspectives and skills of the group’s members.

Noveck distinguishes the first type from a second: crowdsourcing which relies on the internet to reach a distributed expert group rather than a diverse one. One example is Peer to Patent, which, enabled by the internet, crowdsources expert public participation in the patent examination process.

On local and national levels, crowdsourcing is acting as a means to transform government activities into partnerships with citizens. The Smithsonian Institution and National Archives and Records Administration have begun projects to open tagging and transcription work of historical documents and artifacts to participation by the public. NASA has solicited the help of the public in detecting asteroids. Challenge.gov, powered by the Meatpacking District-based ChallengePost, engages the public in solving some of the toughest public challenges we face, in exchange for prize money. On a level never before possible, the internet has enabled citizens to contribute knowledge, information and ideas to inform public decisions and policies.

Crowdsourcing can allow governments to gather judgments and knowledge with a lower error rate and craft a plan based on a wider market of ideas, information, and analysis. But successful crowdsourcing requires a smart approach to asking questions and an intentional plan for responding to them. Noveck suggests that governments 1) start with a problem to which they clearly want and need solutions, 2) clearly define the kind and format of the response they are looking for, and 3) commit to implementing the best responses they gather.

In addition to a careful approach for interacting with the crowd, successful crowdsourcing must rely on a crowd which has access to the appropriate information. This became apparent when, after the Boston Marathon bombings, users of Reddit and other online communities attempted a crowdsourced manhunt which mistakenly accused innocent people of committing a heinous crime. James Surowiecki argues that what failed was not the crowd’s wisdom but the crowd’s access to information; the bombers were identified by law enforcement not from public images but from privately held footage from a retail store’s surveillance camera. This example illustrates that while crowdsourcing can be tremendously valuable and cost-effective, it is not a panacea. Crowdsourcing must be used at the right moment, for the right purpose. As Alec Ross has observed, crowdsourcing shouldn’t answer the question of what to do about Iran’s possible nuclear capabilities. Or the Boston Marathon bombings.

Instead, what crowdsourcing can do is strengthen democracy by offering a means for government to fold citizens more deeply into its operations and decision-making in appropriate circumstances. Crowdsourcing can allow governments to better catalogue historical information, find rats in the New York subway, document the paths of asteroids, and collect insights and information that make smarter and more efficient communities, cities and nations.

Even more importantly than what the ubiquity of computing power can do for government is what it can do for us, as individuals and as a society. By distributing computing power, tech-enabled capability can also distribute responsibility for many of the things that matter to our communities. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln famously concluded with an homage to “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” We stand on the brink of a technology-powered democracy in which crowdsourcing and other tools enable the people to take part in their own governance as never before.

Using Data Responsibly

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The Rockefeller Foundation’s Global Headquarters in Midtown Manhattan recently played host to an important cross-sector gathering convened by UN Global Pulse (UNGP) and the Data & Society Research Institute (D&S).  The topic: responsible data use.  During the full-day event, Microsoft joined a group of 30 or so leading innovators – from non-profits, for-profits, think tanks, academic institutions, and multi-national organizations – to discuss a range of data-related issues from privacy to ethics to security.  This first-of-its-kind gathering has been years in the making, as data becomes more ubiquitous and key questions arise related to both the increasing number of opportunities for positive impact and the imperative for responsible use.

D&S has emerged as a key driver of this work, having officially launched last month under the leadership of noted researcher and author danah boyd.  With 12 fellows delving into specific foundational questions related to the role of data in the present age, D&S promises to add deep insights into key questions.

At Microsoft, we are committed to being responsible users of data – in fact, it is at the core of what we do.  We believe that technology can empower users with their own information, and protect privacy throughout, as EVP & General Counsel Brad Smith has recently described.

We’re excited to continue collaborating with the incredible people and organizations we met at the Responsible Data Forum.  We’d like to thank UNGP, in particular, for using its convening power to start this conversation at such a high level.  Together, we can combine our expertise, insights, and resources to deliver tools, guidelines, and best practices that promise to help society unlock the substantial good that data offers, while protecting privacy and empowering individuals.

Yammer’s Key Role in Disaster Response and Recovery

Last week, at the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Demo Day, Microsoft announced that Yammer, the private social network, will be made available to survivors and communities in the wake of future crises.  The first-of-its-kind event was hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Security Council, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Department of Homeland Security, and included companies such as Microsoft, Airbnb, and Getaround.

After a welcome from Todd Park, Assistant to the President and Chief Technology Officer of the United States, the event kicked off with Tony Surma, Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft Disaster Response, joined on stage by Mark Margolis of Microsoft Dynamics UK and Dave Fortier of Merrimack Global Partners.  Mark and Dave proceeded to recount compelling personal stories to a rapt audience.  Mark survived the London bombings of 2005 and Dave survived the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013.  They were brought together by Microsoft’s effort to make Yammer available to the Boston community in the wake of last year’s tragedy.  Based on their experiences, both Mark and Dave realized that other communities face similar challenges, whether affected by an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, or man-made disaster.  That is why they’ve worked so hard to ensure that other survivors will be able to connect to one another easily, in order to share resources, information, and support.  Yammer will provide impacted individuals with access to one another in the aftermath of disasters so that together they can recover more quickly and more completely than they could apart.

You can check out what Mark has written about the day and what Tony’s team has written about Microsoft’s commitment to make Yammer available as soon as possible in the wake of future disasters.  I’d like to personally thank Mark and Dave for sharing their stories.  And I’d like to thank Tony and everyone at Microsoft who has worked to make this possible.

 

 

BigApps Finalists Announced

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BigApps NYC, the community-oriented open data competition now in its fifth year, has announced 20 finalists selected from among 100 projects developed by 3,000 event attendees.  Included in the press release is a message I’d like to relay to anyone considering what open data can mean in their company, in their community, or in their lives.

“It was inspiring to see regular folks using our technology combined with open data to create meaningful solutions for others in their communities,” said John Paul Farmer, Director of Technology and Civic Innovation at Microsoft.  “The secret to BigApps’ success is that it unleashes New York’s most powerful force for good – its people.  Microsoft supports BigApps and other initiatives like it because we understand that some of our community’s most-needed solutions will be created by regular people leveraging technology in new and innovative ways to change lives for the better.  That’s the promise of open data.”

Put simply, open data is fuel for innovation.  And we’re fortunate that barriers to entry to innovation are lower than ever – technologies like cloud computing, embedded sensors, and mobile devices enable any one of us to develop new solutions to the problems and challenges we encounter in our daily lives.  Open data is a foundational component of this wave of change that is putting in each of our hands the tools and building blocks to craft a better tomorrow.  At Microsoft, one of our priorities is ensuring that as we realize the promise of data, we do so responsibly – protecting privacy while empowering individuals with control over their own personal information.

President Obama recently challenged us to encourage young people “to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.”  Let’s not only challenge our kids; let’s challenge ourselves.

BigApps NYC will culminate with the awarding of prizes on September 19th.  You can learn more about these promising projects at: nycbigapps.com.