What’s Next After Microsoft—Civic Tech Fellow Prathm Juneja

 |   Prathm Juneja, MSNY Civic Tech Fellow

Where do you study? 

I’ll graduate next year from Notre Dame, with degrees in political science and computer science!

What were your main duties as a Microsoft fellow? 

The best part of the civic tech fellowship is the opportunity to dedicate yourself to multiple fields at once. There were days that I spent at events, speaking with entrepreneurs and politicians about their work. There were days that I hunkered down at Civic Hall and programmed or debugged software for hours at a time. There were days that I planned events like Machine Eatable, and there were days where I was doing some combination of all of those combined. Civic tech is more than just civics, and its more than just tech: it’s combining a passion for people with a passion for solving tough problems, and the Civic Tech fellowship meant that I was fully immersed in those the entire summer.

What has been your favorite project with Microsoft? 

I would say, in terms of impact and a brilliant idea, my favorite project is BoardStat. The folks at BetaNYC are really doing some incredible work on empowering NYC residents and politicians to leverage open data, and BoardStat is just one great example of that. I had the pleasure of working alongside their entire team to improve the BoardStat platform, which meant I got to see how passionate all of them were about empowering local government. It’s incredible to see the immediate impact of that work and hear about all the ways BoardStat gets used in various community boards, so I’ll always hold that project near and dear to my heart.

I must add that I have also really enjoyed working with Microsoft’s Catalyst team as well. Not only is their work important—they’ve built social media analytics platforms for UN OCHA and education tools for computer science programs—but also, they are just phenomenal engineers. It’s been a pleasure to work on technical projects that leverage a giant tech stack with solid documentation, and to know that whatever product we end up delivering will work smoothly and as intended.

What are 3 things you learned during your fellowship?

  1. There’s a huge demand for simple solutions and data visualization. As a developer, a lot of my first instinct when building solutions was to build complex tech solutions, but I’ve realized that there are small steps we can take that can really improve governance and help with advocacy. Simply uploading open data sets to mapping software, building better websites, and addressing the basic technological needs of marginalized communities is a quick way to create meaningful change.
  2. However, simplicity in solutions shouldn’t mean we don’t think carefully about the problems. I’ve also learned that civic tech bares a similar responsibility to politics; small decisions can also have major consequences. Building websites that aren’t accessible or not being cognizant of the way you present data can quickly derail any opportunities for progress. We need to be mindful of the decisions we make and always remember why we’re building what we’re building.
  3. There’s a space for everyone in civic tech. I’m amazed by the sheer diversity of backgrounds that bring people into this space. I’ve met lawyers and social scientists who taught themselves full-stack coding for their work, technologists who advocate for better policy, and writers who manage websites. You can’t major in “civic tech” in college, so the community is made up of tons of talented people who made the active choice to use their skills for good.

Where is civic tech taking you next? 

I’m starting my senior year at Notre Dame, but my Dual Degree program extends for another year with an intended graduation in December of 2019. For now, that means civic tech is taking me back to South Bend, where my passion for the work really developed. I plan to be active both in government work with the South Bend Mayor’s Office of Innovation and also in local/national politics. I know that civic tech will play an immense role in my future, whether that’s next summer or after graduation, and I’m excited to see how the space grows over the next year.

What advice do you have for future fellows? 

Devote yourself to the mission of the work and learn all that you can from John Paul Farmer. For the former, I think it’s very easy when you’re writing code to forget about why you’re writing it and what the goal is. The second you ground yourself in your actual mission, whether that be improving a particular government service or increasing accessibility, you’re more motivated and more thoughtful about the work that you’re doing. It’s a whole lot more fun and whole lot more impactful when you fall in love with your work. In terms of the latter, I was (and consistently will be) blown away by the way John was able to ask the right questions and really see the bigger picture when it came to any meeting, project, or event we worked on. I’ve learned so much from the way he looks at problems, and I encourage any future fellow to really use John’s mentorship and forward thinking to shape the way you look at both the issues at hand and the solutions you work on.