Fellow Profile: Briana Vecchione

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Where are you from?

I’m from Orange County, CA but moved to NYC four years ago.

School/grad year/major: 

I just graduated with a degree in Computer Science & Mathematics from Pace University in downtown Manhattan.

Last thing you searched on Bing:

“What is the area of Greece?” Context: Jake Hofman, a mentor of mine from Microsoft Research, recently did some work to improve user comprehension of large numbers that recently shipped as a new feature in Bing. Now, instead of returning the numeric answer, 50,948 sq miles, Bing returns “About equal to the size of New York State”. It’s really fun – try it!

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program?

I was actually involved in some previous research through the Microsoft Research Data Science Summer School, where I analyzed the network flow of New York’s bike sharing program and implemented algorithms to decrease system congestion. If you’re interested, you can check out our paper or talk. Matt ended up attending our final presentation and did a write up of it on his personal blog. When I found out about the Civic Tech Fellowship on Twitter, I reached out to him and John to see how I could contribute to the team!

What’s your favorite technology that’s building New York’s civic spaces?

I’ve been following the Beta release of LinkNYC since it began during the end of last year. I love that New York supports the idea that connectivity is a citizen’s right and is making active pursuits to improve the city’s Internet infrastructure. It brings public tech into the 21st century by offering free phone calls, charging stations, and open Internet which includes an interface directing users to city services, directions, and maps. It’s also a brilliant usage of the already-existing fiber optic networks that run through the city and is self-financed by each station’s advertisements.

Who is your civic tech mentor/idol?

I work under John Paul Farmer & Matt Stempeck, both of whom are definitely my in-house idols. I also really admire work being done by researchers Danah Boyd, Hilary Mason, and Hanna Wallach.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft New York?

The bulk of my work has been on civicgraph.io, where I’ve built out an analytics dashboard, restructured the codebase to add some exciting new features, and am implementing a scalable check-in system so users can easily add themselves during events. This is super exciting for me, because I’m really interested in how we collect and translate information in the digital sphere. Because civic graph is open and crowdsourced, it displays a knowledge base not held by a single individual, thus creating its own identity. To be able to administer a digital space that offers simple transparency, helps define ‘civic tech’, and creates such meaningful impacts in the lives of people is a privilege, to say the least.

Separately, I’m working on testing Microsoft Translator in various city spaces so that New York can make the most of its applications for machine translation. We’re going to be using it within summer school classes for ESL or hard-of-hearing students as well as in ID NYC locations for citizens applying for resident benefits. We’ve been doing some internal testing on our end already, and it’s incredible to see how powerful the technology has become. The last time we tested, I thought to myself, ‘wow, this could really make such a difference in so many people’s lives’. It’s an awesome feeling to be able to work on projects like that.

What excites you about civic tech?

I’m passionate about the ‘by the people, for the people’ narrative that civic tech carries. The ability to utilize technical skills is valuable in this economy and comes with a lot of responsibility, and I want to make sure that the work I’m doing contributes as much as possible. I also really appreciate the emphasis on transparency through the open data and open government initiatives that are grown and fostered throughout the community. I’ve never been interested in tech fads and have encountered too many people who exert a lot of talent and energy on products that cater to a very privileged subset of society. When you engage in a space like civic tech, you can’t help but run into an overwhelming amount of brilliant, empathetic, passionate, and conscious thinkers and technologists.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities?

There’s still a lot to be done to improve transportation safety & efficiency in cities. Vision Zero and Transit Wireless has been doing some amazing work in NYC and I’m hopeful that once vehicle automation is fully deployed, it’ll only help to improve that. It’s been fascinating to watch and contribute to the ongoing ethical discussions that have emerged lately as a result of automated transit systems.

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