March 2016

President Obama Advocates for Civic Engagement at SXSW

President Obama SXSW

President Obama speaks at the South By Southwest Interactive festival on March 11, 2016. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

“The country needs you.”

Those words grab your attention, no matter who says them. But when it’s the sitting President of the United States, on a stage speaking directly to thousands of technologists and innovators, they take on elevated meaning.

On March 11th, Barack Obama became the first President ever to attend the 30-year old SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas. With no venue large enough to accommodate the entire 34,000 conference attendees, organizers held a ticket lottery and a couple thousand lucky souls lined up hours ahead of time to submit themselves to Secret Service security checks. That’s the cost of entry to spend an hour with the President.

As it turned out, the guest of honor was delayed in arriving, as he made a spontaneous stop at the legendary Torchy’s taqueria. The tacos he sampled were aptly named the “Republican,” the “Democrat,” and the “Independent.” When he did arrive, the President was greeted by a standing ovation.

Interviewed by Evan Smith, Editor-in-Chief of The Texas Tribune, the President made clear from the very beginning that he was on a mission.

“So the reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you. It’s to say to you as I’m about to leave office, how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we’re facing today.”

The President acknowledged that the launch of had not gone swimmingly. But instead of dwelling on the failure, he focused on the success of the response to it – a small team comprised of Presidential Innovation Fellows, White House staff, and techies recruited from the private sector – which showed how well government technology could work when a more modern approach to was adopted.

“And what we realized was that we could potentially build a SWAT team, a world-class technology office inside of the government that was helping across agencies. We’ve dubbed that the U.S. Digital Service. And we’ve got some of the top talent from…all the top tech companies. These folks are coming in, in some cases, for six months, in some cases for two years – and they are making an enormous difference in making sure that veterans are getting services on time, fixing outdated systems, making sure that agencies like the Small Business Administration that has been clunky, is redesigning itself so that if an entrepreneur wants to start up a business here in Texas, that they can go to one spot and within a day they’ve handled all the regulatory red tape that used to require them maybe months to navigate.

Now, the folks who are working in this Digital Service, they’re having a great time, and in part because they are harnessing incredible skills to a purpose where they know that millions of people can be helped. And what they’ll tell me is that as long as they feel that they’ve got a President and somebody who’s providing some air cover, there’s no system that they can’t get in there and work and change and make it significantly better.

So part of my job is to try to institutionalize that over the next several years. And I want to make sure that the next President and the federal government from here on out is in constant improvement mode and we’re constantly bringing in new talent and new ideas to solve some of these big problems. It can be done. It requires some effort, but everything requires some effort.

We want to create a pipeline where there’s a continuous flow of talent that is helping to shape the government.”

While the interview also covered hot-button issues such as encryption and the current standoff between certain tech companies and certain law enforcement agencies, this message of civic engagement – a call for techies to step up to the big challenges facing society – was the reason that the President had come to SXSW.

Ten months of a presidency is a precious little amount time.

In 2012, with ten months to go in the first term of this Administration, then-Chief Technology Officer of the Unites States Todd Park and I – in my prior role as Senior Advisor for Innovation in the White House – launched an experimental program that we named the Presidential Innovation Fellows. At the time, we did what we could to evangelize the message that outsiders could indeed have significant impact, that a diversity of skills and perspectives would be a strength. The Presidential Innovation Fellows program grew into a digital services agency called 18F and then a government-wide digital services movement that has proven that the best people and the best practices of the tech industry can indeed make government better. In fact, in the 21st century, they are necessary to make government better.

In 2016, with ten months remaining in his final term, as President Obama is described in the press as a “lame duck” and the legislative branch debates whether or not to consider his judicial nominees, he chose to use some of his remaining time in office to take up the message of civic engagement himself, to ensure that thousands of Americans with valuable skills are fully aware of the growing number of ways that they can use those skills for good.

At SXSW, the President delivered his message, crisp and clear, to an attentive and receptive audience: “The country needs you.”

New York-based Undercare, Inc. set to compete for grand prize in nationwide InnovateHER Challenge


There are approximately two million small businesses in New York, and collectively they make a significant impact on the state’s economy. On March 17, one standout New York entrepreneur will compete in a nationwide competition that could net her cash and prizes that will take her business to the next level.

Susan Leary Shoemaker from Undercare, Inc. is one of 10 finalists competing in the 2016 InnovateHER: Innovating for Women Business Challenge, put on in partnership between the U.S. Small Business Administration and Microsoft. At the event, being held in Washington, D.C., Susan will pitch Undercare, which offers innovative undergarments that accommodate persons who have difficulty dressing. A panel of expert judges will select three winners from the field, with $70,000 in prizes at stake.

Now, in its second year, the InnovateHER competition seeks to uncover products or services that will fill a need in the marketplace and have the greatest potential for commercialization. Last year, the SBA and Microsoft engaged over 100 organizations and reached over 1,000 entrepreneurs across the nation through InnovateHER.

For more information on the competition and to keep up with developments, including the winner announcement, visit Good luck to all of the entrepreneurs pitching their innovations!

Data science for safer streets: DataKind Vision Zero project expands to three new cities


Last August, Microsoft announced its partnership with DataKind to support the Vision Zero movement in the U.S., which aims to reduce traffic-related deaths and severe injuries to zero in cities around the world. Today Microsoft and DataKind said that San Jose, Seattle and New Orleans will join New York City as the lead cities working on this initiative.

“The DataKind Vision Zero project is a demonstration of the possibilities created by bringing diverse sources of data and expertise together,” writes Elizabeth L. Grossman, Microsoft Technology & Civic Engagement director of civic projects.

“New data science analyses, using a combination of public and private data, will be designed to help local decision makers identify and evaluate which engineering, education and enforcement interventions can most effectively address each city’s local efforts to increase traffic safety for all.”

Read more on Microsoft on the Issues.

Staff Spotlight: Albert Dankwa

AlbertName: Albert Dankwa

Hometown: Bronx, New York

Job: Consumer Product Advisor

Years at Microsoft: 1

Favorite Local Restaurant: Johnny Rockets

Last thing you searched on Bing: Original Call of Duty Blacks Ops Xbox One backwards compatibility potential release date

Something cool you’ve worked on recently: Being a judge during Microsoft and Playcraft’s NYC Global Game Jam

What’s your favorite Microsoft product right now and why? My Lumia 950XL. Windows Hello and the best camera since the Lumia 1020? Plus perfect on the weight spectrum.

What’s your favorite part about working at the Microsoft Store? Working in my community, educating people, learning, and the game launches. The list goes on, I just love working for my favorite company.

What is one problem you’d like to see technology solve? Improving the lithium ion battery. Phones, controllers, tablets and all the like need to live longer. Consumers consume at such a rate that the strongest of batteries are rendered as not long lasting.

Why We Needed CUNY Tech Meetup


Dawn Barber, co-founder of New York Tech Meetup, has set up a new meetup for students and leaders of civic technology. The new CUNY Tech Meetup is a chance for CUNY students to connect with leaders in their community, explore new topics, and brainstorm on civic solutions through technology. In his latest post for Civic Hall’s Civicist, our own Matt Stempeck interviews Dawn Barber’s work with CUNY Tech Meetup, highlighting why meetups like this are so important for our city.

Read Matt’s interview with Dawn Barber live on Civicist.

Open for Applicants: Tech Jobs Academy’s Second Student Cohort

Two college students working together in the computer lab on a group assignment.

Earlier this week, in front of a thousand-person crowd at the monthly New York Tech Meetup, we were thrilled to announce that our Tech Jobs Academy pilot program has opened up for applications to fill the 25 seats in its second cohort. Tech Jobs Academy is a partnership between Microsoft, the Mayor’s Tech Talent Pipeline, and CUNY’s New York City College of Technology. Two dozen participants are currently enrolled in the program’s inaugural cohort.

Tech Jobs Academy is an accelerated technology skills learning program for those who have everything but opportunity. The program specifically targets bright and talented adults who are unemployed or underemployed. The only educational requirement is a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent. The Mayor’s Tech Talent Pipeline provides funding that allows Tech Jobs Academy participants to take part at no cost.

Tapping into its expertise in technology, Microsoft provides a broad curriculum that covers technical skills, as well as the career development skills necessary to obtain a job and build a career in technology. Microsoft leverages its connectedness to thousands of employers in its partner ecosystem in NYC to understand the skills most in demand.

The application process for Tech Jobs Academy is designed to ensure that the cohort reflects the grit and determination of New York City. Applicants are tested to measure their aptitude and interviewed to understand how they work with others. The program itself consists of 16 intensive weeks of study – 40 hours on-site and often more hours at home. Upon completion, these successful participants will be connected directly to job opportunities for well-paying careers in cloud and server administration.

This is what students already in the program have to say about it:

“Being in Tech Jobs Academy means that I finally have the resources and the support to achieve the goals that up until now just seemed like pipe dreams.” – Scott Fortner, Tech Jobs Academy participant

“I wasn’t able to finish [college] because I was paying for school on my own and I couldn’t keep funding myself…being part of Tech Jobs Academy means a lot to me, it means a second chance at technology.” – David Linton, Tech Jobs Academy participant

I saw [Tech Jobs Academy] as an opportunity to change my life.” – Maria Perez, Tech Jobs Academy participant

We believe in the potential of every New Yorker. We’re proud to be able to help talented people learn new skills and achieve their dreams. If you think Tech Jobs Academy is right for you, or if you know someone who should apply, go now to Don’t wait…the March 25th deadline is fast approaching!

Discussing NYC Innovation at the United Nations

United Nations Panel

In February, I had the honor of moderating a panel discussion at the United Nations during the annual Youth Assembly. Hundreds of young adult delegates from over 80 countries packed the General Assembly Hall for this special event. The two-day event focused, in particular, on the role of youth in implementing the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals. For our panel on “Industry & Innovation in NYC,” I was joined by two representatives who embody just how young adults are impacting and being impacted by the breakneck technological progress that can be found throughout the Big Apple.

Kelly Peeler, Founder and CEO of NextGenVest, shared why she chose to launch a company to help young people increase their financial literacy and use simple text messaging to tap into helpful financial assistance programs (something that many college students can appreciate). NextGenVest is a graduate of the pioneering Grand Central Tech accelerator program that Microsoft proudly supports.

Wells Santo, a senior computer science major at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, showcased incredible work he is doing in the increasingly important field of machine learning. Wells is particularly interested in the intersection of artificial intelligence and video gaming. The audience was captivated by his demonstrations of just how well AI can play classic games such as Super Mario Bros.

Given the audience and their interests, we also had opportunities to discuss the role that Youthspark – Microsoft’s global initiative to increase youth access to computer science and transformational technologies – is playing in their communities today.

In addition to providing insight into their work, each of the panelists and I shared personal experiences and advice with the delegates. When it came time to wrap up the panel discussion, I let the audience know that we had time for just one last question. Immediately, 30 hands shot up. While we weren’t able to answer them all at that moment, the panelists were incredibly considerate in sticking around afterward to meet with delegates one-on-one to answer each remaining question.

The mission of the Youth Assembly at the United Nations is to foster dialogue and generate partnerships among exceptional youth. This year’s event clearly accomplished that goal, as I was blown away by the sincere engagement of a diverse array of attendees in our conversation. Even more impressive was the passion that these young people held to bring lessons learned back to their own communities to make a real impact.

Anyone in need of a dose of hope need only visit the Youth Assembly to find it in spades.

Top Civic Tech Events this March

NY March

Wow, there’s a lot of good stuff going on this month. All of these events are free unless otherwise noted. Many of them are at Civic Hall. Hit us up if you’ve got one to recommend for this roundup. Looking forward to seeing your smiling face.

March 2nd Splash at Microsoft Store 5th Avenue – $125+

From 6:00 — 8:00pm, join The Isaacs Center for a wine tasting and hors d’oeuvres. All proceeds will support The Isaacs Center’s summer camp programming for children, tweens, and teens.

March 3rd – 1776 Challenge Cup

From 6:00 – 8:30pm, join 1776 for their regional Challenge Cup pitch night, celebrating startups from across the country solving the most challenging problems facing the world. Judging the pitch competition are Donna Harris (1776), Maria Gotsch (President of the Partnership Fund for NYC), Jessica Singleton (Chief Digital Officer for NYC Mayor’s Office) and Matt Turck (Managing Director of First Mark Capital). Register here.

March 5th – NYC School of Data

As cities around the world CodeAcross America and take part in the International Day of Civic Hacking, New York City’s civic tech community will celebrate the fourth anniversary of New York City’s Open Data Law with School of Data, a day-long event at Civic Hall. John and I will each be moderating panel sessions.

This year’s School of Data conference is a day-long showcase of New York City’s open data ecosystem, innovative users, and a showcase of civic technology. Additionally, we have breakout rooms for you to collaborate on some of NYC’s most pressing open data issues—including a data jam to address economic and social injustice.

NOTE – Childcare will be provided!

March 5th – Alienware eSports Invitational (League of Legends & Hearthstone) – $10

eSports Hero is proud to announce The Alienware eSports Invitational!  Come watch the best Hearthstone and League of Legends players in New York City duke it out for some amazing gaming prizes.

March 7th – What Works Cities reception

What Works Cities is one of the largest ever philanthropic efforts to enhance the use of data and evidence in city government to improve residents’ lives.  Launched in April 2015, the Bloomberg Philanthropies funded initiative is working to improve practice in 100 mid-sized cities and provide support and resources to cities around the country doing this work.  What Works Cities was named by Forbes as “one of the biggest philanthropic bets on social change from 2015.”

March 7th – Tom Clancy’s The Division NYC Event

Join us at the Microsoft Flagship Store on Fifth Ave. and 53rd St. for the midnight launch of Tom Clancy’s The Division! Early game play kicks off at 9:00 PM ET on Monday, March 7*. Be one of the first fans to help your fellow agents take back the city in a game inspired atmosphere and also enjoy food, music, and special guests including Larry Hryb, Xbox Live’s Major Nelson, and New York City Twitch streamers Swiftor and Futureman Gaming. There will be a chance to win exclusive Tom Clancy’s The Division items, and the first 200 customers to purchase Tom Clancy’s The Division for Xbox One will also receive a limited-edition poster as a gift with purchase**.

March 8th – Tech, The Presidency, and Women Voters

Hear from top women leaders about the changing role technology is playing in our presidential elections, and what’s at stake for women voters — from immigration to pay equity — and our ever-changing global reputation. Breakfast will be served. This International Women’s Day Breakfast features:

  • Crystal Patterson, Government and Politics, Facebook
  • Julissa Arce, immigration rights activist and author of forthcoming book My (Underground) American Dream
  • Jennifer Breslin, Innovation and Technology for Development, UN Women
  • Erin Vilardi, Founder and CEO, VoteRunLead
  • With remarks from Civic Hall and

March 10-11th – Vision Zero Cities 2016 – $250

An exchange of best practices to prevent road deaths and serious injuries that will leave participants with new ideas and precise road maps for implementation. Featuring Erin Akred from DataKind and a host of other great speakers.

March 11th – P32DJ: PLAY, REMIX, PERFORM Powered by Hercules DJ

Come learn to DJ. Learn about the DJ industry, the basics of creating a mix with DJUCED 40, and hear from professional DJs as they tell you about the industry and what it takes to make it. Hosted by Brooklyn bred media artist MARRZ and curated by Hercules DJ. Don’t miss out on this amazing opportunity to explore your passion for DJing.
March 11-15th – SXSW Interactive

Let us know if you’ll be joining NYC’s tech delegation to Austin.

March 12-13th – InnovateNYP Pediatric Appathon

A weekend to create apps and games for children’s healthcare. Create ideas for pediatric technology. InnovateNYP invites developers and designers to spend a weekend working together to help improve pediatric healthcare using FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) data. Teams will have an opportunity to present their solutions to NewYork-Presbyterian and a panel of judges at the end of the weekend. NewYork-Presbyterian is looking for participants who are passionate about children’s healthcare and technology.

March 24th – Playcrafting Info Session: 8 Week Game Courses on Virtual Reality and Unity

This info session will preview topics from our upcoming courses starting in April! Don’t miss this opportunity to meet the instructors and find out more about the courses. Bring any questions or concerns you may have about signing up.

March 28thDEBATE: Who will represent the NY 13th Congressional District?

Representative Charlie Rangel is retiring, and his congressional seat is open for the first time since World War II. Our friends at Silicon Harlem will host this debate at their beautiful MIST cultural center. The main topic? Technology and innovation as an economic growth strategy.

Update: This event has been moved to April 7th, 2016.

March 31st – Playcrafting NYC March Demo & Play Night – $8+

Playcrafting NYC is the place to see the newest independent games being built in New York and network with the people who built them. Each month, we get together to watch developers explain thei mechanics and origins of their games while doing live game demos. Attendees then play each game with the developers behind them. Join our community of game developers, designers, creatives, investors and more building across multiple platforms and genres. Enjoy complimentary pizza as you meet the developers and network with game professionals from throughout our community. Plus our epic after party. Hope you can make it!


Registration is now open for Playcrafting NYC’s eight-week courses on Virtual Reality (April 4th – May 25th) and Unity (April 5th – May 26th).